Lately, with all that’s wrong in the world, I’ve been looking for the comfort of crime.
All right, fine — what I actually mean are detective shows and book series, where the comfort lies not in the crime but in the solving. It’s a quick fix for seeing bad and messy untangled and set right. Plus, mysteries — particularly the cozy variety — tend to have a lot of other pleasant trappings, like humor, camaraderie, and settings with charm.
The problem is that when you go to the cozy mystery cupboard pretty often, the shelves start to look a little bare. Unless a series is new, hard-to-come-by, or rather obscure — and if it’s not bleak and set in a Swedish wasteland — there’s a strong chance I’ve watched or read it by now.
A couple months ago I put out a plea for show recommendations, and when I whittled off the ones I’d already seen, I was left with a short list (see bottom of post if you’re interested)(1) that was further contracted by many things being on streaming platforms I don’t have. In the end I had two new shows to try: the BBC’s Scott and Bailey(2) and Australia’s My Life is Murder.
My Life is Murder (2019) stars the inimitable Lucy Lawless as Alexa Crowe, a retired Melbourne police detective turned police consultant. It has one, ten-episode season so far, available on Acorn in the U.S. or, for me, at the local library. After watching 8 of the 10 episodes, I’ve decided to return the (um, overdue) discs and probably won’t take them out again. Parsing out why is the raison d’être for this post.
There is nothing wrong with My Life is Murder. I’ve watched worse shows. It’s well filmed. The acting is fine. The writing is fine. There’s a cute cat. So why did I have to keep reminding myself to watch another episode? Why do I not even care if I complete the season?
And the larger question: what makes a detective series really good?
Charismatic detective. Is that a necessity for a good detective show? Lucy Lawless is a charming actress. You like her; she pops up on screen and you feel pleased that she’s there. As detective Alexa Crowe, Lawless channels a sort of steely sass, toggling between devil-may-care tough gal and everyday woman — but more often the latter. She lacks the understated brilliance of Michael Kitchen as DCI Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War or the contagious joie de vivre of Essie Davis as Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (two absolute titans of the genre), but she’s better than, say, the trying-too-hard-to-be-effortlessly-cool Frankie Drake in the CBC’s Frankie Drake Mysteries or the learned haplessness of Lu Shakespeare in the BBC’s Shakespeare and Hathaway.
Clever mystery plots. I’m going to make the controversial statement that a mystery series doesn’t necessarily need these to be good. Yes, it’s more fun when there’s a really clever puzzle and you can’t work out who did it until the end, when all the clues click perfectly into place. If I’m going to invest in a whole book, or a show with a season-long mystery, I want to see that. And actually, my preference is for the rare series where the crime isn’t always a murder (White Collar was a breath of fresh air). But for 45 minutes of TV, with characters I like and some really good laughs, I’m willing to let it slide if the series follows the now seemingly inevitable pattern of starting with a body and having the killer be the secondary character introduced in the scene where you meet the first suspect — as most episodes of My Life Is Murder do. So while MLIM doesn’t shine on this front, this is clearly not the deal-breaker.
Competence. I am a sucker for quiet competence. Nothing, but nothing, delights me more in a mystery than a detective who is eminently good at what they do without being arrogant. A bumbling detective is funny in a spoof, but the real death knell for a series in my book is a detective who’s supposed to be good at their job but is always missing clues that are obvious to the reader or viewer. (See also: detectives who sleep with someone involved in the case who is definitely the killer or the next victim.) My Life Is Murder doesn’t commit either of these sins. Alexa hasn’t wowed me with a piece of impressive deduction, but neither does she muck up her case only to have to scramble back on track (unlike, say, Inspector Thomas Lynley or Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock).
Sense of humor. Obviously this is specific to the cozy and comedy subgenres, but according to an interview with Lawless, the goal for this series was to be uncomplicated fun. A modern Murder She Wrote, where people are always getting killed but no one is ever too sad about it, and the protagonist rolls along her merry way without much personal drama. Alexa Crowe is a widow, but her character is generally even-keeled, only going through occasional bouts of sadness as the plot calls for it. Even the scene where she scatters her husband’s ashes was, to my surprise, played for humor. Yet for all that, the show lacks actual out-loud chuckles. There’s more a general sense that nothing is too serious, rather than real humor in the writing or dialogue. I don’t require jokes in a mystery, but if you’re setting out to make a comedic one, then put a big smile on my face, please.
Delightful support team. From Watson onward, a good sidekick — or several — has been one of the best assets a mystery series can invest in. Admittedly you can do without them (there are those lone wolves like Miss Marple), but there’s a reason so many shows either star a pair of investigators (Rosemary & Thyme, White Collar, The X-Files, ever so many more); feature a “sidekick” character who is actually just as important as the putative star (Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Psych, Jonathan Creek, Cormoran Strike, etc.); or give the detective a support team who appear in every episode and are often crucial to the investigation, even if they are the detective’s subordinates or aren’t directly involved in crime solving (too many to name, but again, I’ll highlight Foyle’s War and Miss Fisher as flawless exemplars). But what makes a good team? I would suggest 3 elements:
- At least one or more is a genuinely likeable character distinguished by positive human virtues.
- The characters have camaraderie; it feels like they like each other.
- There’s give-and-take of complementary skills and contrasting strengths.
My Life is Murder fills out its regular cast with Madison Feliciano (Ebony Vagulans), who combines “spunky young protégée of our protagonist” with the convenient “can hack anything and find all data in the world” tech asset role; and with Kieran Hussey (Bernard Curry), Alexa Crowe’s old boss — though a bit younger than her — who’s still a current police detective but is always handing off his cases to the retired Alexa. What I could never really pin down was why these characters are always calling Alexa and dropping by her house at all times of the day and night, even though they supposedly have full-time jobs at the police station. They act like she is their boss, when in fact Kieran is Madison’s boss and Alexa doesn’t work there anymore. Kieran also seems to be Alexa’s closest friend, since in one episode after a medical scare, she makes him the executor of her end-of-life-plan — but they don’t seem to hang out other than for impromptu case briefings. (He didn’t even visit her in the hospital!) Alexa has zero family and zero non-work friends. (She has one other friend, but he is the owner of a cafe she supplies with homemade bread in her “retirement,” and she only sees him at the cafe.) Since Alexa seems like a person who gets along fine with others, this utter lack of a social or family life is confusing and makes her hard to relate to. Madison and Kieran don’t bring along any friends or relatives who are characters in the series, either, giving an overall sense that these people exist only in the isolated sphere of solving crimes.
A love interest or nemesis. Many great detective shows feature neither, or only bring one in periodically, but certainly a strong dynamic with one other character who isn’t the sidekick is a way to sharpen interest in a serial detective show that might otherwise lack continuity between episodes. Long-running, popular shows like Castle and Bones relied on a will-they-won’t-they to carry the viewer on to the next episode, while both Sherlock and Elementary played up the Moriarty character to raise the stakes. Not only does My Life Is Murder have neither so far, they haven’t even introduced a love interest for one of the sidekicks, which is a pretty good device for when your hero (Father Brown, for instance) needs to stay single. Even Miss Marple often matches up a young friend. In an interview, Lawless states that the producers wanted to add some unresolved sexual tension with Bernard Curry’s character but she told them: “Absolutely not.” I kind of respect this — I don’t need Alexa to have a romance — but the show makes frequent reference to Madison being single and looking and yet there is no development on that front between episodes, which seems like a missed opportunity.
Conflict. A truly episodic mystery series, the kind that can be consumed in any order (think Poirot), can get along with only the conflict that each case provides — if enjoyed sporadically. Any conventional serial, though, benefits hugely from conflict that adds connective tissue and can be used to structure seasons. To be firm: this isn’t to say there has to be an ongoing plot. Not every series can be Veronica Mars and pull off an absolutely brilliant season-long mystery arc alongside weekly one-off cases. (Even Veronica Mars couldn’t manage both after season one!) Some shows actually suffer by trying to, like Castle, which forgot it was a comedy every time they came back to the ongoing plot conflict. But even something as simple as our protagonist looking unsuccessfully for an apartment or her sidekick dealing with an annoying ex is enough to add interest and a sense of humanity to the characters. An unfulfilled ambition (say, Foyle trying to get promoted) or an ongoing workplace conflict (Phryne, as a P.I., constantly getting kicked out of crime scenes) are reliable strategies. And of course, an exciting setting ticks this box as well… thus so many detective series set during a war.
This might be the main area where My Life is Murder feels lacking to me. Alexa retired early because she came into some money, so now she’s bored and keeps doing her old job anyway for no pay. This isn’t somebody with relatable problems. She has no kids and no relatives to make demands on her. Even though she’s not police, she never has trouble getting interviews or access to crime scenes because she’s an official consultant. Yet, unlike the detectives of Scott & Bailey, who get in serious trouble on the rare occasions they don’t follow police rules to the letter, Alexa is more like the typical American TV law officer who constantly breaks into buildings without a warrant, lies to witnesses, and tampers with evidence (one time she steals a dead person’s ashes and sifts them with her bare hands to find the evidence that convicts the criminal!). In all this, she has complete impunity. Her two co-workers adore her. Everyone she meets respects her. If Alexa’s crime solving were a running trail, it would be all gently downhill and paved with springy asphalt.
So where does this leave me in my analysis? Essentially, I’ve come to the conclusion that the producers of My Life Is Murder are shooting themselves in the foot by trying to keep the episodes as stand-alone as possible in a binge-watching age. Sure, the series has overall decent reviews, but it doesn’t seem to have generated buzz. I wonder if other viewers have felt, like I did, that there was plenty of potential… that it was certain to get more interesting with a side plot, a source of conflict, a developing character dynamic… only to find after each episode that nothing new had been added to the sum total of the show.
But if nothing else, a near-miss is always a good vehicle for thinking through the mechanics of what makes a really good show work. Now, what should I watch next?
In response to my plea for “best current or recent detective series (no grimdark/serial killer ones),” I compiled this list. Starred if I can vouch for it personally.Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries*
Scott & Bailey*
Queens of Mystery
Rosemary & Thyme*
Murder in Suburbia
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
An Inspector Calls
Shakespeare & Hathaway
Line of Duty
(2) To briefly review Scott and Bailey (2011-2016): it’s fairly addictive, but not light viewing. The leads, Suranne Jones and Lesley Sharp, are fantastic. The crimes are grim, but at least they dispense with the fetishization of violence against women that tars so many detective shows. After binging three seasons, though, I needed a break from the excessive, soapy drama of the heroines’ personal lives.