Third-episode verdict: Frankie Drake Mysteries (Canada: CBC; UK: Alibi)

Lauren Lee Smith as Frankie Drake in Frankie Drake Mysteries
Lauren Lee Smith as Frankie Drake in Frankie Drake Mysteries

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

So after three episodes, it seems that Frankie Drake Mysteries wants to be two things. Well, three things if you include “a combination of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Murdoch Mysteries“.

Set in Toronto in the roaring 20s, this Canadian-British co-production is about the city’s then only female private investigator Frankie Drake (Lauren Lee Smith), a daring independent, liberal before her time redhead who rides motorbikes, was a spy during the War and hobnobs with the likes of Howard Carter. Drake investigates crimes with the help of her three gal pals: PI partner Chantel Riley; quasi-CSI Sharron Matthews; and cop Rebecca Liddiard. All very empowering, no?

Two ambitions

Episode 1 was a jaunty bit of fun in the style of screwball comedies and crime fiction of the time that also gave us a big chunk of Drake’s backstory. And that’s how episode three played out, too, with our heroine investigating the murdered corpse of a rival detective found in the boot of a car belonging to the son of her former spymaster. Lots of pretending to be a photographer, infiltrating country clubs, exchanging flirty quips with lazy local reporter Ernest Hemingway, revealing what she’d done in the war – all good stuff.

Yet at the same time, as well as being a bit of escapist fun for people who think that if they lived 100 years ago, they’d be hanging out with all their black friends, definitely not smoking and riding around on a motorbike in linen flapper outfits, Frankie Drake also wants to teach us a bit of history. As well as fleshing out all of Drake’s friends, episode two gave us a gander at 1920s labour relations, the burgeoning Canadian communist scene and the question of sex equality.

By the end of that episode, Drake had of course ended all sexual discrimination in Canada for all time. I think she might have passed the Female Employees Equal Pay Act through Parliament 30 years earlier than everyone thought, too, as everyone saw the injustice in not paying women the same as men for the same work. Thanks, Frankie!

All the episodes have elements of that educative quality, with Liddiard turning out to be a Morality Officer and as slavery was not too far in the past at that point, two episodes looking at the plight of black Canadians and Americans, including the French-speaking ones.

Two improvements

All of which would be very good, if the show could do two things. The first is to get the tone consistent. It’s a bit hard to go from an episode in which Drake is searching for jewel thieves who leave feathers behind as their calling card to one in which working women gang up Witness-style to prevent murders on the shop floor. It’s also a far better show when it’s being silly than when it’s trying to do hard-hitting political.

The second is to recast Frankie Drake herself. I’d really like Lee Smith to be good. I did like her in CSI, and she was about the only tolerable thing about This Life. Here, though, an entire series is supposed to revolve around her, her red-headed spunkiness and her sass. She’s supposed to be the air of 1920s spirited Suffragette confidence.

But instead, it’s like she’s having a competition to see who can say the most lines without taking a breath first. She’s less Sam Spade, more Tinkerbell – the sort of woman who pushes a motorbike around for show but never actually rides it. There’s a moment in episode 3 where she punches someone with all the force of a cupcake being tossed by a toddler and she grins as if to say, “Look at me! I’m the cleverest pixie in Tinseltown. Please love me!”

I’m really hoping she finds the spunk the script so desperately wishes she had, because although Frankie Drake isn’t a classic of the genre, it’s different enough, interesting enough and fun enough that it could be a decent bit weekly viewing. Until then, though, I’m going to sit the rest of the series out, I think.

Barrometer Rating: 3/5

The Barrometer for Frankie Drake