Acorn Media // 2008 // 372 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart // January 27th, 2011
DI Ben Jones: He's the obvious suspect.
Inspector Tom Barnaby: Why do you say that?
Jones: Because he's the only one left.
In Midsomer Murders: Set 17, you'll see Inspector Tom Barnaby resign. It's not the permanent retirement John Nettles (Bergerac), who plays Barnaby, has announced for 2011; he's asked back on the job in a few minutes this time. His final bow on British TV will be February 2, 2011, but it looks like it'll be a couple of years before Nettles' departure reaches the DVD releases. Since the last set was released, Nettles has netted an OBE for playing Barnaby, and Sherlock Holmes has gone back on the case to compete with Barnaby, Britain's most famous current sleuth.
In "The Dogleg Murders," Joyce Barnaby (Jane Wymark, Poldark) remarks with regret that she and her husband gave up tennis after one of Tom's investigations reached the local tennis club. It looks like she'll have to avoid golf, cricket, and bicycling; since those sports all figure in Set 17.
This set includes a running tally of murders and miscellaneous other deaths in Midsomer County, Barnaby's beat. Fans of Doctor Who should note that Peter Davison will end up among those statistics.
Midsomer Murders: Set 17 features four TV movie mysteries, each on its own disc:
* "The Dogleg Murders": A golfer is teed off when someone throws his lost ball at his head. When he goes into the woods after the culprit, he's beaten to death with a club.
* "The Black Book": Joyce, who's treasurer of an art society, has to keep the group's leader from overbidding for a rare painting accidentally found by an elderly woman. Soon, the woman who found the painting is found dead.
* "Secrets and Spies": A man rehearsing his own funeral, a trash-talking ex-spy (Peter Davison, Doctor Who), and a mysterious "beast" that's killing sheep all have something to do with a Midsomer cricket rivalry -- and the murder that follows.
* "The Glitch": A bicyclist is run down by a motorist. Since she's riding someone else's bike, Barnaby's not sure who's the intended target. Meanwhile, a professor sees a deadly glitch in a company's new air traffic control system.
I liked Midsomer Murders when I first encountered it, but it's a show that grew on me gradually over five sets, covering around three years of Britain's most popular TV export. At first glance, it looked like a straightforward mystery, albeit with some over-the-top guest performances and clichés. Then it got a little weird.
It appears that the people behind Midsomer, from star John Nettles to executive producer Brian True-May, have embraced the clichés and jokes that surround their long-running mystery series. Nettles jokes about the "extraordinarily silly murders" in a text interview on this set, continuing the cast's gentle mockery of their show in DVD features, but it's not contempt. Rather, the jokes are what gives them the energy they put into the show. Mock it, and they enjoy themselves even more. When detectives Tom Barnaby and Ben Jones (Jason Hughes, Killing Me Softly), after catching the killer as he attempts a third murder, find evidence lying around that could have closed the case after the first murder, it comes across as a dig at viewers and critics who might find their investigations a wee bit sloppy. Even in the three years' worth of Midsomer that I've seen, the self-mocking edge of the show's humor has gradually increased. At the same time, John Nettles has been stretching things with his performance, but Inspector Barnaby is still a mild-mannered, dedicated detective.
Now that I'm getting into Midsomer, I'm starting to anticipate the clichés. I got antsy watching one of these episodes because it looked like there wasn't going to be a second murder, the one that actually starts Barnaby's brain working. I'm not bloodthirsty; if Midsomer were doing anything other than creating its own world, I'd have been dreading that second murder. I was wrong, of course; that second murder happened, and this set adds nine murders to the series' total.
This set features two great episodes: "The Black Book" and "Secrets and Spies." In "The Black Book," Barnaby does a quick study of art and starts uncovering forgeries that fooled experts. In "Secrets and Spies," Peter Davison plays a boozy ex-spy who's wrapped up in cricket while his wife is wrapped around every willing guy in Midsomer. The plot -- ex-spies are apparently killed by a prehistoric beast -- would fit in nicely on The Avengers, which isn't a surprise after some of Nettles' comments on this and other sets. The other episodes are more routine, but have a few oddball bits that will linger. My favorite was a lesson in social-climbing etiquette that ends in a brawl in "The Dogleg Murders," but there's a race to the rescue at the end of "The Glitch" that you'll have to see to believe.
Detectives Barnaby and Jones have a partner added to their team in this set, as policewoman Gail Stephens (Kirsty Dillon) is promoted to plainclothes duty. She adds the occasional touch of humanity, as when she cries while schoolchildren mourn their murdered teacher. Like Barnaby's other sidekick, Jones, Stephens is sharp and quick with a quip, but generally there because Nettles can't be in every scene.
Picture and sound quality look good.
This set doesn't feature any commentaries (hopefully, Acorn Media will get a few out of John Nettles before he leaves Midsomer), but there are text interviews from both regulars and guest stars, along with "Fascinating Facts," including that murder tally.
Since this is a show that grew on me gradually, you might not want to take my word for it if you've never seen Midsomer Murders. Viewers in Britain -- and most of the world -- have had the chance to see it unfold. Sadly, it's only on a few public television stations in the United States, so if you can sample it by renting, Netflixing, or finding it on the remainder rack, that wouldn't be a bad idea. If you're programming a public television station and haven't discovered Midsomer Murders yet, do so right away so you can see what your viewers are missing.
I'll note that "The Black Book" does have a few shots of female breasts and bums, and not all in paintings. Affairs abound, especially in "Secrets and Spies."
Oddly, there is a joke about Daleks in this set, but in "The Glitch," not in "Secrets and Spies."
Despite those ever-present moments of strangeness, Midsomer Murders isn't an excursion into surrealism. It's a show that would have fit in with Columbo and Quincy, M.E. on the old NBC Mystery Movie, but has modernized that formula with its odd self-mocking sense of humor. There's some resemblance to USA Network series, but the Midsomer emphasis is on plots and guest stars, with Inspector Barnaby keeping a lower profile than a Shawn Spencer or a Neal Caffrey.
Fans will want to snap up this set. If you aren't familiar with Inspector Barnaby and I've talked you into plunging in, this set's a good place to start, with two great introductions to the series in "The Black Book" and "Secrets and Spies."
Not guilty, even though I suspect a "guilty" would encourage John Nettles and company.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Acorn Media
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 372 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Text Features
* Digital Spy