TV on DVD: Murdoch Mysteries: Season 1 (2008)

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A major hit following its premiere in its Canadian homeland-- earning a whopping fourteen Gemini award nominations (our neighboring country's version of the Emmys), Murdoch Mysteries has been steadily building a fan-base in England as well as France where it began airing in syndication a few weeks ago.

And now the series-- which has actually wrapped and broadcast its second season in Canada-- has finally arrived for American audiences to savor both in this Acorn Media 4-disc slim-packaged DVD collection of the first season along with its scheduled run to debut on PBS on the thirtieth of June.

For devotees of author Maureen Jennings' Detective Murdoch series of novels which began back in 1997 with the title Except for Dying that has so far received six sequels in the collection as well as those who aren't fond of waiting for weekly installments of the series-- this beautifully transferred set is presented in its original 16x9 widescreen cinematic aspect ratio, with accompanying Dolby Digital surround, and contains subtitles for the deaf and/or hearing impaired.

Also boasting episodic commentary by its handsome, naturally charming lead actor Yannick Bisson (who portrays the Toronto based Detective William Murdoch) and co-star Jonny Harris (who plays his eager, hardworking constable assistant and protege George Crabtree) along with the production designer and executive producer-- the set additionally features a photo gallery of the Victorian era series, interviews with Jennings and cast members, as well as cast and character filmographies and biographies respectively.

Smartly written and bolstered by the involvement of author Jennings who serves as a creative consultant on the Canadian series to ensure the novels are done justice, her work--which had actually been filmed previously as a series of mystery films called The Murdoch Mysteries-- makes for an intriguing blend of fantasy, historical fiction, police procedural, literary mystery, and period productions.

Set in 1895-- its titular character employs both newly discovered technologies such as early crime scene investigation methods and rudimentary forensic studies in his inventive and highly scientific pursuits to solve whatever crimes disturb his surroundings-- all the while rubbing elbows with individuals such as Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Prince Alfred.

What begins as an irresistibly clever gimmick of blending our popular whodunnit and penchant for Law and Order style crime scene series with the influence of Sherlock Holmes however soon gives way as the mysteries themselves become either fairly easy to solve or part of a predictable pattern where the inevitable "a ha" moment occurs in a rushed manner near the end of all thirteen episodes.

Our likable lead along with a terrific supporting cast such as the aforementioned Harris and Murdoch's obligatory tough-minded boss Inspector Brackenried (Thomas Craig) keeps things running smoothly but great credit for its success is due to the show's vintage Scully and Mulder dynamic. This is supplied in the form of the brainy, forward thinking, liberal and early feminist Dr. Julia Ogden (Helene Joy) whose knack for forensics makes her one of the area's top pathologists and a woman who shares a similar fascination for science, medical examination and experimentation to help rule in and out suspects and evidence as Murdoch's most trusted ally.

Although the involvement of a woman of her position in the time period seems a bit anachronistic-- Joy is a consistent bright spot in the series and along with Harris, helps sustain the sense of fun and excitement the opening episode promises before Murdoch's rather bland personality and over-abundance of Catholic guilt and ritual find you struggling not to hit the snooze button.

While budget does appear to be a problem in the filming of such a high concept period series as certain locations seem simply re-dressed throughout, the show hides this very well with a superlative usage of camera trickery by incorporating what the crew calls "Murdoch Vision" as we're given a doorway inside his overworked mind while he tries to use his own sense of logic blended with an overactive (yet always scientific) imagination to recreate crime scenes or explain things while we literally see what he's thinking.

It's a cool style that adds much needed flavor to the show when it threatens to become far too gimmicky (for example when Doyle arrives to help with a seance mystery?) and Murdoch begins to wear on the nerves for his pretty bland personality as he seems about as fascinating as a doorway when next to the flirtatious and bold Ogden and constable version of the boy scout Crabtree.

Still, despite a few clunks and the fact that possibly like its ITV cousin, one where the decision to film even fewer episodes (maybe six or so as seems to be popular in England) would've resulted in less obvious repetition, production challenges, and an over reliance on gimmicks-- it's still an entertaining set sure to appeal to fans of literary and historical mysteries.