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DVD Review: Midsomer Murders – Barnaby’s Casebook

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What better way to ring in the New Year than with murder? Midsomer Murders: Barnaby's Casebook compiles 17 feature-length episodes of the popular British television series. The episodes, which span 2001-2004, were previously released by Acorn as sets 4, 6, 7, and 8.

For those not familiar with the Midsomer series, think of it as Murder, She Wrote set in the British countryside, with a likable middle-aged Detective Chief Inspector instead of a likable elderly mystery writer. The series, which has been on since 1997, is based on the Detective Barnaby series of mysteries by British writer Caroline Graham.

The episodes all center around murders in quaint country villages that inevitably escalate into multiple homicides. Each episode explores different elements of village life, and a different cast of eccentric characters. While the murders play a central role in each episode, it is the characters who are the real strength of the series. John Nettles' extremely likable Inspector Barnaby is the backbone of the show, and part of the pleasure of watching a Midsomer Murder is seeing how he navigates the situation, and how he comes to the inevitable conclusion. He is supported by Jane Wymark as his wife Joyce and Laura Howard as his daughter Cully, whose extra-curricular activities are often intertwined with the murder investigations. Daniel Casey played Sergeant Troy until his departure in "Birds of Prey" at the end of 2003. He was replaced by John Hopkins as the cocky Sergeant Scott, a Londoner who begrudgingly accepts his transfer to the sticks.

These regulars get support from a who's who of British character actors, including Gemma Jones, Henry Ian Cusick, and Honor Blackman. It's a treat seeing these older actors given a chance to shine once again. British viewers will find the settings, characters, and actors familiar, while North American viewers will be afforded a tour of the idyllic British countryside without the price of a plane ticket or unfavorable exchange rate.

For the most part the series plays fair, giving you the clues you need to solve the mystery without making the solution too obvious. There are the standard red herrings and false trails, and the murderer often turns out to be the person you'd least suspect. There's much less gratuitous sex or violence in Midsomer than in your standard American procedural, but they do throw enough adultery, lesbian relationships, and blood to keep things interesting. It's all presented with a gentle sense of humor, and the show rarely takes itself too seriously. There's nothing here that couldn't air on prime time, and you can watch this with your grandmother without feeling too embarrassed.

The bonus material includes two discs: "Super Sleuths," a documentary about the books that inspired the series, and "Map of Midsomer Murders," which features John Nettles and the cast as tour guides of the real locations that stand in for the fictional Midsomer. "Super Sleuths" is insightful, although none of the episodes based on the original books are included in this set, and there were some spoilers. I particularly enjoyed how the cast, producers, and Ms. Graham admitted that Midsomer wouldn't be a desirable place to live given the high murder rate (although the local police do have a 100 percent clear rate).

Other extras include filmographies, maps of Midsomer, and an essay by co-creator Betty Willingale and John Nettles. The picture is clear and crisp, on 16:9 widescreen. The production qualities are excellent for a television movie, and they never feel cheap or shoddy. One omission are subtitles, but it does offer stereo support.

Midsomer Murders: Barnaby's Casebook offers over 28 hours of entertainment, perfect for these dark winter nights. The set offers four series for the price of three, making it a must-buy for Midsomer fans who don't already own these episodes.

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