21 October 2014

Playing in the Shallows


by Janice Law

We all love profundity, heartbreak, piercing stories of love and loss and heroism, and some of us aspire to write them. But fortunately there is also the category of guilty pleasures, encompassing what used to be called “tired businessmen’s entertainment.” As far as television mysteries go, I refer to the pleasant shallows of predictable scripts, familiar characters, and faintly absurd premises.

NCIS, the most popular show on television as my husband reminds me, is strong on all three. Every week, the Marines and or the Navy takes a substantial hit to its personnel. If the show continues with its LA franchise, and opens, as planned, an NCIS New Orleans, I doubt we will have enough manpower to staff our ships.

Of course, the NCIS corps of detectives is charming. The cases ingenious. The action sporadic but exciting. But what I think really draws the public is the fantasy element: the smooth working of every conceivable technology from CCTV to the multitude of data bases at the fingertips of the clever NCIS techies.

Who hasn’t gotten lost in the wilds of cyberspace or wasted endless time in searches that go nowhere. Not the folks at NCIS. A photo or a license number or a blood type gets tapped in; almost instantly the screen blossoms with a complete dossier or photos of the getaway car or the crucial piece of information that links a drop of blood to – voila– some arch-villain of the terrorist persuasion. This is the sort of fantasy that writers, at least, can really enjoy.

At the other end of the spectrum is a guilty pleasure of my own, the British ITV import Midsomer Murders. Once again, the plots are complex, and if the cast is maybe less interesting than NCIS, the scenery – stately homes, thatched cottages, trout streams and woodlands– is considerably better. Besides, Midsomer Murders goes to the heart of the matter: the victims will generally, as the Lord High Executioner was wont to say, “not be missed,” while the killers are even less fetching. No pity needed!

Where Midsomer Murders even exceeds fantasy levels of NCIS, however, is in the reaction of the quaint and pretty Midsomer hamlets to a body count that would embarrass Detroit. The residents are shocked. The aristocrats (at least one per episode) are shocked to be questioned. The middle class is shocked to be suspected. The working class is shocked to be arrested. “Things like this just don’t happen here,” is the standard reaction by one and all.

And this is why, despite the fact that nearly every episode begins with either someone walking in the night forest – never to emerge alive again; or with an early morning walker out with a keen-nosed dog – soon to discover the latest corpse, the villagers continue to tramp the woods and venture out alone on lonely paths in the dark of night.

Worse yet, the locals continue to hold those most dangerous of human gatherings, the village fete. We didn’t expect anything better than a string of killing from the Film Festival which attracted outsiders and theatrical outsiders at that. The Literary Fest was almost as bad; the star attraction coming from London and literary feuds being notorious for their viciousness, but still the body count was more than even the most pessimistic organizer could have imagined.

We did, however, expect that the annual Garden Fete, featuring as it did innocent horticultural pleasures would prove harmless.

Not a chance. Gardeners were bumped off almost before the flower judging began, while both the Music Fest and the Midsummer frolic laid waste to multiple victims, some in the latter with ancient Celtic implements.

When even archeology is against you, there’s as little chance of survival in Midsomer as in NCIS’s supposedly more gritty urban D.C. But then neither show is realistic, despite the country charm in one case and the technical hardware in the other. Both deal with another commodity, an undemanding predictability. Lets face it, there are days then the shallows look pretty enticing.

8 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

Janice, I'll have to check out Midsomer Murders, but I confess that the term
"guilty pleasures" doesn't bring thoughts of television to me. I always enjoy what you write about. Are you back with us on a regular basis now?

janice law said...

No, just an emergency column. I confess I lack the chops for even a regular bi-weekly blog!

David Dean said...

The Inspector Morse/Lewis series performs the same function for me. I love to visit Oxford's dreaming spires, though I'm fearful of the ambitious and murderous students and professors that populate that beautiful city. Their homicide rate exceeds that of our more humble Camden (murder capital of the country many years in a row), a rare feat indeed.

Eve Fisher said...

And let's never forget Cabot's Cove, with one of the highest body counts ever recorded in America! Thanks, Janice!

R.T. Lawton said...

And I have enjoyed FOYLE'S WAR (sets 1 thru 7, so far), however the body count in the small town of Hastings evidently reduced the population so much that Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle moved on to the intelligence community and became a spy chaser for the Cold War.

Janice law said...

I like Inspectors Lewis, Morse and now Hathaway, but I think the Foyle series had really interesting ambitions to touch on most of the issues of the war period.

Leigh Lundin said...

Janice, I have seen Midsomer twice or three times and very much liked it. I'm a soft touch for English mysteries.

Dixon Hill said...

It's interesting what we're willing to overlook, in the feeling that a series is comforting. I've watched nearly all the Midsomer Murders, yet hadn't considered this.

Incidentally, I found it funny that NetFlix had the photo of the second detective in Midsomer Murders as its icon for the first detective's mysteries, but the first detective's photo graced the icon of the second detective's mysteries -- at least on my setup. LOL