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DVD Review: Murphy’s Law – Season One (2003)

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"You're quite the stereotypical Irishman, aren't you?" challenges possible love-interest-of-the-week Annie in the pilot episode of Murphy's Law, a BBC police procedural.

"A stereotypical Irishman? 'Scuse me! What does that mean?" responds Thomas Murphy.

"Well, you sing at the drop of a hat, you think your twinkly eyes and your gift of the gab can charm the knickers off of anything that moves, " she declares.

"Yeah, it's great, isn't it!" says Murphy. And it is great. James Nesbitt's Tommy Murphy amuses beyond the stereotype.

Murphy's Law is generally understood to be "what can go wrong, will go wrong." In the hands of undercover detective Thomas Murphy what can go wrong probably won't, and even if it did, the bad guys wouldn't notice anyway. On a believability scale, Murphy's Law is closer to the farfetched boundary. On an entertainment spectrum, as seen in season one, now on DVD, it is first-rate.

Tommy Murphy, displaced Northern Irishman in London, too easily infiltrates the mob. It only takes hours for him to be embraced by the underworld when he goes undercover. Sometimes he even uses his real name. He stares and stalks to such an extent that he makes the viewer nervous. It is unclear why he wouldn't make drug dealers nervous too. Even when receiving a standing ovation for a rendition of John Denver's "Annie's Song" while undercover as a lounge act, James Nesbitt makes the character of Tommy Murphy so appealing and compelling that everything works in the story beyond the dubious situations.

The series was created by fellow Northern Irishman Colin Bateman specifically with James Nesbitt in mind. Nesbitt is an actor who can do both comedy (Waking Ned Devine) and drama. Nesbitt had early Oscar buzz for his role in Paul Greengrass' Bloody Sunday, but that drama was disqualified from Academy Award contention because it aired on British and Irish television prior. 

Murphy's Law was originally conceived to take place in Northern Ireland, but Bateman realized that a TV series set in Belfast "was not going to make it on prime TV so we decided to compromise (with a setting in London)." It may have been a compromise, but Murphy's Law was also a success, winning an Irish Television and Film Best Actor award for Nesbitt in its first season.

The cast in season one also includes Del Synnott as fellow detective Alan Carter and Claudia Harrison as their boss and obligatory embodiment of sexual tension. There are excellent guest star appearances during this first season, including Ray Stevenson (Rome), and David Bradley who is now forever known as Harry Potter's acrimonious Argus Filch.

Keeping it tribal, Murphy's Law also features many great Irish actors who are more known for their stage work. Cathy White, as Inspector Gillian Armstrong, had a successful Off-Broadway run here in New York City recently in Improbable Frequency, winner of three Irish Times Theatre Awards. Adrian Dunbar (The Crying Game) and Ian McElhinney (Michael Collins, Hamlet), both in episode 4 "Manic Munday," appeared with Nesbitt last month at a dedication to a new Lyric Theatre in Belfast. It was Mr. Dunbar whom Nesbitt credits for introducing him to performance: "I saw Adrain Dunbar in Hidden Curriculum at the Lyric when I was 18 and that's what inspired me to go into acting." 

The DVD begins with the pilot and also contains four additional episodes. The pilot is oddly rushed even at two hours. It is not rushed to fit in a lot of exposition. Murphy's background isn't explained until well into the middle of the program. Too much exposition will drag down a television pilot, but too little can have its drawbacks as well. Tommy Murphy's past tragedy in Northern Ireland is dismissed as an "unpleasantness" in the words of the requisite priest friend, Father McBride (Mark Benton). Motivations for Murphy's surly character and why he must wear a Che Guevara t-shirt are unclear. There's time in the pilot for an underwhelming ATV race with Ben-Hur aspirations, but there isn't time for a plausibility check. Within minutes of his assignment, Murphy enters the minds and hearts of the targeted funeral directing/drug dealing gang.

Speaking of a Che Guevara t-shirt, Murphy's clothing indicates character throughout. When we first meet Tommy, he is wearing Che Guevara. Obviously, this man is a rebel, a revolutionary, and he is not going to toe any thin blue line, even though it appears that the London Metro Police underwent extraordinary lengths to give Murphy employment. Then Murphy wears a Joy Division t-shirt to show his melancholic side.

When the villains all dress up in black leather for a heist, I could imagine this conversation:

"What are you wearing to the heist?"

"Well, I thought I would wear black leather."

"Me too!"

Murphy, on the other hand, wears a nice sensible barn jacket to show that he isn't really part of this whole "give me the diamonds or I'll kill you" scene. If you are unsure where Murphy is going in his undercover work, just check wardrobe.

The series is highly stylized — perhaps in an attempt to offset the conventional. After all, as one character notes, "stereotypes are useful." So are the jump cuts and film edits that approximate a page turning. These devices remind the audience that they are watching television and are dealing with a commonplace detective series – murder at the health club, anyone? The James Bond music, the shadows, the odd camera angles, take it for what it's worth – amusement. How else to react to the framing of a night at the pub as a "post-modern stereotype in a karaoke context"?

At one point, in dire circumstances, Murphy says to his captors, "I hate to say something so cliché as you won't get away with this, but … you won't get away with this." Murphy's Law, however, does not hate "to say something so cliché." This show loves clichés. Embraces them really. The show's redemption is that every cliché is balanced by a priceless bon mot: "The food here is awful…and the portions are so small," quotes Murphy, crediting Woody Allen, a director that Nesbitt is to work with in the future Match Point.

The mysteries in each episode are easily solved, but much like classic Detective Columbo, the road to the solution is the enjoyable part. Along the path, Murphy drops witticisms, his own and others. Murphy compares himself with the '70s television show Alias Smith and Jones and also to Robert Redford's Brubacker. This kind of self-congratulation can be grating, but the series' intelligence counteracts the flippancy. In the episode titled "Electric Bill," Murphy is undercover in jail (or is that gaol?). We watch Murphy on the prison's security monitors. Television once removed, a clever device used repeatedly throughout the season.

One of my favorite moments in season one is an allusion to Oscar Wilde. Murphy announces to the villains: "To have one undercover cop may be regarded as unfortunate but to have …." then he is hit on the head. He was unable to finish the epigram, but I love the attempt. The way to this reviewer's heart is a nod and a wink and a Wilde quote.

Season one's DVD is released October 6 by Acorn Media. A seemingly abbreviated season, only one episode a month was broadcast in spring of 2003, but each episode runs about 90 minutes, and there is enough here for you to determine whether to enjoy James Nesbitt as Tommy Murphy or to storm off much like Kate Moss did at Mr. Nesbitt's teasing during this year's GQ awards. If people are really divided into charming or tedious, as according to Oscar Wilde, Nesbitt's Tommy Murphy falls toward the charming.

Murphy's Law: Season One
. Five episodes. Approx. 443 mins. British mystery. Not rated. SDH subtitles. No special features.

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About Kate Shea Kennon

  • NancyGail

    Sounds like the Irish version of Keen Eddie.

  • Kate

    That’s interesting. The two shows would have been contemporary.

  • Dan

    If this DVD release is anything like the versions shown on BBC America or present on the British DVD release then you’ll find up to 10 minutes cut out of every episode when compared to the versions originally broadcast in the UK.

  • Kate

    Hi Dan: It appears that these are unedited as compared to subsequent seasons. Season 2-5 DVDs state they are using 50 minute masters of the original 60 minutes first broadcast. These episodes in the first season @ 90 minutes could probably have used a little editing.

  • Therese

    I just took a look at Nesbitt’s body of work on IMDB. I’m ashamed I couldn’t identify him at first! I’ll definitely give Murphy’s Law a try, especially for the Wilde quotes…

  • TFK

    I’m looking forward to seeing this now. Thanks.