There's still some magic in these British murder-mysteries -- just not as much as before.
Jonathan CreekDistributor: BBC Warner
Cast: Alan Davies, Caroline Quentin, Stuart Milligan
First date: 1999
US Release Date: 2009-01-20
Last date: 2000
One of the most important names in the history of Jonathan Creek was that of its producer: Verity Lambert.
In 1963, at the insistence of an eager BBC head, Lambert was given the role of Producer for a strange little show called Doctor Who, in which an elderly man travels through time with various young companions, stopping would-be historical atrocities before they happen. Lambert was an influential figure on the show's early years, and for good reason: she made sure that everyone understood the importance of the relationship that exists between the enigmatic Doctor and his human companions, as it's that very chemistry ultimately drives the show -- the force that will draw casual audience members in and have them stay after their first taste.
Decades later, Lambert was able to use the same principles to help shape David Renwick's Jonathan Creek, in which an enigmatic, brilliant magician's assistant named Jonathan Creek (Alan Davies) is pared up with a blathering, outspoken investigative reporter named Madeline Magellan (the scene-stealing Caroline Quentin) to investigate seemingly-impossible crimes that have no easy answers to speak of. Their chemistry (both romantic and otherwise) was unmistakable, but, as this DVD set proves, not all good things can last forever.
Series Three (which originally aired in 1999-2000) features the show getting curiously meta, as Maddy's books about her adventures with Jonathan are slowly becoming best-sellers, and a small cult audience is developing around the perpetually-shy, windmill-dwelling Jonathan. This all comes to a head in the series' fifth episode, "Miracle in Crooked Lane", in which Jonathan and Maddy are invited to have a small tent at a local convention, wherein many J-Creek fanatics show up to ask questions of the duo, all who, unsurprisingly, look and dress almost exactly like Jonathan. The unexpected attention that Jonathan receives spurns Maddy a bit (so far in the series, the most that she and Jonathan have done is kiss each other), and it isn't until later in that same episode that Maddy and Jonathan face the inevitable and physically express their desires for each other.
What's curious about this development is just how little is made of it: the duo continue in their same bickering way in the episode that follows, ultimately proving nothing and leaving those viewers who care about their relationship in somewhat of a disappointed state. After three seasons of unrequited passion, all we get is a shot of them in bed together and no change to Maddy and Jonathan's dynamic? What a remarkable let-down.
The disappointment is shared all around, truth be told, as some of the mysteries hatched this time around are some of the worst that Jonathan has ever been associated with. It's not that the episodes are, by themselves, bad -- it's just that some of the conclusions/ explanations that Renwick has devised are nothing short of outlandish. In the season opener of "The Curious Tale of Mr. Spearfish", a man named Lenny (Andrew Tiernan) sells his soul to the devil (or at least a man representing Mr. Beelzebub), and soon realizes that he has become immortal. Bullets reflect of his body, an assassin dies after simply staring at him, and his portfolio profits are skyrocketing at an alarming rate.
Without spoiling too much, the solution to this riddle is a bit strange, given the millions of pounds that it would've cost, and how the party responsible isn't even named -- it's merely guessed at by Jonathan. The same goes for "The Eyes of Tiresias", in which an elderly woman dreams of and therefore predicts the murder of a French businessman detail-for-detail, right down to his last words before being fatally shot.
The solution, again, is a rare one-in-a-million shot that stretches the very believability of this already-outlandish program. By focusing on solving the case of the psychic lady instead of the simple murder of the famed Parisian suit, the show loses a lot of the life-or-death stakes that it has going for it.
Fortunately, the rest of the series mostly makes up for these two low-points. "The Omega Man" is a fantastic episode wherein Maddy is called on by a noted alien researcher to take a look at a strange, otherworldly skeleton that he has uncovered, hoping that this fringe journalist will be able to break the story before the government interferes -- which they immediately do. Swarmed by U.S. Army soldiers, the skeleton (which burns those who touch it), is shackled in a gigantic box and immediately transported onto a secure military compound. Upon opening the box, the Army finds that the alien has, in fact, vanished.
When Jonathan is brought in, he winds up getting tangled up with the alien researcher who called Maddy in the first place. The man -- a certified doctor and certainly no fool -- proves to be quite the intellectual match for Jonathan, as his belief in otherworldly life proves a direct challenge to Jonathan's logic-based reasoning. The two men acknowledge their differences yet also carry a mutual respect for each other, climaxing with the doctor giving Jonathan a hint as to where the alien may have gone to: one of the nine planets -- in fact, the coldest. The solution is, quite simply, both surprisingly simple and utterly brilliant ...
... which is also what can be said for the fantastic season-closer, "The Three Gamblers". Three criminal low-lifes meet a derelict dealer in a remote cabin to discuss a forthcoming drug shipment, but things turn nasty and the gun-weilding derelict, making unsavory passes at the female crook, loses his firearm and gets shot in the head six times, leaving him unmistakably dead on the basement floor of this crummy stone cabin, the paranoid trio soon going up the stairs, locking the door behind them, and barricading it with a giant wooden dresser.
Months later when the crooks are caught, they tell of the deal that went bad and bring the police back to the cabin to uncover any new evidence that might be of use. Upon opening the cellar door, the crazed derelict's corpse is found right on the top step, his withered hand reaching out at the investigators, as if his evil spirit couldn't let a simple thing like death prevent his revenge. One of the crooks goes crazy, Maddy finds herself in dire peril, and Jonathan -- all the while -- finds new uses for his deck of cards. The solution this time out is classic Creek: the answer of the crawling corpse being so ridiculously easy that we, the viewer, are ashamed that we didn't think of it ourselves.
Yet that's always been part of the fun of watching Jonathan Creek: these mysteries, as impossible as they seem, are always answered in realistic terms, making things like ghostly murders and disappearing bodies appear as projections of the frightened: it's always easier to explain something with magic or witchcraft than look at the actual, real-world solution, as unbelievable as it may be. At times (as on the episode "Ghosts Forge"), something as simple as changing one's name can lead to a world of hurt down the line, but other times (as on the "Miracle of Crooked Lane" episode) people will go to extraordinary lengths to get away with the simplest of crimes.
Jonathan's solutions rarely unearth diabolical criminal masterminds at work: just very sick, depraved people with a score to settle and a finite amount of resources. Ultimately, we see a dark side of ourselves in the episodes of Series Three -- but, unfortunately for the show, we rarely get to see much else.