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Midsomer Murders: Set 21

Release Year:         2011
Studio:         Acorn Media
Format:         Box set; Colour; NTSC; widescreen
Rated:         Not Rated; Contains nudity and disturbing images
# of Discs/Episodes:         4 / 4
Running Time:         372 minutes
DVD Release Date:         January 8, 2013
Creator:         Brian True-May
Screenwriters:         David Hoskins, Peter J. Hammond, Michael Aitkens
Directors:         Renny Rye, Nick Laughland, Simon Langton, Richard Holthouse
Actors:         Neil Dudgeon, Jason Hughes
E:Top Picks Rating:         8/10

Acorn Media write-up:
Marking the North American debut of Neil Dudgeon (“Life of Riley”) as the new DCI, MIDSOMER MURDERS, SET 21 debuts on Blu-ray and DVD from Acorn Media on January 8, 2013. Newly transplanted to Midsomer, John Barnaby takes over as the new DCI after his cousin, Tom Barnaby (John Nettles), retired. Barnaby contends with the county’s murderous denizens with his new partner (Jason Hughes, “This Life”) in these four new, contemporary stand-alone mysteries. Set in England’s picture-perfect but perilous Midsomer County, Set 21’s episodes made their streaming debut on Acorn TV in 2012, but the episodes have not aired on U.S. television at the time of this writing. Continually reaching new heights of popularity, MIDSOMER MURDERS counts Johnny Depp and even the Queen of England among its ardent fans. New episodes are continually in production.

The cozy villages of Midsomer County reveal their most sinister secrets in these contemporary British television mysteries. Inspired by the novels of Caroline Graham, modern master of the English village mystery, the series stars Neil Dudgeon as the capable Detective Chief Inspector John Barnaby, with Jason Hughes as his young partner, Detective Sergeant Ben Jones. Guest stars include Samantha Bond, David Warner, Edward Fox, Phyllida Law and Pam Ferris.

The Mysteries:
Death in the Slow Lane – A classic car show becomes a crime scene after a grisly death.
Dark Secrets – Barnaby and Jones investigate the suspicious death of a social services employee.
Echoes of the Dead – The detectives look into a series of copycat murders.
The Oblong Murders – Jones goes undercover to investigate a local new-age cult.

Jon Ted Wynne review:
The moment of truth has finally come (to North America, at least). In the UK, MIDSOMER MURDERS, the phenomenally successful mystery program that turns the idea of tranquil, peaceful rural England on its ear, has been continuing its success since the departure of the wonderful John Nettles as DCI Tom Barnaby. Devotees of the series will know that Nettles decided to leave the show and the producers chose to replace him with Neil Dudgeon as Tom’s cousin, John Barnaby. The previous set (Set 20) of MIDSOMER MURDERS released in North America by Acorn Media saw John Nettles’ final episodes. In the UK, viewers have had the opportunity for a few years now to appreciate the new blood on the program.

The response in the UK to Dudgeon’s character has been very positive and for good reason. The show’s creators have found just the right balance in bringing John Barnaby into Midsomer, the fictional murder capitol of England. Wisely, Jason Hughes as Barnaby’s sidekick DS Ben Jones has been retained as has Barry Jackson (for now) as the Medical Examiner. These two characters give the show its obvious continuity from when Nettles was the star.

Understandably there are some ruffled feathers as they all get to know one another. This provides some of the fun watching the new episodes.

Particularly delightful is the new Barnaby’s dog, Sykes. Barnaby loves to talk to his faithful companion, particularly in the first episode before John’s wife arrives to take over being headmistress (Principal) of the local school. The scruffy terrier is adorable and always up for a little fun. In his moments, he’s Costello to Dudgeon’s Abbott; a punchline is always safe in Sykes’ hands… paws.

As for the mysteries themselves, the first two are top notch, with wonderful guest stars complementing the outstanding regular leads. Samantha Bond is back for her third guest-starring appearance in the first episode, “Death in the Slow Lane”. This episode also features a return to classic MIDSOMER form in the way it cleverly dispatches its first victim. Murder by Crankshaft, anyone? And mention must also be made of the classically beautiful model/actress Clara Paget doing an absolutely priceless turn as a stupidly spoiled young vamp. She clearly modeled the character after Paris Hilton, right down to the walk – now you already know how much you want her to get her comeuppance in the end!

Part of the enjoyment of these programs is the array of talent that appears. Edward Fox play an eccentric recluse in the second mystery, “Dark Secrets”. As always, he is sensational, with his distinct, drawn-out speech pattern emphasized to give added colour to his impressive characterization.

All is not well, however, and when we arrive at the third episode of this set, “Echoes of the Dead”, we are subjected to possibly one of the poorest Midsomer mysteries on offer. The occasional bad script can be forgiven, but in this case the sin is compounded by a return to a most troubling recurring characteristic about this (and other British) program(s): namely, the blatant anti-Christian tone. One could confidently place bets that whenever a character appears on MIDSOMER MURDERS who professes to be a Christian (not even a person of faith but specifically a Christian), they will turn out to be a nut case and/or the murderer. This is not only lazy writing, it is prejudice, pure and simple. MIDSOMER MURDERS is a great show, most of the time, but this propensity for perpetuating a negative stereotype is unacceptable. John Barnaby has already, in an earlier episode, announced that he does not believe in God, but his atheism has yet to be pursued in any meaningful way as an insight into the character, so who cares? Maybe Tom was an atheist too – he never said because it doesn’t matter! Who cares unless it affects the way he solves a murder. Using such an obvious tell over and over in a mystery series is beyond boring, it’s insulting to the viewer’s intelligence. The attack on an identifiable group of people is inappropriate. The lack of effort in the writing is deeply disappointing. One can only hope they’ve found some new writers.

The fourth episode in Set 21 is “The Oblong Murders”. This one is a lot of fun because DS Jones has a lot more to do than usual. He goes undercover to investigate the disappearance of a young woman who joined a cult. (If the shots the show normally aims at Christianity were aimed at fictional groups as in this episode, all would be well – actually funny and no one is specifically targeted.) This story isn’t derailed by misplaced political correctness or soap-box mounting. It takes aim at pseudo-celebrity self-realization gurus spouting vague pop-psychology mumbo-jumbo to people with too much money and not enough sense. (“Be your own tree!”) Cosmo (DS Jones’ undercover pseudonym) and his new friend Blaze (Christine Bottomley, “Hope Springs”) battle the sinister and the insipid simultaneously in a twisted tale with the body count mounting practically in front of their eyes!

Jones has two beautiful women after him while pretending to be someone else and is quite exposed (saved only by tight editing) in a shower scene and is suitably confused, frustrated and uncomfortable, giving the episode that light-hearted touch that makes this “cop show” stand out from the crowd. This is most welcome as the overall flavour of these four episodes (some good, some not) is bleaker than what we have come to expect from the idyllic English countryside manifested in MIDSOMER MURDERS.

We’ll have to wait and see whether or not the darker tone prevalent in three of these four episodes is now the dominant theme. Nonetheless, MIDSOMER MURDERS will always be good entertainment (most of the time) and will undoubtedly have a loyal following, if only on the strength of its great characters. One must simply expect and accept some growing pains as the series undergoes such a major overhaul. It was never going to be easy to say goodbye to John Nettles. That much has always been obvious. A little patience is required at this juncture to give us all a chance to adjust.

Here’s hoping that future episodes are more consistent than Set 21.