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.
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