What would CSI's Gil Grissom, Horatio Crane, or Stella Bonasera do without their DNA evidence or computer analyses?
Requisition a time machine and consult Detective William Murdoch, of course.
Murdoch is the hero of a series of books about the Victorian-era crimefighter by Maureen Jennings, which were turned into a series of television movies starring Peter Outerbridge (ReGenesis), which have now been turned into a weekly series starring Yannick Bisson (Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye.), premiering this week on Citytv in Canada. In the Toronto of 1895, his unorthodox techniques like the use of fingerprinting and trace evidence are viewed with suspicion, but his results are unquestionable.
I confess to a strange fondness for leading man Bisson, who took over the role when Outerbridge found himself contractually committed to ReGenesis. I can trace it to one of his first roles, in the TV movie Hockey Night, though the fact that his appeal has survived and even tempered the cheesiness of Nothing Too Good for a Cowboy and Sue Thomas F.B. Eye puzzles me. It also makes me predisposed to think fondly of Murdoch Mysteries.
Unfortunately, the first episode isn't a strong start to the series. Murdoch himself fades into the background, overshadowed by a bizarre guest character — the real-life eccentric Nikola Tesla — and a romantic subplot involving his young sidekick, Constable George Crabtree (Jonny Harris). Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy of Durham County), one of Murdoch's few supporters in the police department, is likewise given little to do but reveal autopsy results.
In the first episode, "Power," Murdoch investigates the electrocution death of a woman who may have been caught in a romantic triangle, or may have been the victim of the War of the Currents, playing out at the Toronto city council of the time. She was apparently murdered when a demonstration of the advantages of direct current (DC) over alternating current (AC) for power distribution was sabotaged.
Tesla, played by Dmitry Chepovetsky (also of ReGenesis), fits in because historically his work led to the new AC system, while inventor-rival Thomas Edison was the proponent for (and inventor of) the then-standard DC. So it's a fun touch to see what's recognized today as the clearly superior system positioned as a potentially crackpot theory.
Other historical touches aren't nearly as fun as they should be. If you know who Tesla is, the show's version will seem a pale imitation. If you don't, his role will stretch credibility. The real-life credibility-stretching inventor was famous not only for his brilliance but also his lack of business acumen. He's widely thought to be the true inventor of radio, among other advances, but never capitalized fully on his patents and died penniless. He's been featured in film, theatrical plays, books, video games, and comics, all emphasizing his flamboyant eccentricity, so to use his likeness yet again and have him be something of a dud, personality-wise, takes some doing.
My biggest complaint, though, is that Murdoch is something of a dud, taking a passive role in his own series so far. The show's time period could be an advantage to the series, offering a Sherlock Holmes style of intellectual investigation as opposed to the flashy technology of the glut of crime shows currently on the air. But it seems something of a cheat that despite the supposed lack of modern techniques, the means to create a rudimentary wiretap, for example, drops in Murdoch's lap. Any ingenuity in method here arises not from our hero's own genius, but the deus ex machina of Tesla.
There's hope for improvement, assuming the series will better focus on Murdoch himself as it progresses, but at this point the combination of cheesiness and death puts it in an awkward limbo. It has the feel and look of an unchallenging, family-friendly drama but with the added bonus of murder and adultery and a late-evening timeslot.
Murdoch Mysteries premieres on Citytv in Winnipeg on Sunday, January 20 at 9 p.m. and elsewhere across Canada on Thursday, January 24 at 10 p.m. (repeating Saturdays at 8 p.m.).