It has been a while since I’ve talked about the vintage/historical-set television I’ve been enjoying on Netflix. Well, sadly, Murdoch Mysteries, is no longer available on Netflix, so “In My Queue” will be expanding its reach! Of course, there are plenty of lovely historical series on Amazon Prime, which I’ve also been enjoying, but I recently subscribed to Hulu, and that is in very large part to the fact that Murdoch Mysteries is there. But rest assured that I will talk about some of my other favorites in the future.
Murdoch Mysteries combines two of my favorite things: the late Victorian/Edwardian aesthetic and idealized historical science (i.e., the thing that makes steampunk ever so appealing). Detective William Murdoch is a detective with the Toronto Constabulary in the late 19th and early 20th century who uses his brilliant mind to catch criminals, while working alongside a more traditional bully-boy inspector and a young constable-turned-acolyte. Murdoch manages to take the trope of the socially-blind, yet brilliant detective and make the character so charming and likable because, unlike Sherlock Holmes and his derivatives, he’s not a jerk. He’s a devout Catholic, but not preachy about it, kind and respectful, even beyond the norms of the times, and is always good to his mother (I made that last bit up). He takes the cool, logical mind to it’s rational (pun intended) endpoint and doesn’t see the point of the prejudices of the day.
Which of course, sets the series up to have some pretty fantasy-aspirational female characters. When the series opens, the coroner with whom Murdoch works (and plays *wink*) is a woman who has clawed her way through medical school to be recognized as a doctor. Despite her occasionally annoyingly “girlish” voice, Dr. Julia Ogden is the foil to Murdoch’s seemingly-conventional straight man. She does not intend to fit any of society’s molds, be it chastity or demureness. And she does it all in fantastic costumes (though they do veer out of the area of historical accuracy at times) with impeccable hair.
After Dr. Ogden has to leave the morgue, she is replaced by Dr. Emily Grace, who is a foil in a different way to Murdoch, as well as to his increasingly-prominent constable. Dr. Grace is similarly uninterested in sticking to societies rules, even going so far as to bend Victorian heteronormative relationships, but her attitude is less emotional and passionate than Dr. Ogden, instead resembling Murdoch in a lot of ways, albeit in a more commonly-written “aloof brilliant mind” way. In fact, Dr. Grace’s similarities to Murdoch highlight what it is about Murdoch that makes him so appealing as a character, despite the fact that he’s a devotedly religious man who doesn’t drink and rarely uses colorful language.
But like all good shows, the real gems are in the supporting characters. As mentioned before, Constable George Crabtree is one of these stars. He desperately wants to be like Murdoch, but he just isn’t, and often that’s the best thing for the situation. He makes bizarre connections that are often nonsensical, but occasionally help Murdoch see something his rationality was hiding from him. And despite seeming much less intelligent than Murdoch, he is perhaps more creative. He’s just so sweet and endearing that sometimes I wish he were the main character so it were more likely he’d end up “getting the girl” (I haven’t finished the available episodes, yet, so I have hope).
Finally, Inspector Thomas Brackenreid is the slow burn of the series. While he initially comes off as a traditional, bully-boy, toxically-masculine caricature of a turn-of-the-century copper, he honestly shows the most growth throughout the series. And despite falling prey to plenty of the prejudices of the times, he is always willing to be proven wrong. I find his character oddly compelling, particularly as the series goes on and you see his relationships with his wife and children in more detail. I also find it cute that he keeps an autograph book with signatures of the various special guests in the show.
And that brings me to a key aspect of the series: Murdoch meets famous historical figures, from Nikola Tesla to Winston Churchill. And one of the main running threads of dramatic irony is having Murdoch (or occasionally another character, most often Crabtree) make some comment or suggestion that the audience knows becomes a famous aspect of that person’s life. Murdoch also invents things, often showing a remarkable prescience, such as when he invents a rudimentary polygraph machine. It’s just silly enough to be clear that the show’s creators aren’t intending this to be taken seriously, while being helped by Murdoch’s earnest bearing as a character. Again, the whiz-bang aspect is part of what makes steampunk so appealing. And while Murdoch Mysteries may not be steampunk, in it’s most literal sense, it certainly shares plenty of that appeal. At least, I find it so.