The CBC juggernaut Murdoch Mysteries is seen in about 120 countries around the world. It's a big, successful show. Except in the U.S. market.
Here it's on Ovation, a tiny arts channel so small that, in 2013, Time Warner Cable dropped the channel from its lineup, saying that between January and November of 2012 only 27,000 households on average had tuned into Ovation.
The audience has increased since then. Ovation is now available in 51 million homes, out of the universe of nearly 100 million U.S. homes paying for cable, but it still gets a teensy audience.
Also, on Ovation, Murdoch Mysteries is called The Artful Detective. The title, which is just silly, came about because Ovation is an arts channel and it wanted an arts signal in the title.
It is, as far as many U.S. TV critics are concerned, a mystery show. Not because Inspector Murdoch solves crimes. But because hardly anyone writes about it – ever. Ovation brought star Yannick Bisson and executive producer Christina Jennings here to the opening session of the TV Critics press tour and, immediately, the show's status as a puzzler was obvious.
An early question asked of Bisson and Jennings was this: "This is a different Canada than we usually have. We usually think of Canada as being America, only colder. But you guys, in this one, particularly that second episode, you show a lot of people who wished they were still in England, and it has a British feel to it. Does this surprise you as you get into it, that there was at least some point where Canada really was that deeply rooted in its English past?"
Jennings patiently explained. "You know, most of the immigration into Canada was from France and England. The Queen is the head of our country."
However, the British theme was not abandoned. The next question was this: "Are younger people surprised at first to see just how deeply rooted Canada was at that time in its English past? It just feels so different from how we think of it now."
Bisson veered away, explaining the attraction of Victorian-period shows with their emphasis on etiquette and the characters being anxious about being "proper." This makes it exotic to a young audience. Jennings said that the CBC is finding the audience "skewing younger and younger," and then Bisson said, "Kids are dressing up like the main characters at Halloween."
This was all well and good, but the takeaway from the session was American befuddlement. The inability to grasp the essence of Murdoch Mysteries was striking, because the series doesn't fit with any common understanding of Canada, and although the show is very similar to British period-piece drama, it certainly isn't British.
Later, I caught up with Bisson to ask him about the show's multilayered appeal. (He didn't come here from Toronto; he lives part of the year in L.A. and has finished a role in the indie movie Year by the Sea, which will be in festivals this year.)
Bisson says he didn't find the session or the questions that odd. "You're talking about people who aren't fans, who have only seen the surface of the show. Murdoch Mysteries did start out as very British in style, but it sure isn't that any more. I can get in trouble when I try to answer 'What's Canadian about this show?' but I will say this – we play up the differences between Canada and the U.S. in our stories, and sometimes that clicks with people and sometimes it doesn't."
He's more interested in the puzzle of the show's success in France. "It's dubbed into French and yet it gets several million people watching every week. I'm very happy about it, but I can't quite put my finger on what the appeal is to a French audience. It has a global appeal, I guess, and people identify with different elements in different countries."
So the American puzzlement about the Murdoch phenomenon is shrugged off by the lead actor. It doesn't bother him at all that when U.S. critics write about Murdoch Mysteries they tag Bisson as the actor from Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye. "People who are vocal about being fans of the show in the U.S. are very vocal about it. We're not clicking only with what I'd call 'the tea set,' and that's a great thing," he says.
After nine seasons, Bisson has probably heard every possible comment or query about the show. So I tried a new tack.
If, and it's a big "if," Bisson tired of Murdoch and wanted to move on, and the series ended, which character would anchor the inevitable spinoff series?
He was taken aback. "Nobody's ever asked me that before," he said. "First, I see myself doing Murdoch for years and years." Then he thinks a bit, with a smile on his face. "Well," he says, "shows that are women-driven are huge. So, perhaps Julia Ogden: Super Pathologist. And Crabtree is popular and Jonny Harris is funny, so The Crabtree Mysteries sounds like a good bet."
Yes, he was taken aback, but not alarmed. He will be doing Murdoch for another while. The question didn't bother him any more than the puzzlement of a few American critics bothers him. That's a mystery Murdoch wouldn't bother with.