on 17 February 2011
Probably best described as CSI: Late Victorian-era Toronto, this series puts a new, historical spin on the crime/police-based drama theme. The series is set in Ontario in the mid 1890s and is centered around the series of predictably-frequent murders (it's a crime show after all) that cross the bows of the officers at a city-based police station. In particular, the focus of attention is the cerebral Detective William Murdoch who is beautifully portrayed by a perfectly cast Yannick Bisson.
Murdoch is a man ahead of his time, with a well-developed knowledge of science and forensic medicine which, as his station's primary criminal investigator, he brings to bear in the course of his many investigations. A calm and thoughtful individual, Murdoch is also a clean-living devout Roman Catholic. These qualities contrast markedly with his immediate superior, the rough-edged, Yorkshire-born Inspector Brackenreid, played by Thomas Craig, whose bullish, no nonsense style contrasts markedly with Murdoch's more measured approach. As with many fictional heroes, Murdoch is ably assisted by a faithful retainer: Constable George Crabtree. This uniformed officer's occasionally scatterbrain manner belies a keen mind and a devotion to both his duty and to Murdoch. The fourth main character is pathologist Dr. Julia Ogden. Portrayed by Hélène Joy, this forward-thinking, intelligent and confident woman is something of trailblazer; being both a doctor and a pathologist in an age where women were still some way from an equal footing with men either socially or professionally. The two are well matched, and a classic 'will they/won't they?' romance develops between Murdoch and Dr. Ogden over the course of the first three seasons of the show, with both parties' obvious attraction for the other put to the test through a variety of events and disclosures. Personal relationships aside, Murdoch and Ogden form a formidable professional team. Ogden is a first class pathologist, with an encyclopedic medical knowledge and a keen forensic mind, whilst Murdoch uses both a natural intuition and a series of innovative forensic and scientific techniques that are, quite literally, years ahead of their time (often with the writers cleverly incorporating historically accurate scientific discoveries and breakthroughs into the story lines) to solve all manner of murders and other crimes which, by the yardstick of other, less brilliant and less fastidious investigators, would undoubtedly remain undetected.
The main characters are excellently cast, and the show regularly features familiar Canadian faces in a variety of supporting roles. The writing is excellent, with novel use of real-life historical characters and events, again, often cleverly melded into the story lines, and the episodes invariably feature engaging plots and a delightful touch of dry humour. In the course of the first three seasons we meet Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Harry Houdini, Bufallo Bill Cody and physicist Nikola Tesla, all of whom are seamlessly incorporated into their respective episodes. The murders themselves span all manner of motives, suspects, victims, methods and cultures, with Murdoch's dogged determination to unearth the truth and to see the culprit brought to justice the only common thread.
These days, there are any number of crime-based TV dramas to choose from, of all shapes, sizes, genres and styles, but for my money this one is right up at the very top of the tree. It's well written, the characters have real depth and warmth and are developed perfectly through the course of the series and the Victorian setting is different enough to capture the attention and the imagination in a way that many other productions do not. I would wholeheartedly recommend Murdoch Mysteries to anyone interested in the crime/detective genre, and have no hesitation in awarding it the full five stars. I'm hooked.