The fictional Midsomer County is one of the most beautiful areas on British television. It is also home to a dreadful number of killers. Midsomer Murders explores this strange situation, and is now in its 16th season on the ITV Network. For those of us who do not get ITV, Acorn Media have released many of the programs on DVD. The latest is the four-disc Midsomer Murders Set 21, with each DVD devoted to a full 93-minute case.
The premise of the series has not changed much over time, but the cast has. Set 21 introduces the new Detective Chief Inspector John Barnaby (Neil Dudgeon) to Midsomer. His assistant is the young Detective Sergeant Ben Jones (Jason Hughes) who has been around since 2005. Some of the people in Midsomer think that he should have been promoted to the position of DCI, but he is still a bit young, as even he acknowledges at one point. The introduction of DCI Barnaby takes place in the first show, "Death in the Slow Lane."
There is little time to get to know the new DCI however, as we are plunged almost immediately into a fascinating scenario. The episode takes place at a charming girl's school in the County. As so often happens, a beautiful setting hides some ugly secrets. Midsomer County is a wealthy enclave. One of the main sources of trouble comes from the fact that for many of the residents, the money has been inherited. "Death in the Slow Lane" makes some wry commentaries on people born with the proverbial "silver spoon" in their mouths.
Rebellious behavior is frequent, as are attempts to always appear to be rich, no matter how tough things really are. The writing of this episode is superb, with enough twists and turns to keep us guessing all the way through. I consider myself to have a good mind for mysteries, yet the resolution of this one was a real surprise. DCI Barnaby delivers it in a little-used barn on the school grounds, and it is something of an early defining moment for the character.
A subplot of "Death in the Slow Lane" finds a few people attempting to welcome Barnaby to Midsomer. Just after he arrives, his doorbell is rung by a middle-aged woman bearing food. She is waiting to be invited in, and his response is pretty funny. After thanking her for dish, he tells her that he has to take his medicine, and quickly slams the door. Word of this appears to have gotten around the village rather quickly, and the next knock on the door comes from a man. He invites Barnaby to some sort of event, and the DCI immediately understands. Barnaby asks if he can bring his wife, who will be joining him shortly. So much for the welcome wagon.
We are introduced to Mrs. Sarah Barnaby (Fiona Dolman) in the next story, "Dark Secrets." I must say, of all the Midsomer Murders I have seen, this is one of the best. The story begins with a flashback to 1975, and an ugly row going on at the Bingham family home. The teenage brother and sister Robin (Arron Topham) and Jennifer (Helen Steiway-Bailey) recklessly drive away and wind up in a lake, just a short distance from the house. It is believed that both teenagers have drowned, although only the body of Robin was ever recovered.
In the present day, we find a nosy social-services agent poking around the Bingham's house. He is soon found floating in a river, dead. The elder couple are incredibly eccentric, but seemingly harmless. Watching the two of them interact is just magic though. The loss of their daughter and son obviously devastated them, and their grip on reality is tenuous at best. As is the case with so many of the residents in Midsomer, they have plenty of inherited money, and just go about their unusual business.
The Binghams also had a daughter named Selena (Beth Goddard), who was too young to be involved in the 1975 situation, and now runs a horse farm. At the conclusion, Barnaby explains to all and sundry what went down, and reasons the hapless agent was killed. For the second time in a row, this takes place in a barn.
The third DVD is "Echoes of the Dead." This one is very creepy. There is a serial killer on the loose in Midsomer. He stages his victims as brides and also writes weird messages in lipstick next to their bodies. Even though this a made-for-TV show, this episode is kind of gruesome. Both Barnaby and Jones are taken aback by the scenes they encounter and diligently work towards finding the maniac. As is the case with so many of the murders in Midsomer, it turns out to be the person you would least expect. When he is caught, we discover that there was a whole psychological sinner/saint thing going on with him. "Echoes of the Dead" is disturbing.
The final installment is "The Oblong Society," and revolves around the activities of the titular group, which is described as a New-Age commune. To investigate a missing persons report, DS Young poses as a new recruit. Some of the situations that Young finds himself in at The Oblong Society are very funny. One of the "bonuses" for members is sexual freedom, with special rooms set aside for those who want to get to know each other better. The young, single DC is invited into one by an attractive woman, who is also new to the commune. His uncomfortable attempts to turn her down without hurting her feelings make for comedy gold. The fact that he would have gone for it in a heartbeat if he were not there in an official capacity is obvious.
The episode is a perfect example of what makes Midsomer Murders such a memorable show. There is a perplexing murder mystery in the beautiful environs of the County, where everyone seems to be just a little bit off. The investigators invariably find themselves in a great number of humorous incidents while trying to solve it. And in the end, the bad guys always get caught.
Being a British import, available only on DVD, the show has not really caught on in the United States. The show is excellent though, and really worth checking out. Midsomer Murders has been on the air for a long time now, but stays fresh by reinventing itself regularly. I hope it stays on for a long time to come.