Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Tribute to "Murdoch Mysteries"

I just got back from Toronto, where I attended a fan event for the popular Canadian TV show "Murdoch Mysteries" (which airs in the US as "The Artful Detective"). I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with the show's executive producer Christina Jennings (who is also the founder and CEO of Shaftesbury, the company that produces it), as well as meeting and talking with cast-members, including the star of the series, Yannick Bisson. The fan weekend featured a tour of the studio where the show is produced, and we all saw some amazing props and sets, including a faithful recreation of a police station circa 1900.  It was like stepping back in time.  I wrote an article about the fan event for the Toronto Star.  You can read it here: http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/television/2015/08/11/fans-show-their-love-for-all-things-murdoch-mysteries.html

I was especially impressed by the devotion of the fans. A total of 2500 of them, including the group I was part of, Murdoch Mysteries Experience, participated in the event.  In a way, their love and dedication reminded me of the passionate loyalty that rock fans display toward Rush.  For me personally, this past weekend was an interesting contrast-- when it comes to Rush, I'm not exactly a fan, given my relationship to the band and their management for so many years; but when it comes to all things Murdoch, I'm just Donna who really likes the show.  And like any fan, I was totally delighted to tour the set (thank you, Shaftesbury; thank you, Murdoch Mysteries Appreciation Society, thank you Murdoch Mysteries Experience). It was amazing to go behind the scenes and see the places where the magic happens.

I'm not going to do a TV review, but I will say that this show does a lot of things right.  It has beautiful costumes from the Victorian era, interesting plots, characters who are relatable (including several strong female characters), clever writing, and a unique way of teaching history. (One critic referred to it as a Victorian version of CSI.) Taking place at the dawn of the 20th century, the stories focus on the exploits of Detective William Murdoch, who uses the new science of forensics to solve crimes.  But in addition to the mystery plots and the attention to historical detail, the writers often give a wink and a nod to current day issues:  one scene featured the characters marveling at an automobile that went (gasp) about twenty miles an hour, and a discussion ensued about a time when new highways might need to be built to accommodate more cars ... but then everyone decided that cross-country highways would never be practical and who would want faster cars anyway? 

I can tell you as a media historian that every time there was a new invention, the discourses were often utopian ("this will solve our problems and change everything for the better!"); but there were also the curmudgeons who wanted to be heard ("things were fine before, and this will ruin our lives!").  The writers  of Murdoch Mysteries understand this tension between change and tradition, and they represent it well.

And while the series focuses on a different murder mystery each episode, there is no gratuitous violence, nor any bad language beyond "bloody hell"-- the favorite curse of Inspector Brackenreid, Detective Murdoch's boss.  The show has plenty of action, a number of plot twists, even some romance... but it's also family-friendly, a rarity on TV these days.  (And "family-friendly" doesn't mean dumbed down or boring-- this is a show that appeals to people of all ages, and when I interviewed fans for the Toronto Star story, a number of parents and kids told me they enjoy watching it together.)

The Victorian era was certainly an exciting time, filled with new inventions and improvements: phonographs, telephones, wireless telegraphy (which ultimately led to radio), electric lights in homes and businesses, etc.  It was a time when horse-drawn carriages were gradually being replaced by automobiles, and a time when courtesy and proper manners were expected in any social or business situation.  I don't think I would have wanted to live in that era, given the restrictive roles most women endured, but whenever Murdoch Mysteries is on, I can immerse myself in that bygone time, knowing at the end of each episode that I am free to return to my life.  The best TV shows provide that temporary escape-- with characters you feel you know, and places that feel familiar.  I can't wait for the new season of Murdoch, and I'm glad I found it (thank you, Netflix and Hulu).  My applause to Shaftesbury for producing such a quality series, at a time when too much that's on the air just isn't worth watching. Whether you know it as Murdoch Mysteries or The Artful Detective, it's nice to know that such a classy show exists.

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