If you like costume dramas and procedural mysteries, you’ll take a shine to Miss Scarlet & the Duke, a six-part mystery about Victorian London’s first-ever female private investigator. Kate Phillips’s Eliza Scarlet is a woman of high birth who is left in dire straits when her beloved father, a P.I., dies. She can either get married (which would follow society’s script) and be taken care of, or she can hang out her own shingle as a P.I. Tenacious Eliza can take care of herself, thank you very much, although she is derided and dismissed at every turn.
Stuart Martin’s Detective Inspector Will Wellington, also a duke and a friend of her late father’s, is often the one dismissing her, but even he has to admit that Eliza, in her cool, instinctive, Sherlockian way, has a knack of figuring out whodunnit. The two of them butt heads over six episodes, with him wanting to protect her and her not wanting to be protected. There’s plenty of bantering and a will-they-or-won’t-they fizz, kind of like Castle or Moonlighting in puffed sleeves.
Ansu Kabia crackles with a darker energy as Moses, whom Eliza hires as a debt collector/enforcer. Their friendship is almost more interesting than the relationship between Eliza and Will. Phillips is excellent as the title character, exuding calm and intelligence at every turn, no matter how chaotic or dangerous. (Rated TV-14, Amazon Prime)
If there is another TV series that grapples with the LGBTQ issue in a denominational church setting, I don’t know about it. Grantchester does, though, which is one of the many reasons I find it compelling.
Set in the 1950s in an idyllic village in Cambridgeshire, Grantchester tells the story of an Anglican vicar (first centering on James Norton’s Sidney Chambers and then, in seasons 5 and 6, on Tom Brittney’s Will Davenport) who becomes involved in solving mysteries with the help of local Detective Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). (Idyllic, yes, but the village is somehow the scene of murder on a weekly basis.)
Based on the short stories by James Runcie, the son of a former archbishop of Canterbury, the show about a church parish and its pastoral staff frames every episode’s mysteries in a Christian worldview. I read one of Runcie’s books and found it to go much deeper in matters of faith and theology than the series, but that’s no surprise.
According to what I have read online, most fans prefer Norton’s Sidney Chambers. He departs after the fourth season, making way for a new vicar, Will Davenport. I prefer Tom Brittney’s Will, who wrestles with a difficult and sad past and tries to move forward in faith. His interactions with crusty Geordie (also a riveting character, a D.I. and family man with some PTSD from World War I) are fractious and warm by turn, and I found myself cheering for them as best friends.
Perhaps the most pastoral of the Grantchester parish staff is Leonard Finch (Al Weaver) as the curate. He serves his church members with compassion and wisdom, which makes it all the more complicated when his sexual orientation is exposed (in 1958 England, it was against the law to be in a same-sex relationship). Will is supportive and loving to his friend and curate, but at what cost to his own career? Whether or not one agrees with Will’s views on same-sex relationships, it’s easy to see why he would want to protect sweet Leonard, a human being made by God and a friend. Still, I wondered more than once if a vicar in 1958 would be so affirming. I’m pretty sure not, which means that once again the mainstream values of the 2020s have been spackled over the distant era in which a show is set. Annoying, to be sure, yet as the CRC grapples with this same issue, I was keen to see how this story would play out.
Leonard’s saga is a subplot, and, until Seasons 5 and 6, not a big overarching story. Depictions of his relationship with Daniel, his love interest, are mild overall with a couple of exceptions.
Each episode is bookended by the vicar preaching in the village church. Sometimes the show goes deep into faith matters, but usually it’s a bit shallow. A pity, because if we have ever needed robust theology to go along with our TV time, the time is now. (Rated TV-14, Season 1-5 on Amazon Prime, Season 6 on PBS Masterpiece)
Even though I am a confirmed Jane Austen maniac, I resisted Sanditon, the 8-part Masterpiece Theater series based on Austen’s unfinished novel, for almost a year. I adore Austen and almost always love whatever costume drama Masterpiece Theater dishes up, so why the resistance? In a word, incest, or at least, that was what I read in the headlines that came out after the series first ran in 2019. However, after hearing from several other costume drama-fan friends, who assured me it wasn’t really incest, I pressed play. (The two characters in question, Edward—Jack Fox—and Esther—Charlotte Spencer—are adult step-siblings, and it’s questionable if they were even raised together. In Austen’s day, it was acceptable for step-siblings to marry, so those incest headlines were misleading and total click bait.)
However, the series has more sexual content than your usual Jane Austen adaptation but is tame by most other standards. Parents would do well to pay attention to the TV-14 rating, Jane Austen notwithstanding.
Overall, I relished the series, which follows heroine Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams), a genteel country girl who gets a new, luxe lease on life when she is invited to the beach town of Sanditon to live with an uppercrust family. Here she meets her host’s handsome brother, Sidney (Theo James), who is as brooding and smoldering as Austen’s most famous leading man, Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice fame. The two of them hew so closely to the Lizzie/Darcy archetypes it made me wonder if Austen had more nuanced plans for them beyond the 11 chapters she had been able to finish before her illness and death. In short: If you love Lizzie and Darcy, you will like Charlotte and Sidney.
The seaside setting is refreshing as well, with lots of beach walks and scenic vistas. I liked the way the plot hung on whether or not Sidney and his brother could keep their financing and transform Sanditon into a seaside resort destination.
Surprisingly, my favorite character ended up being Esther, the stepsister of the loathsome Edward. At first, she matches her stepbrother for being horrible, selfish, and mean, but slowly, she changes. Actress Charlotte Spencer is fantastic at playing Esther’s transformation from vile gold digger to vulnerable human being.
Austen wanted to call the book “The Brothers,” referring to Sidney and his older brother Tom, Charlotte’s host. Will the brothers achieve their dream of establishing Sanditon as a luxury resort? They face plenty of obstacles. Will Charlotte and Sidney realize what they mean to each other before it’s too late? If you haven’t heard already, don’t Google the shocking ending. In any event, fans don’t have long to wait for some answers: Season 2 launches March 20 on PBS.
(Rated TV-14, PBS Masterpiece)