TV On DVD: Midsomer Murders -- Set 12 (Four Discs)

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Attention City Slickers: Just in case the screwball Cary Grant and Myrna Loy classic Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House or the weak but amusing Tom Hanks and Shelley Long comedy The Money Pit didn't do it for you-- taking in just one episode of British television's long running hit Midsomer Murders will make those of you dreaming of life in the country think twice.

Upon initial daydream, it may seem like the ideal solution to trade in the concrete jungle and sound of police sirens and fire trucks for idyllic landscapes but in Midsomer-- in addition to the gorgeous gardens -- unpredictable mayhem and a steady supply of deadly eccentrics run amok.

While in the case of the American comedies-- financial ruin and stress awaited the middle class families-- when it comes to the deceptively sleepy and quaint villages of Midsomer, although finances are probably of some concern, any other issues seem to take an immediate backseat to the unusually high number of homicides that crop up on a weekly basis.

Think Murder, She Wrote meets The Stepford Wives with a light seasoning of some subtle British humor thrown in for entertainment value and you'll begin to get a sense of what has made this incredibly successful show not just a hit in its native England but an international sensation. Midsomer is a smash in countries all around the world where some have renamed it after its main character Inspector Barnaby and amusingly, in Russia, it's been retitled Purely English Murder.

Although its lead actor, John Nettles has announced his well-deserved intention to retire after the conclusion of the thirteenth season (or "series" as they say across the pond)-- there's no plans to put an end to Midsomer Murders as the ITV1 network is committed to continuing the show-- inspired by the village mysteries of author Caroline Graham-- after his departure with the introduction of a brand new detective chief inspector (or DCI) in 2010.

While the show has increased in popularity with its television syndication in other countries as well as a run here on both the A&E and Biography Channel networks-- it's become a perennial favorite among anglophiles and devotees of the wonderful offerings made available for those of us here in Region 1 DVD land of the U.S. by our friends at Acorn Media.

Now with their upcoming March 24th release of Set 12, which consists of the last half of the ninth series that originally aired in September of 2006 back in the UK-- this nicely packaged set of four individual mysteries is conveniently offered in slim cases to conserve shelf space and shipping costs for those purchasing online. In doing so, it reacquaints us with Nettles' earnest, all-around nice guy character, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby as well as his eager and sweet protege, Detective Constable Ben Jones (Jason Hughes) who receives the honor of becoming a sergeant by the end of this four episode set.

Containing the mysteries, "Four Funerals and a Wedding," "Country Matters," "Death in Chorus," and "Last Year's Model," the set also boasts a few extras sure to delight devotees including 50th episode production notes, as well as a biography of author Caroline Graham, cast filmographies, and text interviews with lead actors John Nettles and Jason Hughes.

Thankfully also serving up the discs with a gorgeous 16x9 widescreen transfer complete with subtitles for the deaf and or hearing impaired, each approximately 100 minute mystery will benefit from an additional viewing as-- typical for the genre and especially the unfailingly clever and increasingly complicated plot-lines served up on British television-- every episode of Midsomer Murders is loaded with red herrings, double crosses, misinformation, and at least one to a handful of corpses each and every week.

Far from the grisly police procedural dramas the country specializes in with such classics as Prime Suspect starring Helen Mirren or Cracker featuring Robbie Coltrane (another phenomenal show just released by Acorn as a complete and compact set), Midsomer Murders is a bright and surprisingly cheerful murder mystery program that definitely echoed my childhood spent watching Angela Lansbury as the unfailingly optimistic Jessica Fletcher on Sunday evenings in Murder, She Wrote.

However, this being said, I don't remember feeling quite so thoroughly confused by a Murder, She Wrote plot as I was by this set's opener, "Four Funerals and a Wedding." The episode is given an ingenious set-up that centers on a real-life battle of the sexes that's been carried out as a medieval ritual to offer the women of the village of Broughton an opportunity to get revenge upon their male counterparts during their annual Skimmington Fayre. The ritual symbolizes a major gender betrayal far back in the village's history and while amusing, the admittedly bizarre scenario grows far more dangerous when the battle grows deadly.

Filling the mystery with far too many characters and subplots to the point where I felt as though I needed a check-list and mini-description to keep everyone straight (reminiscent of my younger years feeling the same way trying to keep up with every new character introduced on Twin Peaks), while frankly I understood the conclusion, I'm not ashamed to admit I'd fail miserably if given a test on just what exactly went down at the Skimmington Fayre.

Far less confusing but far quirkier-- "Country Matters" again takes an intriguing view of male/female relations in the village as the community of Elverton is divided into two fierce camps regarding the possibility of a brand new supermarket. However, when the prospective store's hired environmental consultant is found brutally stabbed in an old barn, the plot thickens considerably as Barnaby and Jones are stunned to discover that the mystery man who used a different name everywhere he went had done more in one particular day than most people do in a lifetime.

Uncovering the startlingly home-spun kinky side of the community involving videotapes and local women who earn extra income in a variety of strange fashions, "Country Matters" is an episode one won't soon forget and the second best in Set 12, overshadowing the subsequent "Death in Chorus" which centers on the murder of a tenor in the chorus in which Barnaby's wife sings. When Jones goes undercover as the group's much needed replacement tenor, he realizes there's more to the musical mystery than they assumed but the highlight in the quartet of "whodunnits" is in the remarkable "Last Year's Model."

In the episode, all the evidence seems to unfailingly point to one woman in particular in the death of her best friend. Added to the confusion, secrets involving unrequited crushes and double-crosses all continue to condemn her in the case that isn't helped by the accused woman's constant revision of the evening's events. However, despite this, Barnaby is deeply unsettled when he begins to realize that he may have arrested the wrong individual. And when the clinical psychologist Plu Plunkett and the dead woman's young daughter give him cause to doubt her guilt, Barnaby tries to figure out just what exactly happened in this terrific tale.

A great diversion to the grisly crime scene shows currently filling our airwaves and one that's filled with beautiful scenery and an increasingly imaginative cast of characters-- while it suffered a good deal initially in comparison to my recent marathon of Cracker (soon to be reviewed) as well as the far more amusing show The Last Detective-- there's no arguing with a classic. And moreover, one can look at Midsomer Murders as a warm televised dish of comfort mystery television just like Murder, She Wrote except without all those commercial breaks and an interest to lead us down paths that dear old Ms. Fletcher would never have taken.