Review: Frankie Drake Mysteries 1×1 (Canada: CBC; UK: Alibi)

Miss Fisher meets Murdoch Mysteries

In Canada: Mondays, 9pm (9:30 NT), CBC
In the UK: Will air in early 2018 on Alibi

Let’s have a little thought experiment. Imagine you’re the commissioner for UKTV channel Alibi.

Yes, I know this a review of a Canadian TV show but bear with me.

Imagine you are said commissioner. You largely get by on repeats and imported foreign dramas. But there are two very popular ones you’re worried about and will leave a gap in your schedule if they disappear.

One is CBC (Canada)’s Murdoch Mysteries, a period detective drama set at the turn of the 20th century. It’s been cancelled once and recast its hero once, too, and is now on its 11th season. Surely all good things must come to an end?

Then there’s ABC (Australia)’s Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a 1920s-set detective drama that’s having a few problems. It’s made it as far as its third season, but the fact its star has moved to London is making scheduling hard, and even creating a one-off movie needed a kickstarter project to get it up and running.

What should you do? Have a think.

Correct! Well done!

That’s right: you agree to make a co-production with CBC that’s basically a mash-up of Murdoch Mysteries and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, thus killing two birds with one stone.

Where’s the The?

Frankie Drake Mysteries stars Lauren Lee Smith (CSI, Good DogThis Life, The Listener) as the eponymous heroine, the only female private detective working in 1920s Toronto. The daughter of the late head of the criminal Drake Gang, she now solves crimes using her inherited insight with the help of partner Chantel Riley and police officer gal pal Rebecca Liddiard (Houdini and Doyle), facing off against G-Men, communists, union busters and, in this pilot episode, (spoiler) her supposedly dead mother as she investigates the disappearance of a pearl necklace from a hotel safe.

Drake has moxie. You can tell this because she has red hair. But she served during the War, goes to back-street Chinese ‘cupping’ parlours to help her quit smoking, and hangs around with famous historical figures, just like that Murdoch, having gone to the Valley of the Kings with Howard Carter before the War and hobnobbed with local reporter Ernest Hemingway for most of the first episode (he really did work at The Toronto Star in the early 20s, before you start quibbling).

Unfortunately, these are the only real signifiers of her moxie because although the script works really hard to make her an exciting, well-rounded, Canadian Miss Fisher, Lee Smith’s performance is consistently breathless, underpowered and lacking in confidence. While she certainly looks the part, she seems almost surprised to be the star of the show for once and would rather skulk away and hide in anonymity among the supporting cast. Even the supposedly mousy Liddiard is more of a presence than she.

Lauren Lee Smith as Frankie Drake
Lauren Lee Smith as Frankie Drake

Historical fun

Lee Smith’s miscasting aside, Frankie Drake Mysteries is a whole load of fun, luxuriating in its period setting: there’s a heavy flapper ambience and fashion focus; there are loving details in its recreation of the Toronto of the time; there are copious jokes about the booming Toronto; the jazz soundtrack is great; and you have to love a show in which criminal gangs still leave behind signature feathers as their calling cards.

Everyone knows it’s supposed to be a fun show, too, so is playing it slightly for laughs, aiming for something like the screwball comedies of the period. It’s certainly a whole lot more optimistic than its near contemporary Babylon Berlin. It’s also aiming to be positive for women, with a largely female cast and Drake the kind of forward-thinking go-getter that would make you want to root for her, were she played with a little more aplomb.

While the mysteries themselves are no great shakes, the ultimate culprit in this first episode being entirely obvious, it’s the historical setting and general exploration of women’s roles in this period that make the show more than just a simple “me too” to replace other shows and that makes it worth watching. UK viewers should also be primed for future Brit guest stars turning up, with Laurence Fox (Lewis) lined up for an appearance at some point.

It’s just a shame about Frankie herself.