The Murdoch Mysteries Noir Charmant Style Manifesto
An overworked, bloviating TV critic who has never seen Murdoch Mysteries once dismissed the show as "a tea-and-crumpets detective procedural set in Victorian Toronto" while bewailing the lack of more "edgy" fare that could elevate Canadian television. These claims were patently false on many levels - they were wrong about the Murdoch Mysteries viewership, they were wrong about the subject matter, and - hell - they were wrong about the crumpets.
But what prompted me to write a manifesto is that Murdoch Mysteries IS edgy if you regard its consistent ambiance and visual style as issuing its own deliberate aesthetic statement. Is not making such a statement an artistic position, capable of exerting influence, prompting imitation, or even starting a movement? That's an edge - just not an edge in a dimension some particular critics care to see.
What is the Murdoch Mysteries aesthetic? Reviewers often fall back on the "hybrid" or "quirky" features to explain its appeal to a broad range of viewers. If pressed, they will invoke the "Victorian period feel" or perhaps, if they are really in a hip mood, "steampunk elements". But these don't really capture the style. It is my belief that it's important to put a definitive label on the style: for one thing, this elusive style is one of the aspects that positively attracted viewers to Murdoch Mysteries. I have been trying to nail down exactly what it is for a long time: I realized it is somehow the opposite of the faux-reality shaky-cam crass and degrading porn-obsessed style that has become identified with "edgy" on American TV. But what is the opposite?
The opposite is an unapologetically "stylish" technique - slick, glossy, and stage-designed. I often hear Murdoch Mysteries described as "light" - but that isn't quite the right term. The better term is charming. Murdoch Mysteries is charming. It makes you think of music boxes and candy shops and toy stores. There is something about the show that feels like a toy, a very charming toy. The dapper Victorian manners, the pleasant humor, and the spare-but-pretty music score all add to this effect.
Yet there is a problem with simply applying the label "charming" to Murdoch Mysteries. While it may be charming on the surface, the show itself is not silly - nor does it shy away from "edgy" subject matter: indeed, it seems like there's nothing the writers and actors won't consider doing, as long as they can wrap it in the cellophane of the *style* of the show. Abortion gone wrong? Done that. Nudist colony? Check. Gay kiss? That happened. Child slavery. Yup. Police violence against protesters. Seen it. Not so subtle ongoing sexual innuendo - that's a major feature of the show. Racism, homophobia, eugenics. Check, check, and check. Detective getting there too late so the person with the bomb strapped to them explodes. Even that happened. Really Murdoch Mysteries can style-wrap just about anything - I'm frankly intrigued to see what they're going to sink their teeth into next.
While struggling to put a name on the style, I compared Murdoch Mysteries to a lot of TV shows and movies I've enjoyed in the past. On the TV front, I thought Murdoch Mysteries had certain symbolic gestures that put it in the Cult TV category with The Prisoner; Wild, Wild, West; The Avengers; Star Trek - particularly the spin offs; Dead Like Me; Brisco County, Jr.; Alias; The X-Files; Buffy; Firefly; Lost... Actually, every TV show ever written by Joss Whedon or J.J. Abrams also comes to mind: everyday, normal people whose lives are somehow conducted with mythic scale and meaning. While this is a little more lowbrow, the last TV series I had stringently over-analyzed was Stargate - it drove me crazy trying to figure out what this cheesy sci fi show had in common with Murdoch Mysteries. I finally realized that it had something to do with telling stories that involved copious amounts of mythology and symbolism: this demands a broad archetypical "story telling" feel as opposed to the "shaky cam" reality feel.
One point about Cult TV goes hand-in-hand with creating a strongly designed space - one of it's key features is that it provides an "imaginary universe that supports an inexhaustible range of narrative possibilities, inviting, supporting, and rewarding close textual analysis, interpretation, and inventive reformulations.: (Essential Cult TV Reader, David Lavery, p.3). The Murdoch Mysteries production team recently invited fans to an Open House that proved their show maintains a "video game" level of item inventory and attention to design detail.
Over time these "little touches" gave fans a rich vocabulary of references for their discussion. In other words, articulating all of these details of Murdoch Mysteries within such an intensely designed space creates support for a "parallel universe", allowing this Cult TV effect to emerge.
I spotted an even stronger resemblance between Murdoch Mysteries and movies I loved: including movies set in different time periods and in the future. I immediately recognize an affinity with one of my all time favorite movies, L.A. Confidential. Points of comparison I saw were the Noir style (even though Murdoch Mysteries is set much earlier than true Noir): the attention to fashion, the mechanically precise plots, the deep shadows, and the morality tale. Yet Murdoch Mysteries could not be simply labeled "Noir" either, since the protagonist, Detective Murdoch, is not an anti-hero: he is a good and morally earnest man - an anti-anti-hero.
Another movie that comes to mind is Inception: that movie had men in period suits/hats and matching architectural settings. Inception got me thinking more about verisimilitude as opposed to symbolic shorthands that indicate a "dream space". As I thought about movies where the visual style made a strong contribution to the story, all sorts of possible forerunners to Murdoch Mysteries sprang up: Gattaca and Blade Runner (Noir imposed on different time periods), Moulin Rouge (MTV culture stamped on the Belle Epoque), The Adjustment Bureau (Bureaucratic Surrealism? And a magic hat!), and the list goes on.
In speaking of Surrealism, I began to look at that art movement in particular as a predecessor to Murdoch Mysteries. I think the influence of Surrealism ripples forward through Film Noir and also through the 1960s hallucinogenic/mod style (The Prisoner or The Avengers). According to Wikipedia, the aim of Surrealism is "to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality. Artists painted unnerving, illogical scenes with photographic precision, created strange creatures from everyday objects and developed painting techniques that allowed the unconscious to express itself and/or an idea/concept." Take, for example, Dali's paintings of melting clocks: a clock is an everyday object, but they would only melt in dreams.
Though Surrealism didn't emerge until the 1920s, some of its concepts can be backported to the time of Murdoch Mysteries because they did have a "Symbolist" movement and a "Primitivist" movement that relied rather a lot on symbolism. There are a few Surrealists proper which I think do reverberate through the Murdoch Mysteries style. One is Magritte, who was fond of painting bureaucratic "hollow men" in dream-like juxtapositions. Another is the filmmaker Feiuillade who created a series about a popular anti-hero Fantomas. Fantomas was pursued by a lot of salaryman detectives in bowlers, and these films were a great influence on Magritte.
To give an example of why I started to think of Murdoch Mysteries as a "Surrealist Project", here are my ruminations on "The Murdoch Trap" - what appears at first to be a rather hokey episode:
I shouldn't like "The Murdoch Trap" as much as I do.... The episode is largely set with Detective Murdoch in what amounts to a symbolic cage, surrounded by gadgets, as neatly groomed as ever, as if he's trapped in a toy shop.
If this episode was made in the U.S.A., Murdoch would be degraded in every way. He'd probably be naked. There would be toilet facilities in the corner of the cell and the audience would be in on how Murdoch used them. The villain Gillies would insist on some torture. Perhaps he'd remove a body part or three. Gillies would swear a lot and spit on him. After trying to man up for 12 hours, Murdoch will break down, cry, and suffer PTSD thereafter.
The gadgets would be grungy and dripping with oil, not shiny with brass bits. Someone would actually get fired at Station House 4. Murdoch's beloved Julia would end up with rope burns on her neck. No, scratch that. Murdoch would get there too late: Julia would hang. That's the American Way of Emmy Winning Television Drama.
Yes, "The Murdoch Trap" is slightly fake, but it's not fake in a bad sort of way. It's fake in a Surrealistic sort of way....
"The Murdoch Trap" is no aberration. Murdoch Mysteries self-consciously courts its audience with this "fake", deceptively charming style throughout all 8 charming seasons. It is this Murdoch Mysteries style that makes the show as instantly recognizable as its music box theme song or Detective Murdoch's iconic, and perhaps even magical (another Surrealist touch since things are only magical in dreams), homburg. This style gives the show a unique personality (I suppose it's a "brand" in marketing parlance).
After 8 seasons, the creative team behind Murdoch Mystery has obviously made their commitment to this defining style of Murdoch Mysteries. They may experiment with content, but they never deviate from the style. Thus the style itself has become their aesthetic statement and contains its own set of criteria for what the show aspires to create. The creative team behind Murdoch Mysteries doesn't have to "measure up" to some grungy "life on the streets" American cop story because they are working in a different art form at this point, and they have to trust their own sensibilities about what works within their particular form. It's time for the Murdoch Mysteries creative team to declare their terms with pride and be done with it.
I humbly submit "Noir Charmant" as the pretentious (and French!) visual style that Murdoch Mysteries can assert and declare. (Until some qualified Professor of Television and Visual Design Studies comes up with a better term and writes their own manifesto, that is.)