In case you don’t know it yet, Foyle’s War is one of the best shows on the tube. There are several reasons for this. The program appears only intermittently, which gives the creator and writer Anthony Horowitz, time to research and develop each movie length script. The show is also perfectly cast, with Michael Kitchen as the reticent but firm Christopher Foyle, Anthony Howell as the dedicated Paul Milner, and Honeysuckle Weeks as Samantha Stewart, Foyle’s tomboyish red haired Police driver. And the mysteries themselves, always keyed to some long-forgotten but interesting aspect of life during wartime, are invariably clever.
Television fanatics have been retraining themselves over the past decade. In the old days, we watch prime time shows religiously from September to June, circling our itinerary in TV Guide (one of my favorite hobbies as a kid, anticipation always being greater than the reality). During the summer we moaned in agony, having to fall back on reading books (I used to methodically re-read all my Marvel comics from cover to cover, even the letters sections). Then, come autumn and school and the Fall previews issue of TV Guide, it would begin again.
But now we have adapted to different styles of programing. We can wait a year between episode samplings of The Sopranos, or follow shows that start only in January, like 24. I think it was the sequelitis of movies from the 1980s that helped train us, having to wait a year or two between Star Wars editions the way the kids today wait for Harry Potter movies. But in any case, the result is that we now accept the long waits between shows like Foyle’s War and so many other British crime imports.
Now the fourth box of Foyle’s eps is out, thanks to Acorn Media (having just aired on PBS’s Mystery). Streeting on Tuesday, July 17th, the set contains four discs, each in a slim case, and retails for $59.99. It is a measure of the show’s increasing popularity that either the producers of the show or the DVD manufacturers are including more in the way of extras with each release. In this set, Michael Kitchen even steps forward to welcome the viewer to the DVD edition. It’s true that most of the supplements are still text features, such as cast bios and backgrounds to the episodes, but with each new box the producers offer longer and more interesting making ofs. The shortish doc included here lauds the show’s attention to period detail and emphasizes how each episode requires the time and effort of a feature film.
There is a modicum of confusion attached to this box, which is numbered 4, but which contains seasons four and five of Foyle’s War, which in England were only two episodes each. Series six, which is slated to air in the UK in 2008, will come to Americans as season five.
Taken all together, the Foyles will end up being a popular history of World War II from the viewpoint of those at home. For example, the first film in the set, “Invasion” takes place in 1942, and concerns the invasion of England by — the Americans. Aside from an exploration of the resulting tensions and opportunities, there is a clever mystery and a touching story of friendship. Also set in 1942 is “Bad Blood,” which concerns a biological warfare test that goes awry, and the murder hidden within it. Later in 1942 comes “Bleak Midwinter,” in which murders take place around a munitions works, and Milner’s ex-wife is also killed. Finally, “Casualties of War,” set in early 1943, concerns a fascinating aspect of experimental warfare that is also covered in the movie The Dam Busters, and also touches on issues such as a woman’s place in the world of men. But the mystery itself ends on a morally ambiguous note, and the plot itself concludes on something of a cliffhanger.
If you are coming late to Foyle, however, don’t start with this box. Like all the great shows, such as The Wire, The Shield, and BSG, it’s best to start at the beginning and work your way forward. You won’t be able to stop, and you won’t be able to not re-watch them.
No such problem with another show now on offer from Acorn Media. This is Da Vinci’s Inquest, the cult hit Canadian show now just introduced to American home video. Set in Vancouver, B.C., Da Vinci’s Inquest concerns the cases confronted by the bibulous, divorced coroner Dominic Da Vinci, played by Nicholas Campbell, perhaps best known in the states for playing parts in Cronenberg films such as The Brood. Da Vinci’s Inquest began airing in 1998 with the first of seven 13-episode seasons. This box from Acorn contains all of season one in full frame transfers (that look a little soft. It hit the street on February 27th, and retails for $59.99; for those impatient to see other seasons, Atlantis Alliance has released them in Canada).
The Acorn box doesn’t have much in the way of supplements, just cast bios and a trailer, but just having the shows all together in the right order should be enough for the series’s mounting fans. Da Vinci’s Inquest has been popping up on local stations over the past year or so, but out of order and with the seasons mixed up. But from its cozy jazz theme song to its wholly different world of law and order, Da Vinci’s Inquest has pulled in viewers. It’s mix of flawed characters, occasionally ambiguous endings (who killed the professional dominatrix at the end of episode 7, “The Stranger Inside,” even though the case had been solved?), and refreshingly different approach to now-familiar territory (forensic medicine doctors examining gross bodies) has appealed to intelligent viewers.
As a forensic show, Da Vinci’s Inquest appeared two years before the somewhat harder edged CSI: Crime Scene Investigations, but Da Vinci’s Inquest integrates the problems of the characters better into both the plots and the texture of the show. And Da Vinci is loosely based on a real guy, former chief coroner Larry Campbell, who ended winning a mayoral race in Vancouver in 2002 (an eventual spin off of Da Vinci’s Inquest was the short lived Da Vinci’s City Hall). Like presumably his real life counterpart, Da Vinci’s cares too much, is confrontational with bureaucratic ineptitude, and is prone to joining or starting causes, such as in one episode the use of teen agers as drug informants. He’s an admirable character but also a troubled one, and an episode in which Da Vinci fears that he is the perpetrator of a hit and run accident is painful to watch on his behalf. His “solution” to his problem, show in the last shot, will shock Puritanical American viewers.
Da Vinci’s Inquest is a great series and it is a comfort to know that there are six (or seven) more boxes in the pipeline.
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