26 July 2023

The Martha's Vineyard Mysteries

I enjoy a brutally scathing review as well as the next guy, even when undeserved – Dorothy Parker’s elegantly snide ‘Tonstant Weader Fwows Up’ comes to mind, directed at Winnie-the-Pooh, no less - but I’ve always avoided dishing it out.  This could simply be good manners, or fear of retribution, or the courtesy of least said, soonest mended, but I’d rather encourage my enthusiasms.

On the other hand.  I watched a limited series that ran under the Hallmark banner, the Martha’s Vineyard mysteries.  Four hour-and-a-half episodes, so TV movies, essentially.  I’d like to say I can’t quite put my finger on what doesn’t work, but that would be too charitable.  I can tell you exactly where it goes wrong; it takes lazy tropes, and hits you over the head with them, again and again.

Let’s look at the basics.  You need an engaging cast.  The secret of Rockford, or Magnum, for that matter, is that you can spend time with Jim Garner or Tom Selleck, and their amiability is half the battle won.  But there’s obviously more: you take an amiable ensemble, and you have some kind of relatable gimmick, to create character conflict, and you get a show like The Coroner, or Death in Paradise, or Brokenwood.  Are they all that original?  Not really.  It’s the familiarity we keep coming back for.  They’re series.  The two main characters in the Martha’s Vineyard mysteries are played by Jesse Metcalfe and Sarah Lind, both of them charming and attractive.  The guy who plays her dad, the island’s chief of police, is Eric Keenleyside, even better.  So far, so good.

The set-up.  He’s a former Boston cop, wounded in the line of duty, out on disability.  She’s a local girl, went to medical school off-island, now she’s back.  They of course have a history, a summer romance back when.  Her dad, the aforementioned chief of police, needs their help to investigate the sudden rash of murders occasioned by the scripts.  Oh, and the ex-cop has psychological baggage, his partner killed in the same ambush that made him redundant.

The thing is, you can forgive a certain amount of contrivance.  It’s not the end of the world.  The problem here is that it’s all contrived.  They’ve checked every single box.  (I left out Bob the barista, who serves coffee and Zen.)  Jesse and Sarah’s charm just isn’t enough.

And the writing – I’m sorry – is dreadful.  They’ve taken a paint-by-numbers concept, and the scripts follow suit.

One last aggravation.  It’s not location shot, not even establishing footage; they filmed in British Columbia.  It’s as close to Martha’s Vineyard as Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove is to Ogunquit, Maine.  I know, there are economies of scale.  Good Will Hunting was shot in Toronto.  Tom Selleck’s series of Jesse Stone movies was shot in Halifax.  Fair enough.  Canada’s great for making movies.  But in this case, they’re not even paying lip service.  There’s a scene where the chief and the cop are fishing for bluefish.  Off a beach, in the harbor, in protected water.  You go after blues with a surf-casting rig, on an open shore, where the bottom shelves off, because blues run in deeper water, and chase smaller baitfish into the shallows.  They’re ferocious predators, fierce on fishing tackle.  I realize I’m being a real pissy-pants about all this, but it just sticks in my craw.

Certain things are tried and true, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but there’s a real difference between staying in the audience comfort zone and desperate laziness.


  1. I'm with you, David! If I want paint-by-numbers, I'll buy a kit at Wal-Mart and do it myself. I enjoy Death in Paradise, especially, to be honest, once they brought on Kris Marshall as Detective Humphrey Goodman - to me Detective Richard Poole was just Joel Fleischman from Northern Exposure, grumpy with no redeeming features, as opposed to Tony Shalhoub as Monk (that was lightning in a bottle, and I wish they'd quit trying to recapture it). BTW, I loved the rest of ensemble on NE, and really didn't feel they needed Fleischman to be their stirrer of conflict - that group was quirky enough.

  2. David, you said all those things I've wanted to say lately! One thing I think they miss: the mystery watching and reading audience is an extremely intelligent audience. We don't like cookie-cutter, and we don't forgive mistakes ("nobody will ever notice" - ha!) I always tell my crime writing students, for Gawd sake, don't take the reader for a fool. Especially a crime reader.

  3. Oops - that was Melodie above! (mistake...)

  4. Now I want to watch it just to see how bad it is!!

  5. I'm now disillusioned about Jesse Stone and Good Will Hunting! I recall catching a Jackie Chan film and wondering what the hell skyline was I seeing– certainly not the city it was supposed to be set in.

  6. For our readers:

    Although we may criticize books and films, internal policy precludes us trashing living writers. If we assassinate said writers, then fiery criticism is perfectly acceptable.

  7. Philip R. Craig wrote 19 books in this series, which ended with his death in 2007. Apparently his son sold the rights. Hallmark made a total mess of what could have been a fine legacy.


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