Perhaps it is damning with faint praise to say that Miss Scarlet and the Duke, a six-episode series airing in the U.S. on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery, is mild television. But there are some benefits to such a distinction. For one, it’s a show that’s safe to watch before you go to sleep. There are murders, but it’s unlikely to give you nightmares. Most of the cases are resolved quickly and fairly easily. There’s the slightest hint at romance, but not enough to catch you in any kind of thrall.
There’s a difference between a series like Miss Scarlet and the Duke, though, and its Masterpiece companion series All Creatures Great and Small, which is mild television that is indeed gentle, but also warm, cozy, and full of heart. Miss Scarlet is not a particularly warm creation. But then again, it’s a murder show.
Taking its inspirations from Sherlock Holmes, the beautiful and shrewd Miss Eliza Scarlet (Kate Phillips) is a kind of hobbyist detective who goes full-time after the sudden death of her father leaves her penniless. A widowed retired inspector who had started his own private detecting business, Miss Scarlet’s father (Kevin Doyle) taught her everything he knew about solving crimes, which she uses to try and take over his business—a difficult prospect in a socially conservative London. Still, there is something refreshing about a female protagonist of this era who must work to survive, and is not just independently wealthy.
Miss Scarlet is both aided and thwarted in her fledging role as a detective by her childhood friend William Wellington (Stuart Martin), known as the Duke, who worked with her father at Scotland Yard. More of a Lestrade than a Watson, the Duke is the handsome, brooding sort who is very exasperated by Miss Scarlet’s risk-taking and bossy confidence. Sparks should fly, but they seem to mostly be on the Duke’s side. The two occasionally bicker and spar like siblings, but it doesn’t really go beyond that for reasons that aren’t very clear besides a desire to manufacture an unnecessary will-they-won’t-they scenario. Further, though much is said of the Duke’s alleged womanizing and his excellent detective work, we never see even a hint of it. He’s always pacing around in his office or chasing down Miss Scarlet (who easily outwits him), and it’s one of the show’s biggest general issues that too much is told and not shown to viewers.
More interesting are Miss Scarlet’s friendships with two men she meets early in the season: Rupert Parker (Andrew Gower), a would-be suitor, and a Jamaican bouncer-of-sorts named Moses (Ansu Kabia). Though either of them could have easily been antagonists (and are, briefly), they don’t remain that way. They see something in Miss Scarlet that she also sees in them: good-hearted people who challenge society and their place in it in a number of different ways—and are sometimes punished for it (or at least threatened with punishment). Those alliances are key throughout, yet they still don’t do enough to fill out the short season’s thin narrative threads.
On the detecting side, while Miss Scarlet is an intuitive and homeschooled investigator, she does make a lot of mistakes in her pursuit of justice, which gives the show a sly humor at times. But the stakes never feel very high, even regarding murder, and as such it’s hard to feel invested in the characters or the cases. Perhaps it’s because the Victorian detective setting feels outworn; the cold blues and grays could have been swapped out for more Enola Holmes-esque brightness and verve. That would perhaps better matched the perfectly-coiffed Miss Scarlet’s plucky personality, which is pleasant enough even though it never gains much depth. And that, really, sums up the series as a whole: Pleasant. Mild. Benign. And yet, is that really a crime?
Miss Scarlet and the Duke premieres Sunday, January 17th on PBS.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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