Today I’m going to step outside the confines of the SFF genre—to break free!—and talk about television.
I have to break free from the confines of skiffy to talk about television that’s both ongoing, that I like (and thus can recommend without ten thousand caveats), and that centres on women, a woman, or non-male-identified people in general. So today, let’s break out as far as 1920s Melbourne….
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is an Australian show, based on a series of cosy detective stories by Kerry Greenwood. The first season began airing in the Antipodes early last year and in the US in the autumn, and is due to come to the UK some time this year. A second season is expected in 2013.
It’s the late 1920s, and the Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher, played by Essie Davis (in a role to which she brings grace, charm, and a playful sort of seriousness) has removed from fashionable Europe to Australia, land of her birth. Independently wealthy, a bon vivante, stylish and happily libertine, she proceeds to take up as a lady detective—much to the consternation of her maid and companion Dorothy (Ashleigh Cummings) and the long-suffering annoyance of Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), into whose murder investigations she repeatedly insinuates herself. Hugo Johnstone-Burt, in the role of Constable Collins, is also part of the regular cast.
It must be acknowledged that the Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher* is something of a wish-fulfillment character, a lower-key, 1920s detective version of James Bond. She can fly aeroplanes. She drives a fast car. She sleeps with pretty men when they catch her eye and the narrative has no interest in punishing her for it. She keeps a gun in her purse, knows judo, and has a complicated backstory that, chronologically, is hard to fit, and in terms of pure logic doesn’t always seem the most straightforward. (The backstory’s not really why I’m here.) But everyone should have a wish-fulfillment character as interestingly vivid as Essie Davis’ Phryne Fisher: I can’t see anything wrong with that.
I’m not a connoisseur of the mystery genre, but it seems to me that the plots, even at their worst, refuse triteness. I was agreeably surprised by how frequently—and deftly—Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries handled the existence of queer people, and while the show’s Melbourne seems to be very white, there are episodes which focus on the existence of both Melbourne’s Jewish and its Chinese communities. (I’m no good judge of how sensibly they’re handled, but it seemed to me to be fairly well.) The thing that delights me most about this show, though, is how many and varied are its female characters: Phryne is an exceptional woman, perhaps, but she’s an exceptional woman in a world of exceptional women, with female friends and relatives.**
Watching it, actually, made me realise how unusual it is that female characters in the media, even when they’re stars or co-stars of the show, have long-running connections with not just one or two but a variety of other women. Miss Fisher not only has that, but almost every episode brings more than one fleshed-out female guest role within the ambit of the series regulars. Also, while there’s a certain amount of tension between Phryne Fisher and D.I. Robinson, their relationship comes from a place of (occasionally grudging) mutual respect and friendship—and so far, thankfully, the showrunners have resisted turning it into romantic tension.
And, in a pleasant bonus, it also feels authentically 1920s. Small details of cultural mores (and the clash of cultural mores) seem right. Miss Fisher presents a believable illusion—though the 1920s is not my period by a good millennia and a half, so perhaps my impressions in this regard should be taken with a helping of salt.
It’s a show I’m very glad I discovered—and very glad, too, that it’s only based on Greenwood’s books. To such an extent that while the incidents and characters are often the same or very similar, sometimes the culprits are entirely different. It means reading the one doesn’t completely spoiler the other: always useful, with mysteries.
*Phryne is named for the famous courtesan of ancient Greece, who it’s said served as the model for Praxiteles’ Knidian Aphrodite. Athenaeus, author of the Deipnosophistai, says she also offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes, which Alexander had torn down, from her own funds, provided “restored by Phryne the courtesan” was inscribed upon them. (The Thebans, morally offended, refused.) This aside comes to you courtesy of a government-funded education and my geekery about the ancient world.
**The other thing that stands out is how many women appear in the credits as writers, directors, and producers. That’s a sight that always makes me happy.