Have you tried playing Netflix’s “Max,” their quiz program that is supposed to help you decide what to watch when you’re at a loss? I have…
And it tends to recommend rubbish. Or at least things that don’t fit my mood. I think I told it I liked Mulan once (who doesn’t?) and suddenly all it would recommend to me was Eddie Murphy movies, and not even the good ones. It’s a fantastic idea, just usually poorly executed.
I generally have more luck reading the descriptions and saying, “why not?” Based on the description for Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which combined the terms “flapper” and “lady detective,” I figured this was a show I would love. I was right!
Set in late 1920’s Melbourne, the show focuses on the Honourable Phryne (pronounced fry-knee) Fisher, who has returned to her hometown of Melbourne for good after over a decade in Europe. Almost as soon as she arrives, she stumbles upon the apparent murder of her friend Lydia’s husband, which leads to a cocaine smuggling ring and also an illegal abortionist. Along the way, she meets Detective Jack Robinson and his Constable Hugh Collins, who resist her help and yet, as with any good amateur detective show, they start working together over the series.
Miss Fisher also begins to acquire companions who help her with all of her future shenanigans. When we first see her she is meeting up with her longtime friend and female physician (who runs around in trousers, scandalous!), Dr. Mac. In the first episode, she also picks up a maid, Dorothy Williams, after she is dismissed from Lydia’s service. She also finds two Communist cabbies, Bert and Cec, whom she meets when they help a poor girl who has been victim to Butcher George, the back-alley abortionist. In the second episode, she picks up the rest of her little posse, an aptly named butler, Mr. Butler, and a ward named Jane.
The first season not only follows Phryne as she begins to solve mysteries, but also hints at the backstory of why she came back to Melbourne after so long away. When they were girls, her younger sister Janie went missing, presumed murdered, and the man she believes responsible is up for parole. She has returned home to ensure he is never released. This subplot is chilling, and handled incredibly well (read: eerily).
Miss Fisher seems to divide people, though. I glanced through the reviews on Netflix, and the main criticism seems to be that the story lines are simplistic and Miss Fisher is too much of a…well, to use their word, “slut.” I have two rebuttals:
As to the story lines being simplistic and predictable, that tends to be true of most detective shows. In a fun way, that’s part of why people love them. I used to watch Law and Order marathons with my father and we had so much fun predicting who the criminal was, and we were often right. A well-written mystery will not leave you in the dark and not give you any clues so you can’t draw your own conclusions; a well-written mystery gives the audience subtle clues and motives so that they can follow along. Sure, some people are more likely to pick up on the clues than others and can therefore find the stories predictable, but it would be impossible to not give anything away at all over the course of the story. Not every episode of a mystery show needs to have a dramatic twist that you can’t see coming; if they did, eventually even that would become predictable and boring.
Second, in defense of Phryne’s libertine attitude, I say power to the show for portraying a woman so unabashedly unafraid of her sexuality. About once an episode, Miss Fisher takes a lover that she meets in the course of her work, and while some would say she is not discerning and jumps into bed with anything that moves, I disagree. There are several instances where Phryne is not sure if the person may be involved in the crime she is solving, and so refuses to get involved with them. She does at one point have a longer affair with a gentleman, Mr. Lee, and yet when he tells her that he has agreed to the marriage his family has arranged, she tells him that once married she will not continue their affair beyond friendship. Also, Phryne and Jack very obviously have feelings for each other, and yet Phryne does not sit on her haunches waiting for him to decide to act. She exhibits the very human experience of having deep feelings for one person, while being able to get involved with others instead of doing nothing but wait. She does not change her entire personality because she’s found someone she can care deeply for; she continues on as she is, and the person she is is not a hopeless romantic who changes her entire self once in love. Phryne always stays true to who she is, she does not waver in her convictions, and I admire her for that.
Let’s also not ignore the part where they handle Phryne talking about birth control, which has existed for longer than most people realize, and the hints they give that she is very responsible with all of her trysts. She is an adult woman making informed choices, and the show takes care to portray that as opposed to just not bringing it up. I wonder some if those same people would complain were this about a Mr. Fisher instead of a Miss, but I digress, and I’m sure I could write a whole essay on that double standard.
But really, the costumes are amazing, and true to the period. The sets are fantastic, Miss Fisher’s home is to be envied. The acting is well done, and includes appearances from actors that will make you play “where have I seen them before?” and the answer is usually Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. (Including Miranda Otto in the first episode as Lydia Davis, and Miriam Margolyes as Phryne’s Aunt Prudence). The writing, though occasionally predictable, is intriguing and captivating. For being based on books, this is one instance where the show is better than the books. I tried the first one; while a good read, the acting, writing, and presentation of the show capture the stories much better than the book series. When I first started watching the show, I couldn’t stop. That first night I was up until later than I should say, glued to Netflix and the opulent life of a flapper lady detective.
If I had to write my own description, though, I would just use one word.