One of the undersung elements of international travel is watching TV overseas. When I am abroad, it’s often on assignment, meaning that my time for tourism is at a minimum, and so I’ll take whatever gleanings from the culture I can in the forms of rushed jaunts to landmarks, hastily planned meals out, and whatever might be on TV as I flop exhausted on a hotel bed. It was on a recent trip to Montreal for the Fantasia International Film Festival when I stumbled across a perfectly pleasant (and oh how Canadian!) crime drama called Murdoch Mysteries. Having caught the ep partway through, I was a bit at a loss as I watched women with withering stares and Victorian garb swan about a remote cabin, only to learn an ax murderer was secretly stalking them. Occasionally and confoundingly, the plot would curiously cut away from these hunted ladies and to a handsome gentleman learning about curling, which is apparently a sport.
How did these two stories intersect? No idea. I got a phone call, and so abruptly snapped off the TV before its third act. But the mystery shall be solved, as I discovered this Canadian curiosity is now on American Netflix. This past weekend, I heartily binged a bunch of episodes, indulging in a slew of murder mysteries, all with a whiff of Victorian elegance, a dash of charm, and a decidedly modern edge/anachronistic sensibility.
With a guileless grin and a strong chin, Yannick Bisson brings an easy affability to Detective William Murdoch, a Toronto policeman who tirelessly seeks justice with his sharp eye and inventor’s mind. See, even though Murdoch Mysteries is set in the 1890s—well before the rise of forensics as we know them today—Murdoch is an ingenious and groundbreaking investigator. When he’s not tsk-tsking patrolmen about the importance of finger prints, he’s pioneering the first lie detector, or casually making breakthroughs in psychotherapy, while rejecting racial profiling.
He’s not the only sharp cookie in this Canadian crime-fighting crew. There’s also the doting Constable George Crabtree (Jonny Harris), who haplessly invents the stakeout, and Murdoch’s tough but lovable boss, Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig), who harbors a deep love of the theater, a healthy suspicion of Murdoch’s love of technology, yet defends this eccentric detective even though he’s (gasp!) Catholic! (“Toronto is a Protestant town,” one snooty chief sniffs.) This disarming duo switch off playing a sort-of Watson to Murdoch’s Holmes. But his greatest match in intellect is coroner Doctor Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy). Played as a proto-feminist with a Katharine Hepburn-style confidence—minus the elitist edge—Julia not only uncovers a slew of curious clues (that often involve semen or a wounded wang), but also introduces her will-they-won’t-they love interest to progressive ideas, urging Murdoch to reconsider his unkind thoughts on “sodomites,” and on his drunken deadbeat of a dad, for starters. But even though he’s occasionally wrong, Murdoch is always the smartest in the room. And when that’s not impressive enough, the show winds in cameos from historical figures like Nikola Tesla and Arthur Conan Doyle to goose the stakes. And in each instance, they will cheer and champion the intellect of this fictional detective.
Every episode boasts a murder, and in its investigation, everything from double lives to rape, crop circles and secret twins are unearthed. There are dark turns, and often the killer’s motives compel you to sympathize with their crime, even as Murdoch resignedly leads them to jail. But no matter how shocking or sad the stories, the episodes are always easy to process. Perhaps it’s the wee bit of blood or gore allowed even in the most violent murder scenes. Maybe it’s the quaintness of this Victorian Toronto, where men and women behaved with a certain cheerful civility even in the midst of murder scenes. Maybe it’s that Murdoch—though he possesses a tragic backstory that includes a felled mother and a dead fiancee—is a tenaciously even-tempered fellow. He rarely wallows in self-doubt, wrath, or bitterness. Unlike certain other debonair detectives, he doesn’t bully his cohorts or mock their wits. He doesn’t smash about or preach. He’s efficient, dogged, but always, always pleasant.
And so, I can watch this show for hours on end. The stories each carry just enough oomph to keep them compelling, but aren’t complicated enough that you’ll get lost if you leave the room to make a sandwich or get distracted by a Twitter thread. Over the weekend, I happily watched a string of its murder mysteries without fearing nightmares, pleased to point out the clear killer before even this genial genius. And with all the pretty patter of friendly voices and jaunty dialogue, Murdoch Mysteries proved perfect before-bed watching, not only amusing me, but also gently rocking me to sleep on wave after wave of warm banter over ghastly dealings.
I understand “the perfect show to fall asleep to” might sound like anything but praise. Don’t misunderstand me.
Murdoch Mysteries is not boring; it’s comforting. You know the killer will be caught, the crime solved, and this handsome, smart detective will save the day again and again without belittling his colleagues or bending our thoughts into the stuff of salacious nightmares. Sometimes you want a good, crazy crime story, but don’t have the energy or wherewithal to deal with a True Detective, Broadchurch or whatever true-crime terror Investigation Discovery is unfurling at the moment. So, Murdoch Mysteries offers sensational stories, an agreeable tone, and a collection of clever and kind heroes that make for a perfectly pleasant murder show.