Recommendation: The Brokenwood Mysteries

My most beloved genres are science fiction and fantasy… fantasy a little more than sci-fi, since I have limited tolerance for the intolerance of many sci-fi writers. But when I was but a wee cynic, I was a devoted watcher of murder mysteries – Agatha Christie stuff, some Ngaio Marsh adaptations, and the wonderful Murder She Wrote. Some of my earliest television memories are of these shows.

And I still do watch mysteries now, although a lot of the more recent Christie stuff has turned me off. I tried watching Scandinavian murder mysteries, but they… how do I put this?… made me want to blow my brains out because everything is so overcast, depressing and bleak. Wales is a close second with Y Gwyll. So I get a great deal of my murder mystery viewing from merrie olde Englande.

But there’s a big exception: The Brokenwood Mysteries, a charming little series from the beautiful land of New Zealand, the country of Lord of the Rings and Flight of the Conchords. If this is what this country has to offer, I would love to see more mystery series from them.

Part of that is the energy that New Zealand seems to have. Now, I admit I have never been to New Zealand, and I don’t know a lot of people from New Zealand. But the people I have met and the media I’ve consumed from that country give off a very mellow feel – not pushovers, but people who don’t get too overexcited, too bleak or too angry, and are generally pretty welcoming and pleasant. That’s the energy this has, even in its darker episodes or when it tackles serious topics like molestation.

So this series takes place in the town of Brokenwood, which starts out as a quaint little small town but acquires new attractions and institutions every time it needs them (like a women’s prison, several wineries, a major country music show, a whole steampunk community and a historical village). It’s kind of like Cabot Cove in that regard. The main detective is Mike Shepherd, a much-married-and-oft-divorced detective who moves to Brokenwood (and buys a house with a failing vineyard) after solving a complex case that stems from a botched murder investigation years earlier. I’m not going to tell you what that case was, because I really want you to watch the show yourself.

But the thing is, Mike is very quirky. He’s a country music enthusiast with a love of vintage stuff (sort of like a middle-aged hipster), and he has conversations with murder victims. He’s backed by the less quirky younger cops, Detective Kristin Sims and Detective Constable Sam Breen, who are relatively normal. Breen does have some comic relief, though, because every single interview he does with a suspect – and sometimes with people who aren’t suspects – ends up a disaster. For instance, he ends up in the wilderness with possum fat on his face. Or a mental patient takes apart the interview table. Or he has to deal with a UFO conspiracy theorist.

There’s also Dr. Gina Kadinsky, a hilarious Russian medical examiner who has all sorts of weird proverbs and sayings and viewpoints that always have Mike off-kilter. Also when someone gets stabbed, she will bring out slabs of meat and stab them with different implements to see what probably did it.

There’s also an array of supporting characters who cycle in and out of the various episodes over the length of the series, including:

  • Jared Morehu, a Maori man who lives next door to Mike, and who is a sort of local jack-of-all-trades who sometimes helps out.
  • Frodo, a rather unfortunate little man who goes through various jobs and tends to accidentally be close to suspects and crime scenes.
  • Mrs. Marlowe, a very socially active old lady with a very lurid imagination.
  • Dennis Buchanan, an annoying lawyer with an…. interesting sex life.
  • Ray Neilson, a local grumpy pub owner who runs a Lord of the Rings-themed tour on the side and occasionally gets drunk with country roadies.

And there are a bunch of other characters who float in and out in various episodes, and there’s no way of knowing what part they’ll play. A suspect from an early episode is a murder victim later on. Another recurring character turns out to be a murderer. But it really gives a feeling of an actual community to have characters floating through in different places, knowing each other and being fleshed out with their subsequent appearances.

I may be making The Brokenwood Mysteries sound like it’s almost comedic, but it’s not. It does have a lot of moments and characters who are lighter-hearted compared to many American or British shows – or, heaven forbid, Scandinavian shows – but it does give due gravity to serious, sad topics that are central to the plots, like gaslighting, molestation, infidelity, and so on. Sometimes it ends on a relatively downer note, even if the bad guy is caught.

But I also don’t want to make it sound too depressing. The murders are pretty colorful and varied, not just your garden-variety poisonings and stabbings – some are lurid, some are bizarre (caffeine poisoning), some will make you wince (the skydiving incident), and so on. But they are very rarely boring murders; there’s always something like a tanto or a dead bride to keep things interesting. Then Breen will have a nightmarish time talking to suspects, Gina will say or do something weird, Mike will go on about country music or his old car, Kristen will make coffee and it will be bad… and you’ll smile despite all the blood and death.

And furthermore… Brokenwood just has a very oddly homey, welcoming feeling to it. Despite the high murder rate, it feels like a place you would want to live – it’s small-towny and close-knit, but at the same time it’s full of interesting people and things. And that mellow, laid-back feeling of New Zealand media just adds to the feeling.

So if you like murder mysteries, or New Zealand, or both… check out The Brokenwood Mysteries. There have been twenty-four hour-and-a-half-long episodes thus far, and it’s a good series to binge.

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