Phoebe Maltz Bovy is the author of The Perils of “Privilege”: Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage.
Ever since a bat or a pangolin or was it governments' ineptitude turned the world upside down, my focus has not been optimal. I knew that staying home with a child who went from baby to toddler during the pandemic’s early months excused me from the expectation of showering, let alone composing symphonies. But the ability to sit and, say, read a novel, so newly reacquired, disappeared once more. This left one leisure pursuit: BritBox.
For the uninitiated: BritBox is a streaming service like Netflix, except that unlike Netflix, it does not keep you up to date on pop culture. It instead allows you to revisit the British TV shows of your North American public-television childhood and to see which, if any, hold up. If you want to stay aggressively out of the loop, or just to exit the loop in the hour or so before sleep, it’s the way to go. But there are only so many times you can watch Keeping Up Appearances before groaning every time Hyacinth Bucket snobbishly corrects someone’s pronunciation of her last name. And so I found my way to a neighbouring genre: silly mysteries. These are, I believe, the perfect escapism in this, the moment that cannot be escaped.
What is it about (some) murder mysteries that actually distracts from ubiquitous death? How do I find these shows relaxing enough that I can fall asleep more easily to them than to my own thoughts?
There are terms for the phenomenon I’m describing, things such as “cozy mysteries” or “gallows humour.” Where the pandemic itself is concerned, a different expression – “too soon” – comes to mind. But fictional deaths in fictional villages in circa 1990 England? Yes please!
Shows such as Midsomer Murders and Miss Marple defuse the scariness of death by removing its most frightening features. Virtually no one dies of natural causes. One is more likely to be toppled by an antique armoire than to receive an upsetting diagnosis. Hearts stop, but this will be about arsenic poisoning from a resentful cousin, not the aftereffects of a new virus about which still so little is known. There’s quite a bit of presumed suicide but even there, the truth inevitably emerges: yup, murder.
Death on these shows is met with either a shriek or a shrug, but never an emotion as complex as grief. On Midsomer, there’s the affectless response not just of Inspector Tom Barnaby, but also of his wife and daughter. Barnaby asks villagers if the deceased had any enemies, and the answer is always yes, everyone hated this person. Those questioned will explain that they’re happy this person is now dead, but that regrettably they weren’t the murderer. A suspect will ask Mr. Barnaby whether it’s absolutely necessary for an unexplained and gruesome murder to cancel a much-anticipated rowing competition. On Rosemary and Thyme, an episode will reach the part where the murder has happened and one of the women asks whether they should continue the garden project, what with, you know, and the answer is reliably that yes, the work must go on.
Now might not seem the moment for murder mysteries, what with the heightened, necessary focus on police brutality after the killing of George Floyd this past summer. Indeed, some have questioned the ethics of police procedurals, particularly the ones where real-life policing is used as entertainment. But British murder mysteries, or the ones I tend to click on, showcase police ineptitude. Midsomer stars detectives who solve every case, fail at crime prevention. If you take the big picture, it’s striking that these tiny villages can’t get their murder situation under control. If the police are glorified, it’s in the form of the rotating cast of handsome detective sergeants.
Then there are the Agatha Christie shows, where the formula doesn’t even allow an officer to find the answer. Hobbyist crime-solver Miss Marple is always steps ahead, as is private detective Hercule Poirot. Whatever your thoughts on policing in the abstract, there’s a soothing repetitiveness in how the police never catch on to this pattern. In episode after episode, it stuns often the very same officers that the little old lady or the mustachioed Belgian got there first. Who’d have thought they had it in them?
On Midsomer, the killer is peaceably apprehended, and makes a confession spelling out the convoluted grudge that led them to bludgeon friends and relatives. With Poirot, it’s calmer still, as the private investigator assembles all suspects into the drawing room of a manor house and explains, in his trademark Franglais, his deduction process.
It would be a stretch to say these shows are furthering a social justice cause – racial profiling is mentioned I think just once in Midsomer, in one of the recent episodes, and it’s only lately that show has had many characters of colour. But these programs, unlike some Britcoms that come to mind, are rarely distractingly offensive by contemporary standards. There is at most a kind of feminism built into the structure: For the plots to work, nothing can be presupposed about the murderer’s age or gender. (An attentive viewer will notice use of a singular “they.”) The murder weapon may have been the killer’s own brute force, but that clue in no way prevents the murderer from being a woman in her 80s.
Any show being watched partly as sleep aid needs to have good scenery. Poirot, set in 1930s London, serves as interior design inspiration, the art deco furnishings more absorbing than any Pinterest board. There are also crimes – a theft here, a poisoning there – but that’s secondary to the aesthetics. If you’re stuck at home, why not fantasize about installing chevron floors? But better still is Rosemary and Thyme, where two women with a landscaping business solve the murders that just happen to take place in or near the gardens they’re hired to refurbish. The clothes are early-2000s and notably terrible, but the gardens themselves? Swoon!
Midsomer is the ultimate, in quality and quantity (21 seasons and counting). There are the usual massive country estates and family rivalries, but it’s somehow sillier than its peers. It’s also the most creative with murder methods. A victim might be flattened by a block of cheese, strangled by automatic doors, or pelted with wine bottles. The red-herring side plots centre on what the show calls, in a non-judgmental way, “sexual deviancy,” a.k.a. the whips aren’t just being used in the posh family’s stable.
And with so many episodes, you and whoever you’re quarantined with can play the game of what was that actor in. The grandmother from Absolutely Fabulous marries one of the parish council members from The Vicar of Dibley. Samantha Bond, Lord Grantham’s sister from Downton Abbey, is in three different Midsomers, as well as Miss Marple and Poirot, which must have been exhausting. There’s the IMDB-assisted delight in spotting minor characters from much earlier British shows, looking different yet the same. See? During the time it took to confirm that yes that really was Prunella Scales, the actor who played Sybil Fawlty on Fawlty Towers, you didn’t think about the virus even once.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.