In New Zealand: Sundays, 8.30pm, Prime
Despite its physical size, New Zealand is somewhat of a small country in terms of population, with just 4.5m inhabitants spread over its 104,000 square miles. That means that it can’t really afford that much by way of original TV programming, largely importing TV from the US, Australia and Britain.
In fact, despite having several TV networks of its own, if you put aside documentary-making, then at times it can feel like there’s only one production company in the whole country: South Pacific Pictures. Responsible for seemingly everything from the long-running soap Shortland Street (22 years strong this year), which pretty much created the New Zealand TV industry anyway, through Outrageous Fortune, The Blue Rose to perhaps the country’s most famous and successful home-grown drama, The Almighty Johnsons, South Pacific has such a grip on the nation’s airwaves that the only scripted show I can think of in recent memory that South Pacific didn’t produce is Harry.
Given that New Zealand didn’t have its own detective show, it’s no surprise that South Pacific is now trying to fill that particular hole in both its and the country’s drama portfolio with The Brokenwood Mysteries. And although South Pacific is somewhat promiscuous in who it provides shows to, one thing it’s very keen on is loyalty to actors* – you can pretty much guarantee that Siobhan Marshall is going to turn up in any of its shows sooner or later, for starters – so equally it’s no surprise that The Brokenwood Mysteries stars Fern Sutherland (Dawn from The Almighty Johnsons) or that all four episodes are written by The Almighty Johnsons and Outrageous Fortune star and occasional scriptwriter Tim Balme.
There isn’t anything especially innovative or exciting about The Brokenwood Mysteries. In fact, it’s basically Y Gwyll, if you were to give that show a quick location change, a different mix of languages and ethnicities, and a more stereotypical Kiwi optimism. Sutherland is the the Mali Harries of the piece, a police detective living in the backwaters of New Zealand in a small town called Brokenwood who’s naturally miffed when city detective and Tom Mathias equivalent Mike Shepherd (Neill Rea), arrives to supervise her and her latest investigation: the apparent suicide of a local farmer.
The down-at-heel Shepherd saunters around the small town and its pretty surrounding countryside, interviewing suspects, finding lots of red herrings, bickering with Fernwood and listening to country and western music on his in-car cassette player in an ostentatiously quirky way, while having to deal with his multiple ex-wives. It’s his character who gets the bulk of the development, attention and character quirks, with the business-like Sutherland having to play the straight woman who inevitably grows to admire him and his idiosyncratic ways.
Rea is fine – as you’d expect from someone who’s also one of the country’s leading casting agents – while Sutherland does well with the little that’s asked of her and is convincingly un-Dawnish. But rather than the dark misery of Y Gwyll, this is genteel, New Zealand drama designed to appeal to perhaps an older demographic that likes comfortable murder-mysteries and to New Zealanders eager to watch anything that’s actually set in New Zealand and stars New Zealanders. Unfortunately, such is that low bar to entry, if you’ve seen any detective show ever, you’ll begin to wonder exactly how isolated from the outside world New Zealand really is, given the dialogue it chooses to show just how stunningly intelligent its lead detectives are – most murders are committed by people known by the victim, are they? Gosh, that’s a new and exciting fact I wouldn’t have gleaned from any other show.
If The Brokenwood Mysteries arrives on UK screens, it’ll probably be on ITV3, some time after Rosemary & Thyme. But I wouldn’t hold my breath for it, unless you like unchallenging, comfortable and unspectacular fare.
* The fact there aren’t that many in New Zealand probably helps