If you want to sell a program to a commercial network, here’s how you do it: walk into the programming chief’s office, sit yourself down in one of the comfy chairs, and say the following: “Shaun Micallef. Kat Stewart. They’re husband and wife. And they solve murders.” Done and done, back slaps all ’round, break out the Bundy, money in the bank.
Unfortunately, going by the first episode of Mr & Mrs Murder, no-one really seems to have thought much beyond that. Oh, just to make it extra clear up front: despite our reviewing it here today, this show isn’t a comedy. Micallef gets a few Micallef-style lines, but otherwise this seems to be pretty much just a straight lightweight mystery show. You know, the kind of thing that’s just fine in the background of your life but not something anyone ever actually watches.
The ABC have been punching these shows out for the last year or so, what with Mrs Fishers’ Flapper Murder Spree and Craig McLachlan Has A Crime-Solving Beard, and their big point of difference has been they they’ve been set in olden times with (slightly more) modern characters: Fisher is an independent woman in the 1920s, McLachlan’s Beard believes in science so it could be set pretty much any time in Australia up to and including right now.
Mr & Mrs Murder is walking the same side of the street but without the obvious crutch of old-timey settings. Instead, its point of difference is the “charming” relationship between two crime solving lovebirds who tidy up murder scenes (their job) and meddle with investigations (their hobby). Trouble is, even with Micallef’s involvement we are still talking about Australian television and while our costumers and set designers are generally considered to be competent the same can’t be said for our writers.
As this first episode plods along – a national hero is found dead in a fancy hotel and while the amazingly lazy police assume it’s the room service guy they found clutching the knife, our murder clean-up crew thinks differently – through a string of dull scenes populated by forgettable actors and average dialogue, it’s increasingly clear that Micallef and Stewart (at least as written here) aren’t as charming as they think they are. They’re certainly nice enough to spend some time with, but they can’t carry an entire show on their own when everything else is below par.
Getting the tone for this kind of show right is a big challenge. The murder has to keep our attention without being so ugly that the nice detective couple couldn’t realistically get involved. The story has to pile on the twists to – again – keep our attention, but there has to be enough room between the twists for the leads to be charming and likable. And the leads themselves have to be convincing as murder-solvers without being annoying smart-arses or bungling nitwits. Australian television drama often has difficulty doing just one thing at a time; asking them to juggle this many plates is putting in a bulk order for a lot of broken crockery.
It’s hard to know if things will get better. We’d like to think so, but considering at this early stage it doesn’t seem to be a series with strong continuity, it’s just as likely they started off with one of their stronger episodes. In which case, gulp. At least Micallef’s Mad as Hell – yes, we will be watching it and yes, our review will be along once we figure out what to say past “it’s a lot like it was last year” – is on the air now as well so it’s unlikely that Mr & Mrs Murder will tank his career even if it fails. Hell, it’s not like Ten hasn’t served up a bunch of duds over the last few years, one more isn’t going to hurt them. Much.
What’s left is a show that simply isn’t as good as it should be. All the ingredients are there, but no-one seems to have paid enough attention to the recipe. Choose your own sign-off from the following: A): “And that’s the real mystery here”, B): “You’d think with all the cooking shows Ten’s served up over the years they’d know the importance of getting the recipe right”, C): “Hopefully by week five or so Micallef will spend an entire episode doing his Sir Alec Guinness impersonation (or better yet, Milo Kerrigan) for no reason”, and D): “Will Mad as Hell make jokes about Mr & Mrs Murder if things go south?”