May 7, 2014

Murdoch Mysteries (Guest Post)

The following is a guest post by an ardent fan of Murdoch Mysteries who wishes to remain anonymous. Once you read the opening paragraph, you'll know why. As a Canadian citizen, I can run the risk of angering the evil overlords of International Syndication Deals without reprisal. My anonymous contributor, an American citizen, cannot. I realize in saying this that many of you will assume that I've struck a persona to blog about Murdoch Mysteries, but believe me - this is not the case - I've only watched the show occasionally, and posted on it once, for the steampunk web episodes for Curse of the Lost Pharaoh . The following post is the creation of a fan who needed a serious signal boost to promote Stateside fans of Murdoch Mysteries to raise the level of their squee to eleven, and for those who have never watched the show to get around to doing it already. I know I was inspired to do the same. 
 
Dear U.S. Steampunk Community, the evil overlords of International Syndication Deals have most-wittingly conspired to deprive us of Murdoch Mysteries, the One True Steampunk-themed TV show, merely because it is produced by our Natural Enemy, the Working-Healthcare-System-Mongerer: Canada. The Ovation channel smuggled this Canadian gem over the border last summer, but then kept it for themselves and their handful of Twitter subscribers by cloaking it under the name The Artful Detective. How dare those dastardly art snobs deny the entertainment-starved masses this choice morsel? In the following review, I shall let you in on the best kept secret in cult TV fandom.

Murdoch Mysteries is a beautiful bricolage of every cult classic that you ever stayed up until 2am at college to watch in the college pub TV room: Wild Wild West retro-gadgetry, the toy box feel of The Prisoner, a smart-and-angst-ridden-is-sexy X-Files shipperfest, the genre/period fusion of Firefly, the quirky fun of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Star Trek's interest in humanity, and the iconic paraphernalia of Dr. Who. Blend it all together and wrap a scrumptious pastry of science fantasy and Victorian period style around a tasty detective filling, and you get Steampunk CSI Murdoch Mysteries. The American entertainment-industrial-schlock complex doesn't even know how to pull this off. Our television shows are sordid trash heaps of meaningless sex, random violence, torture porn, the cruelest personal betrayals, and hordes of crass people who are supposed to be signifying "the real" but just make everything feel dirty. American TV is sick. Murdoch Mysteries is the cure.

Set in late Victorian Toronto, Murdoch Mysteries presents culturally clueless American viewers with what we might easily mistake for Belle Epoque Europe (dude, some of those Canadians speak French!). Enter this playground of nostalgia-gone-wild and revel in more elegant costumes, millinery confections, graceful manners, and brass-bound props than you will ever need to adorn your most elaborate Steampunk fantasies. Heaven forfend that those Victorian prophets of retro-futurism settle for pedestrian technological advances like the telegraph and the gramophone: Murdoch Mysteries whips out zeppelins, steam men, mole machines, Tesla death rays, time machines, and gas masks for the impending Cloud of Doom. The stories are layered with authentic historical events and generously sprinkled with historical figures, period-significant objects, or issues that could only spawn from the material and social culture of that time. Any historical license stays within a zone of plausibility, and the most spectacular wonders of science never exceed the laws of physics -- unless they will soon be exposed for a fraud. The careful waltzes of decorum, attended by picturesque scenery and a whimsical soundtrack, creates the overall impression of an exquisite music box.

The long-suffering hero of the story, William Murdoch, is a morally earnest, impeccably dressed, infallibly courteous closet genius. He works at a police station that is just emerging from the era of apes beating on a monolith constables beating up hapless vagrants. Murdoch is not a good fit: he's a Catholic in a Protestant preserve, a keen intellect and rather a pretty boy among thugs, a lower class upstart who is trying too hard to prove he belongs in a better station. Beyond the default reticence of the Victorian gentleman, Murdoch is socially awkward, moody and extremely introverted; some fans have speculated he's on the high-functioning end of the Asperger's spectrum. Because he's meticulous and methodical, he is usually right, and he doesn't know when to stop pushing it. Murdoch can be outright annoying, but, miraculously, his boss, the irascible Inspector Brackenreid, recognizes Murdoch's merits and chooses to use them. Everyone who hates trying to "fit in" to the American system of shallow self-promotion will feel heartened.

 Murdoch parlayed what the world under-values--a penchant for reading and a powerful imagination--into a way of getting stellar results at work. His copious reading (he's somewhat embarrassed to know the Dewey Decimal System by heart) kept him abreast of rapid change in an age of heroic inventors and scientific challenges to the traditional understanding of the world. While he applies practical forensic science and invents useful thingamajigs to solve crimes, he dreams of discovering a new dinosaur. Murdoch's combination of persistence, curiosity, and imagination transform him into Detective/Inspector Gadget, the first dork super hero (another Canadian creation!).

Each episode of Murdoch Mysteries is a well-crafted concoction of police procedural, medical whatdunit, and Sherlockian parlor sleuthing. The plots are tight and twisty, and the ending always satisfies. The episodes are self-contained, so it's easy for new viewers to drop in at any point. The first episode I saw was from the third season, and the only thing that took me a while to catch on to is why Murdoch was so at odds with his surroundings - first I had to figure out the show was set in Canada, and then I thought Murdoch was an American detective who was disliked as a foreigner. However, there is a gentle arc that runs over the course of the seasons that allows the characters to develop and grow closer to each other.

Over the course of the seasons the misfit Murdoch gains increasing respect and admiration from his peers, to the point where he's generally regarded as "the greatest detective in the realm". The audience now has cause to suspect hubris will be Murdoch's fatal flaw and this whole thing may turn out to be Greek Tragedy. On the other hand, the "regular Joe" constables warm up to him and become his family: their daily workplace interactions are leavened with good-natured humor. Everyone tolerates each other's foibles, and they all have each other's back in times of trouble. No cult TV show is complete without an epic romance, and Murdoch Mysteries has a heart-wrenching one.

Murdoch starts out as a lonely man who keeps his risque fantasies about Dr. Julia Ogden, the brazen female coroner, to himself. She is his intellectual match but socially above his station. Dr. Ogden also has a thing for Murdoch, but she is equally busy challenging gender roles, dealing with baggage from the past, and trying to build her career in a man's world. Early on it seems her opinions might be a bit too frank for the easily-scandalized Murdoch. But they have something together that is partly sexual tension, but more of a mutual appreciation that they forge into a strong partnership. Their struggle navigate their relationship through the shoals of respectable conduct provides abundant material for ship-promoting fan vids. For those who ship with slash goggles on, candidates abound - particularly the exhuberent inventor James Pendrick, who encourages Murdoch to hang out in his skyscraper, drive his electric car at the unholy speed of 55 miles per hour, and fly the first airplane that can bank into a turn. Murdoch is so discrete there is plenty of room for shipping of any stripe.

What gives Murdoch Mysteries unexpected depth is its gentle pursuit of human themes, where personal/emotional dilemmas are often mirrored by the interrogation of suspects. Murdoch is the quintessential good man, trying to bring justice to his world by upholding the law. However, sometimes pursuit of the truth conflicts with the best social outcome, enforcement of the law may conflict with mercy or the moral good, or the dictates of faith may clash with science. Murdoch's surroundings are wracked with social tensions, moral conflicts, and spiritual contradictions that still reverberate today. Victorian sensibilities clash with modern notions of progress regarding abortion, contraception, divorce, homosexuality, racism, police violence. These conflicts often touch Murdoch personally, and watching the poor guy lurch between love and loss, elation and devastation, will rip your heart out.

Regarding period sensibilities, as forward-thinking and modern as Murdoch strives to be, he is trapped in the cultural preconceptions of his era, and can be as oblivious to his own prejudices as anyone else. The show keeps a wry eye on the 21st century, and indulges in an ongoing in-joke about Murdoch's failure to recognize the innovations that will make the future. In fact, his less-gifted-but-sincere apprentice Constable Crabtree seems to be more tuned in to the future, though he tends to veer off into crackpot theories. But Murdoch's blindspots are easily forgiven when you realize these people are being confronted with the idea that their deepest beliefs about religion and nature are wrong. The British Empire, the triumph of their civilization might be morally wrong. Regarding women as an inferior species might be just plain wrong. At the same time some of the most fantastic Jules Verne-esque ideas are turning out to be right. Messages are being transmitted across the country by magic, electricity is lighting up the world, people fly through the air. It was a true age of wonders, and science was the fountain of wonder.

Murdoch Mysteries also offers a corrective to Victorian stereotypes: they weren't all repressed, conventional, passionless, preachy etiquette-bots. Their class and gender notions were troubled. When their human desires met social opposition, they found another way. They recognized their hypocrisies. Women found "respectable" ways to challenge the theology and law that reduced them to breeding stock. Boarding house busybodies and stern churchmen didn't stop sweethearts from getting a little nookie. The ostensibly strait-laced Victorians could be more radical thinkers than we are today: students became disciples of communist revolution, women advocated anarchy, and street-corner preachers were the crusading bloggers of their day. The aspect of Murdoch Mysteries that sneaks up on you is that struggles are deep, and really quite dark. But in a way this portrays the true essence of Victorianism: great turbulence roiling behind the polite veneer, speaking terms maintained via dapper suit and lace parasol.

The discerning audience will also spot a "budget arc" that resulted from Murdoch Mysteries' great success in Canada. Despite it's shoestring budget, the show aimed for high production values from the start. The casting was inspired, chock full of dedicated and skillful actors that adhere to high standards of performance. No one ever "phoned it in". The settings were achieved through a great deal of modeling and matte-painting, and a shrewd investment in music gave Murdoch Mysteries its special ambience. Over the years, sets and costumes became more elaborate. Special effects got better, CGI more seamless: most notably the sinking of a "titanic" steamship at the start of Season 7. Canadian actors aren't paid on the same awesome scale as American ones, so it's been a miracle that the show has kept such a terrific cast working together for so long. Some American appreciation (and distribution) might help reward them for it.


Last but not least, Murdoch Mysteries is a great ambassador for Canada. It's no secret that Americans are geographically ignorant and largely unaware of their global context. We disregard Canada as a bland country with a successful healthcare system, much like William Murdoch initially comes across as a bland guy with a successful crime-solving system. Murdoch Mysteries puts the many flavors of Canada on display - its relics of European culture, its melange of peoples, its natural grandeur. It also makes a turns the "Canadians are nice people" trope to best advantage: Canadians like thoughtful, quiet, earnest people. They respect intelligence and integrity over a slick image. They have a sense of moral responsibility. This is a useful mirror for the US, where Americans have by and large lost touch with their values: the voice of "morality" is usually someone trying to manipulate them for their own self-serving reasons. It's refreshing to watch a show where the characters want to be "good people", and that doesn't make them corny, naive saps or sanctimonious preachers. A year ago I only knew Canada was a big country to the North. Now I want to go see Canada for myself.

In sum, Murdoch Mysteries is the ultimate cult TV show. Murdoch himself is visually iconic in his homburg, riding his antique bicycle to the crime scene, crossing himself every time he kneels to examine a body. Smart viewers will glom onto the references to the past and the future, rich in opportunities for interpretation. These invitations to audience reading imbue it with the mythic quality of all great cult TV, but somehow this occurs in a cozy rather than epic manner. Murdoch Mysteries seems like light fare, but it sticks with you and calls for repeat watching. It's addictive. It's binge-worthy. And it's Steampunk CSI! Murdoch Mysteries: watch it, love it, spread the gospel.

16 comments:

  1. I am a big steampunk fan, and a big Murdoch fan. The fact the two can merge on occasion is great stuff. Add to it lots of the history of Toronto added in, and no wonder it get 1.4 million Canadians watching it when season 7 was on. Season 8 starts shooting next month.

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  2. Thank you so much for publishing my review! I hope potential fans south of the border will find it. Maybe the US Entertainment Media can stop drooling over Orphan Black long enough to get Murdoch Mysteries a shot, too.

    I love the added illustrations. :D

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  3. I should add that (much to my surprise), the ship issue was settled this season after I wrote this review. The winner was Julia Ogden - this season ended with a proposal in pretty much irrefutable evidence.

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  4. Amen to all that. Waiting for season 7 on DVD so we can see it in u.s.

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  5. I had been watching it on Acron.tv until I decided that paying for three streaming services was a bit too much considering I was the only one in the household that used this one. Loved the period, the science, the female in a position of power and the peek of my neighbor to the north:)

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  6. Thanks to mmyst-squee for writing such a great review - you've got the Murdoch Mystery fans all aflutter on Twitter!

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  7. Love your review, it covers all aspects of my favorite TV show. Have followed from S1 and my dvds S1 to S6 is in frekvent use. since living in Norway. now I hope S7 will come soon! Anyway thank you for your well written summary of Mm!

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  8. Thank you to those who read my review - I'm glad you liked it! If you're an American fan of Murdoch Mysteries, please consider writing to the major news magazines and directly requesting that they review Murdoch Mysteries. You can link them to my review if they need a general overview or a place to start.

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  9. I agree with all of this review. Since I first heard of this show, I watched several seasons via Netflix. There is a season in 2004, before this current reboot, in which there are different actors. I've been fortunate that I live near Canada and my TV cable provider includes one Canadian network which broadcasts this show!

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  10. Although there are some points we may have to, to quote Crabtree: "Agree to disagree" on ;) by the end of this read that I will definitely be bookmarking into my MM Folder, it brought the specialty of MM back up to the surface. Which in other words means, makes me reflect on/appreciate what Murdoch Mysteries for me has been :) & on what scale this Canadian gem has come to be.

    I also loved how you touched on the erudite/creative aspects, particularly with this passage: "Murdoch parlayed what the world under-values--a penchant for reading and a powerful imagination--"

    Well put together with links & photos, too!

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  11. Belated Mother's Day comment: Murdoch Mysteries is a great show to watch with your Mom. I originally found Murdoch Mysteries when I was looking for a present for my Mom (who has roots in Canada), but I found it appealed to me just as much. It's a great show for mothers and daughters to watch together and mutually squee over.

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  12. I have been watching Murdoch Mysteries for a few years now. It is a breath of fresh air. With intelligence, wit and decorum, the team rally to defeat each dastardly nemesis. The sometimes throw away references to things like twitter and cameos by famous historical (and literary) characters are woven into the stories in an entertaining way.
    It is one of the very few television shows that touch on the steampunk aesthetic. More people should try it!

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  13. Thank you Canadian TV for William Murdoch - he is the stuff that fantasies are made of.

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  14. I have watched as many episodes as possible via Netflix. I have introduced Murdoch to my 8th grade students. The show has everything that I need to encourage manners, intelligence, respect and imagination.

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  15. I enjoy the Murdoch Mysteries episodes even as a culturally, ignorant citizen of USA. I stopped to read this posting just for enlightenment of some sort, but there was none. Just some twit posting his opinion on how terrible and ignorant Americans are of their neighbor Canada. I think it is you who are ignorant, but far be it from me to down a venue where you may freely express your own personal ignorance and judgment of another country. You are exactly what you criticize, uninformed and culturally unaware. What exactly are you trying to compensate for, eh? Must be a man problem. At any rate, the only thing I agree with is that Murdoch Mysteries is wonderful. It is great to see such wonderful shows coming out of Canada, and I feel honored to share them as a person and an American citizen. I am sure you will respond in an adult and culturally aware fashion. You seem to be nothing, if not, predictable.

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  16. Postern, as noted above, this was a guest post, and the poster was a female, so I don't think she's compensating for anything. She was also an American. And she was writing tongue-in-cheek manner to express her love of the show, and her wish that she had access to more episodes.

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