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[TV REVIEW] Midsomer Murders Set 21

Actors: Neil Dudgeon, Jason Hughes
Directors: Peter Smith, Renny Rye, Richard Holthouse
Format: Box set, Color, Widescreen, NTSC
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Number of discs: 4
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Acorn Media
DVD Release Date: January 8, 2013
Run Time: 372 minutes

It can be difficult to come up with commentary on such a long-running and successful series as Midsomer Murders. It is only with a shake-up or great change that a reviewer like me can find something new to say.

Fortunately, with the US release of Midsomer Murders Set 21, just such a shake-up is in the offing. Neil Dudgeon takes on the role of DI John Barnaby, replacing the beloved Tom Barnaby (John Nettles). Herein lies a character twist. John Barnaby does not have the same affability as Tom. John is much more direct in his style. Where Tom was a country detective who wouldn’t bend to pressure, John is a city detective who plays his cards close. Where Tom would have a revelation, John seems to have the answers already, only waiting on proofs of his suspicions before acting. John is younger, brasher than Tom was and his character rubs people, especially Sergeant Ben Jones (Jason Hughes) the wrong way.

This, I think, is why some viewers in the UK have not liked the change. There is a significant divergence from the style of the John Nettles led series in Set 21, though indications from across the pond lead me to believe that Set 21 is something of an aberration. It seems that the production team behind Midsomer Murders was trying to find the voice with which the character and tone of the new John Barnaby-led series. The result is a mixed bag in Set 21, as some of the tales hearken back to the nuanced, lighthearted mysteries of the series and some take a much, much darker tone.

The first episode is “Death in the Slow Lane.” At a local private girls school, a classic car show is raising funds. Former students of this political/business preparatory school are returning to show off their success via their expensive cars. Locals too, are getting in on the act, as Ben Jones joins a team restoring an old racing car discovered with the decomposed body of an apparent suicide. Ire is raised the constabulary when Barnaby questions Jones’ closing of the suicide case. Jones begins a sort of class warfare in retaliation, constantly and consistently mocking Barnaby’s degree in psychology. Then, when a local radio star is killed with the crank handle of a classic car, Barnaby and Jones must uncover the culprit. Like a classic Tom Barnaby case, it is the past that informs the future, leading to the uncovering of the murderer.

I found the choice of Jones and Barnaby getting off on the wrong foot a good one in the sense that it creates interesting character conflict. However, the problem with it becomes that then Barnaby seems aloof and standoffish – making him the bad guy, since the viewer is already familiar with and liking Ben Jones. Overall, though, viewers will be treated with the familiar formula of red herrings and mysterious past we have come to know and love. The only thing missing is the quirky village characters (though John Barnaby might be considered one) but the stories have long been straying from their inclusion anyway.

Quirkiness returns with “Dark Secrets”. An elderly, rich, and reclusive couple and their free spirit art colony neighbors become the targets of investigation when a social services investigator is found dead in a stream between their lands. It appears that the now conservative elderly couple were once 1960s flower children and that they are hiding some secrets from those days. What is the connection with this couple and the art colony? Who among them had the most motive to kill? Barnaby and Jones must unravel tangled histories and deal with the drug-addled memories of the couple and the outright antagonism of the art colony.

I liked this episode in that it includes the forgotten past motif as well as quirky characters in the persons of the elderly couple. The incongruity of the current style of their lives and their personal pasts also creates dramatic tension. More importantly is the interesting look into where even the most free love, free spirit of lifestyle choices will draw the moral line and what it is that might make them cross it.

Perhaps the darkest Midsomer Murders I have ever viewed, “Echoes of the Dead” is reminiscent more of Wire in the Blood or Waking the Dead than Murder, She Wrote. There is none of the lightheartedness endemic to most Midsomer Murders episodes. The whole episode is cast in an eerie, dark light. Whereas the contrast between daylight detective work and the evil of murder by night usually prevents Midsomer from being too depressing, “Echoes of the Dead” is darker in tone and color (it appears to be winter in Midsomer, including gray clouds as background) and leaves chills running down your back.

In this story, a young woman, newly single, is found drowned in her bathtub dressed in a wedding gown. This style of murder has occurred before, so Barnaby and Jones must deal with the potential of a returned killer along with the idea of a copycat. Suspects include a pub owner drummed out of the police force (and a personal antagonist for Ben Jones), a hardware store owner, the owner of the rental property where the woman was killed, a gas station attendant, even the dead girl’s roommate. Then more bodies begin piling up and it seems that what Barnaby and Jones assumed about the killer is all wrong.

There are some unusually grim and scary scenes in this tale. It appears the production team tried to see if Midsomer Murders viewers would tolerate a darker, more sinister cast to the whole tone of the show. The style of “Echoes of the Dead” is not what you might expect as the oddities of the villagers are given a sinister cast rather than a humorous one, and the settings are starker, more modern, and grayer – making this a episode akin to Wallander rather than its namesake.

Jones goes undercover to investigate a new-age cult in “The Oblong Murders” when one of its members disappears. At first it seems the cult might have been responsible, but as Jones gets embroiled in the cult and its ways he finds that someone within the organization may be seeking their own ends. New information also leads Barnaby to suspect that previous deaths may not be what they seem. The drama of this episode is in Jones’ lack of comfort with his undercover role, and in his nearly getting caught out several times.

Midsomer Murders Set 21 is all about Neil Dudgeon finding the right character for John Barnaby that will keep viewers entertained while not being a direct copy of John Nettles’ John Barnaby. I think Dudgeon pulls it off. The introduction of his wife in “Dark Secrets” and his repartee with the dog Sykes humanizes him without making him a carbon copy of the previous Barnaby.

The production team is also trying to discover the new voice of the Midsomer Murders series. The effect is that in this set you have some episodes that are the expected lighthearted (semi-)village mysteries and at least one that takes a page from the playbook of its darker cousins. However, I think by “The Oblong Murders” the characters and the style have settled into their roles, and we can expect that though their have been some cast changes, the episodes in the future are going to be good mysteries with a touch of darkness rather than police procedurals with a touch of comedy.

Cautions: “Echoes of the Dead” and “The Oblong Murders” contain nudity and/or frightening imagery.

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