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Martha Wells

My Flying Lizard Circus

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Con News and Mystery Guide

I'm going to start doing an erratic and occasional guide to TV mysteries I watch, because I've wanted to do this for a while. Most of these are available (or were available) on Netflix or www.acorn.tv

Martha's Guide to TV Mysteries Part I

Defining my terms:

snuff porn - showing murders in such loving detail you want to report the producers to the police.

women in jep - spending what feels like hours, or maybe days, watching women being stalked by the killer or held prisoner instead of watching people solve mysteries. For example, The Fall with Gillian Anderson is highly rated but the first ten minutes were such an egregious example of woman in jep I turned it off.

I try to avoid things with animal harm. To the point where if a potential murder victim has a pet animal I'll preemptively turn off the show. Some things may slip by me if it's quick and not drawn out (see snuff porn).

Miss. Fisher's Mysteries - This is set in the 20s, in Australia, a woman whose family inherited money and a title after WWI returns to Australia and ends up becoming a private detective. It's a good series, and very well acted, but it's from a long-running book series by Kerry Greenwood, and the tv version is whitewashed. In the book series, the main love interest is Lin Chung, who Phryne meets in Ruddy Gore and is her lover for the rest of the series, though he isn't in every book. (Their relationship isn't exclusive. Lin has to marry to please his family and Phryne has other lovers.) In the books, Jack Robinson is an older married man, and he and Phryne are only friends. So I watch it, but this pisses me off, and the books are better.

Copper - This one is centered around an Irish police officer and friends in 1860s New York, and it doesn't sugarcoat the violence and brutality and racism of the time period. In the first episode, Ato Essandoh, who plays a doctor, John Freeman, one of the main characters, is moving out of town because members of his wife's family were lynched in front of their house in a race riot. Characterization develops slowly but dramatically, terrible things happen to main characters, main characters do terrible things to other main characters (including murdering each other), people you think are good are gradually revealed to be something else entirely (usually murderers), trauma doesn't magically go away at the end of the episode. It's good, but we're talking a more realistic Game of Thrones level violence here, people. After a murder spree in the first episode of the second season, I had to stop watching because my nerves couldn't take it.

Wire in the Blood - is from about 2002-2008 and set during that time, in the UK, where Dr. Tony Hill is a criminal psychologist who helps DI Carol Jordan (for the first 3 seasons, then it's DI Alex Fielding) catch a wide variety of bizarre serial killers. It's pretty grim throughout, but with only a few exceptions it focuses on the detectives trying to find the killers, and doesn't spend much time in snuff porn or women in jeopardy storylines. (I think there's one real women in jep episode in a later season, but that's all I remember.) Also, the actress who plays Carol Jordan is awesome. It isn't a perfect series but I liked this one a lot, and it specializes in genuinely scary scenarios and character drama that works with the mystery plot. I would watch it again if Netflix ever puts it up again.

Waking the Dead - this is a modern-day one about a special forensics cold case team. Who yell at each other a lot, especially in the first season, and make some seriously odd decisions. It was okay and does get better later, but I didn't find the stories that gripping, though the acting was very good.

Miss Marple - there's old Miss Marple and new Miss Marple, with three different actresses playing Miss Marple, and it's all good. My favorite is probably the first three seasons of new Miss Marple (or Agatha Christie's Marple as it's called), played by Geraldine McEwan. McEwan plays a Miss Marple who is funny and fluffy and utterly without mercy. There's a line in one of the books where Miss Marple says something like "I'm going to enjoy knowing that he's going to hang," and McEwan is playing that Miss Marple.

Poirot - Poirot is awesome, new and old, played by David Suchet. I especially love the moments where we see that for all his affectations, Poirot is an implacable force.

Luther - One of my favorites. John Luther is played by Idris Elba, which is probably all I need to say. It's set in modern day London, violent and grim, especially the first season, but it has one of the most terrifying/awesome female serial killers as a recurring character. It doesn't use her very effectively in the second season, but she comes back for an episode in the third that is probably my all time favorite. Luther himself is also less tortured in the third season, where he's recovered from what happened in the first, and is using his abilities a lot more effectively, I thought.

Broadchurch is on Netflix and I highly recommend it. Make sure you have eight hours or so free before you start watching the first episode. It moves fast, is very intense (but has no onscreen violence). It's about a small vacation town on the coast of the UK, where an eleven year old boy is found murdered on the beach. Alec Hardy (David Tennant), a recently arrived DI and Ellie (the DS who should have had his job) have to investigate the case, and the town is so small Ellie finds herself having to investigate her own friends and people she's known all her life. There's going to be a sequel series in March, but this first 8 episode series is a complete story. (ETA: I've just remembered, they do show the murder at the end, but that's about it, I think.)

Part II
Part III
Part IV

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Thanks for this! I had given up on Luther because I got tired of the grim and darkness, but maybe I'll jump back in a little further along since you say it gets better.

It's still very dark, even in the third season, but Luther being in a better place emotionally makes it easier to handle, I think.

My wife and I actually just watched the first episode of Miss Fisher, and found it quite charming. But we have no familiarity with the books.

Have you seen The Bletchley Circle?

Yes! I'm going to do it in the next segment, probably.

On Bletchley, I'd suggest whenever it cuts to a dark place and some sort of jep, present or past, just fast forward. There's never anything new or relevant in them.

Same with the new Suchet Poirot (Masterpiece Mysteries?) Murder in Mesopotamia. Every time someone mentions the victim's history of child abuse, they run the SAME clip.

Otherwise both of these are excellent. The new Suchet Poirot is darker than the earlier series; I'd suggest starting with their disc "Super Sleuth" which is nothing but interviews with a producer/writer/? and the actors who did Japp, Hastings, and Miss Lemon in the earlier series, and explains why those characters are often/mostly left out of the new one. Apparently the new producer/etc were not as disrespectful as it might appear.

People's reactions to Miss Fisher seem to depend really strongly on whether they read the books first or saw the show. :) I adore the show myself, but I can see how the changes could be irritating to a serious fan of the books.

Sounds like I need to try those series' of Miss Marple with McEwan; thanks for the tip.

On Fisher, I suggest starting about 2/3 through the first set, and working backwards! The first episodes were excellent, with Phryne as Emma Peel in high heels with feather boas. By the finale episode ... blah.

I suggest the show first, as it gives beautiful visuals and acting to read into the books.

I love Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple too!

I need to watch that one episode where Alice comes back, but I've heard that the second season of Luther turns torture-porn-y, which gives me nightmares.

Another series I'd rather watch backwards, is Bones. It began with a wonderful character and sensationalist plots. The victim was almost always "a young woman between 18 and 25". If she wasn't pregnant, she was part of a series of rape-murder victims. Occasionally the victim was male, and the investigation led into a lot of rock music.

Later the plots got less stock, but the character deteriorated, her hairstyle becoming more and more high-maintenance.

The best episode I've seen so far, was toward the end of the first season, "The Graft in the Girl." No murder, and Bones bashes her way through all tactful warnings and proves heroically correct.

Oh, this is great!! I've skimmed over a few of these on Netflix and haven't known if I wanted to watch them; this helps a lot!

I agree w/ McEwan as Miss Marple. She is so perfect. I think the second actress in the new Marple series maybe captures the way Miss Marple was written in the initial stories - a bit more of a roly-poly affectation, coming off as a bit fluttery. But I felt like that initial characterization of book-Marple was more due to the inaccurate perceptions of the other characters, who don't catch on to her sharpness until later. So I feel like there should be more of that sharpness in the way the actress plays her, which the second actress doesn't entirely have to me. I still really, really enjoy her, but McEwan does feel like the quintessential Miss Marple. (I only watched one ep of the old Miss Marple. It was extremely 1980s and hard to watch; Miss Marple was fun in it, but I just didn't care for the show itself, so...)

R.e. snuff porn and women in jep - those are two things I seriously dislike, which is why I'm not entirely sure why I've started watching The Following. It's like an episodic slasher film, although, granted, the violence is mostly shown as aftermath (so far, anyway). But still. SO much gore and violence, and a truly annoying arc involving a woman in jeopardy (I mean, the character makes sense in terms of the story, but she doesn't do anything but be in jeopardy, which is so irritating).

I think I'm expecting it to be a bit like Criminal Minds - I used to really enjoy it for the characters and the crime-solving, but I could only watch it on DVD so that I could fast-forward through the scenes of the criminals doing their thing. The characters and crime-solving in The Following aren't as good yet, but the villain and his minions are rather fascinating so I'm willing to give the good guy characters a chance to catch up. And play Solitaire on my phone during the disturbing parts.

I had read all the Miss Fisher books first and loved them, so I find it easiest to consider the TV series to be an 'alternate universe' version. I love the actors and think the casting director did a good job.

FYI--another series/ books disconnect happens with 'Longmire'. I just go with the whole AU philosophy. However, it is becoming a bit soap-opera here in season 3 and I don't know how much longer I'll stick with it.

My favorite Miss Marple was Joan Hickson (the 1980s series). And I've always been a Poirot fan--great stuff.

Longmire's best season was the first one I agree

I have some faith in the creators of this show, and the insights into the local reservation community are usually handled in a fascinating way so I probably won't bail out yet, but I am pretty frustrated. I watched the first season before reading the books, and maybe that helped coming to it without preconceptions. But my favorite trippy is it real or is it not mystical book that was the basis for the first episode of the second season was a very sad travesty as I felt it totally trivialized and skipped over the depth that was in the book.

Worse perhaps is that is when the train left the rails and continuity was abandon for some sort of melodrama's sake and they started doing the books plots out of order. Such as Hector doesn't die until the third season which gutted the first episode of the second season of much of its power. They blew up the whole background of the death of Longmire's wife. Maybe it is from the future intention of the author but I hope not. The actor Lou Diamond Phillips I won't argue is not a competent actor, but true to the Henry Standing Bear of the books he is not the right physical type. He has a respectful attitude toward the role at least but is Filipino-Scots Irish (with "some Cherokee" on his dad's side so a background that can be compared to all the controversy of Depp playing Tonto). The books are great, but at this point while I find the show still "worth watching" it is kind of just all right for me. This third season is still more of a mess.

I love some of the cozier ones, like "The Last Detective" (Peter Davison stars as an aging Detective Constable and is super-awesome), "George Gently" (set in the 60's, with a DS who is a little skeevy and a DC who is the pinnacle of gentlemanly grace), "Foyle's War" (even in wartime, people still get murdered - set in WWII).

I'm enjoying some Korean detective shows, too - like "Crime Squad" (Damaged detective with meta-arc about his daughter's accidental death due to police action, and his subsequent divorce and his buddy friendship with a young reporter), "Special Affairs Team Ten" (really grisly serial killers and a top-notch team led by a professor with serious issues), and "You're All Surrounded" (currently airing - ensemble cast, rookie detectives, great meta-arc about police corruption, and some fantastic acting.)

Edited at 2014-07-10 07:56 pm (UTC)

Yes, I'm going to talk about all three of those in another post. I really liked The Last Detective.

Ooh, Special Affairs Team Ten sounds really good.

You can watch all of the Korean ones for free, btw - at dramafever.com, Viki.com, and hulu. I also forgot to mention "Vampire Prosecutor" - vampire-cop show which is delicious, violent cheese with the vamp equivalent of a DA.

The Last Detective

I adored that series, and I thought Davison was the perfect mix of truly-nice-person plus childish response to frustration, and I adored the yearning hopefulness in the face of terrible problems.

I'm really bummed that it's darn near impossible to find the books (they're all OOP.) Though I thought that the book-detective was a little less hopeful than the series-detective, I still enjoyed the one novel I could get my hands on.


Fyi, if you go over to my journal page, I've got trailers for "Crime Squad" and "Ten" embedded in my most recent post.

Has "Vera" made it across the Atlantic yet? Frumpy, eccentric, middle-aged female detective in the North of England (not Yorkshire -- further north than that!) Nice scenery, and not too graphic. There's also "Shetland" from the same author's books (Ann Cleeves). It would be a shame if the accents prevented them reaching an audience outside the UK.

Vera is on Netflix, Amazon Streaming, and Acorn, so it's readily available over here. It hasn't been shown on broadcast TV because it's only PBS and BBC America that show most of the British recent shows, and PBS is constrained by budget (they just did The Escape Artist, they're doing Endeavour right now, and are about to do the new Poirot) and BBC America is constrained by the fact that it's always been a sucky cable channel that doesn't know what it's doing. I don't think the accents are a problem.

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Brooklyn Nine Nine is airing here new on cable, I'm not sure which channel. I've caught a couple of episodes, and enjoyed it a lot.

I grew up watching Barney Miller -- that was a great show.

If you're interested in period mystery shows, the 70s 'Ellery Queen' show, set in the 40s, was one of the best. Unfortunately, it was a bit ahead of its time, and only lasted for one season. It used to be available on Netflix - not sure if it still is.

We've got Ellery Queen on DVD, I really like that one.

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