Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: The Feminist Sherlock You Should Be Watching

Feature Kayti Burt
3/8/2016 at 4:23PM

This Australian period detective drama, available to stream on Netflix, features one of the best characters on television.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is one of those rare TV shows that not only follows through on its initial, delightful premise's promises, but manages to fill a pop culture void in the process. 

Set in 1920s Melbourne and focusing on the exciting life of a scandalous lady detective, Miss Fisher comes off like Murder She Wrote, but with better clothes. And it is that, but — underneath that charming surface — there is a much-needed cultural depth and impressive consistency to this period drama. 

Miss Fisher has the witty intrigue of Sherlock, the opulent style of Downton Abbey, and the bombastic feminism of Agent Carter. But there's something gloriously unique about Miss Fisher. Maybe it's the fact that the show features a rare kind of heroine: a woman over the age of 35 who is unabashedly sexual with no desire to settle down, and who isn't punished for it.

Or perhaps it's the fact that the show not only features a clever, complicated woman at the center of its ensemble, but is created and written by women, as well. Or maybe it's the refreshing fact that — amongst a sea of gritty, anti-hero tales — Miss Fisher takes joie de vivre as an essential theme. Whatever the seret ingredient(s), Miss Fisher delivers on a delightful journey quite unlike anything else on television...

The plot: life, love, and murder in post-war Melbourne.

"So I did the only thing I could in the circumstance." "You called for help?" "I stabbed him in the shoulder."

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries is an Australian period drama based on a series of novels by Kerry Greenwood. It stars Essie Davis (The Babadook) as Phryne (pronounced Fry-nee) Fisher, an independently-wealthy, "modern" woman with a passion for solving crimes and absolutely no concern for what "mannered" society thinks she should be doing with her life. Instead, she catches murderers, takes lovers, and creates her own little found-family matriarchy within the walls of her St. Kilda mansion. (Address: 221B, of course.)

When we first meet Phryne, she is returning to Melbourne from England to ensure that the man she believes murdered her sister is never released from jail. This is the larger story arc of the first season, but the best parts of this show really come in the murders-of-the-week — and, if you've read any of my iZombie reviews, then you know I am not generally the type to prefer episode-specific plots over serialized story elements.

Each mystery delves into a differenty segment of Australian society, with many of them focusing on Melbourne's immigrant populations. Some explorations are more effectively-rendered than others, but Miss Fisher spends a lot of time investing in the ephemeral settings and characters of these plots. There's the one with the Latvian anarchists. The one with the seaside temperance society. The one with the sanitorium for "hysterial" women. The list goes on, with each foray into a Melbourne subculture offering its own peak into post-war Melbourne.

Miss Fisher benefits from having a longer per-episode running time than most American shows (just like Sherlock). The 53-minute episodes allow for the show to really delve into the details, characters, and motivations of the murder-of-the-week plots without skimping on the great character moments that really make this show worth watching.

What drives it all forward is Miss Fisher's passion for life, a deep appreciation defined by the character's own struggles. She grew up poor in Melbourne, inheriting title and wealth only after much of her extended family was killed off in World War I. Her sister was murdered when they were just children, and Phryne has never truly forgiven herself for letting it happen. Phryne worked as a nurse in World War I, comforting dying soldiers (the war hangs like a pall over many of the characters of this world, informing much of the context of the story).

Buy Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries on Amazon

Miss Fisher has seen the ugliest parts of life and continues to in her work as an investigator of murders. But, rather than dull her spirit, these experiences have only made her appreciate life, love, beauty, and pleasure all the more. Miss Fisher knows how precious life is and, even in the occasionally ridiculous moments of this show, this truth grounds the absurdist action.

We need more Phryne Fishers in our popular culture.

"You women are all the same." "I'm quite sure we aren't."

Even in the age of peak TV, there is a lot of redundancy on television. Phryne Fisher rises above the din. Sure, many of the elements of her character are familiar: She is a highly-competent investigator who sleeps around and investigates crime because of her own personal tragedy. This isn't an unfamiliar archetype. It is hardly ever, however, an archetype that gets to be female — not to mention a women over the age of 35 or in the early 20th century.

Miss Fisher novel author Kerry Greenwood said about the conception of the character:

"Phryne is a hero, just like James Bond or the Saint, but with fewer product endorsements and a better class of lovers. I decided to try a female hero and made her as free as a male hero, to see what she would do. Mind you, at that time I only thought there would be two books."

This character is brought to life by the exceptional Essie Davis, who you might recognize from her turn in the wonderfully scary Australian horror film The Babadook or the much-lauded original (Aussie) version of TV drama The Slap. Davis will also appear in season 6 of Game of Thrones. In this behind-the-scenes featurette, the Miss Fisher creators speak about how Davis brings the character to life...

If you've spent any time on the internet lately, then you may have noticed the upsurge in think pieces about the rise of the single women as an increasingly socially-acceptable (and politically-relevent) alternate to married life. Last month, British journalist Laurie Penny wrote a piece called "Maybe you should just be single" for The New Statesman. In it, she said:

"There are many different routes to a life of love and adventure and personally, I don’t intend to travel down any one of them in the sidecar. So we need to start telling stories about singleness—and coupled independence—that are about more than manicures and frantic day-drinking. We need to start remembering all of the women down the centuries who chose to remain unpartnered so that they could make art and change history without a man hanging around expecting dinner and a smile. We need to start remembering that the modern equivalents of these women are all around us, and little girls need not be terrified of becoming them."

Miss Fisher is that alternative model (albeit only one possible version of it — and a white, rich, gorgeous version at that). She is that rare fictional example of what life can be like for women who chose not to get married and/or have children — and how that alternative can be just as fulfilling. 

Miss Fisher isn't a story about a spinster finding love later in life and finally getting the traditional family she needs and deserves. It is about a sexually-liberated, vibrant, empathetic woman who has a wonderful family and community of her own making. Phryne is not someone to be pitied. She is one of the most alive characters on TV — a master detective who speaks multiple languages, knows martial arts, and can fly an airplane. Miss Fisher is competency porn at its most addictive, and its main character is a new, much-needed kind of archetype.

Miss Fisher is really an ensemble show about found family.

“When I came to work for you, Miss, I was afraid of everything and you taught me so many things and you made me brave and you made me happy.”

Miss Fisher probably has a lot in common with your favorite found family dramas — a la anything by Joss Whedon. These are imperfect, but ultimately good people who choose to belong to one another. Starting in the pilot episode, Miss Fisher basically starts collecting underdogs. As a character with immense privilege (her family inherited lots of money during the war), she has the power to affect change within her city.

Though the show very much has Phryne Fisher at its center, it is a well-developed ensemble cast of characters who make up this story. By placing them in various positions of social power, Miss Fisher is able to make comments on structures of hierarchy and power, showing how each character's identities — especially class, religion, and gender — affects how they see, interact with, and are treated by the world.

Dorothy "Dot" Williams is Phryne's very own Watson. When Dot first meets Miss Fisher as a maid suspected of murder in the pilot, Dot is afraid to use the telephone because her priest told her electricity will explode the Earth's molten core. By the end of season 1, Dot is going undercover at a mill to solve a murder. 

Phryne is very much Dot's mentor, inspiring her to go for what she wants. Though they are very different women with very different strengths, they share a love and respect for one another. Female relationships, in general, are front and center on this show in a way they typically aren't in most TV fare (usually because there aren't enough female characters to depict varied female relationships). In addition to Dot, Phryne has important relationships with her Aunt Prudence, adopted daughter Jane, and her lesbian doctor best friend Mac. 

Phryne's household is rounded out by her stalwart, yet up-for-anything butler who is actually named Mr. Butler, and two Communist cab drivers who do odd jobs for Miss Fisher when the case calls for men able to blend into working class spaces. Together, they all make up a strange, wonderful kind of family.

The police procedural element: aka feminist male allies.

"Beside every good man is a good woman and she must always be ready to step in front."

It's especially interesting to see the feminism of Miss Fisher infused into the structure of a police procedural, a form generally so comfortable with a) enforcing the status quo and b) putting women in the role of victims rather than justice-bringer or even killer. In the world of Miss Fisher, the institutions and many of the characters may be sexist, but that's no reason to accept sexism. Instead, Miss Fisher asks more of its characters — including the male ones.

Miss Fisher's forays into crime-solving often leads to clashes with the police. Luckily, her local detective inspector happens to be a reasonable sort. Inspector Detective Jack Robinson is Miss Fisher's sometimes foil, sometimes partner-in-crime, and always epic love interest. Stern and dutiful to Phyrne's playful and spontaneous, Inspector Robinson works wonderfully as a counterpoint to Miss Fisher's mischievous strain of moralism. They make a good team, not least because Jack sees Phryne as an equal with her own set of strengths (not to mention casual relationship to the law) to complement his own...

Rounding out the central quartet with Phryne, Jack, and Dot is Constable Hugh Collins. Hugh is Jack's bumbling, yet endearing police minion. He also happens to be Dot's sweetheart. (Yes, she actually describes him as such to others, on occasion.) Jack and Hugh are total feminist male allies, though the role comes more naturally to weathered soldier and divorcee Jack than it does to sweet, naive Hugh.

Though Hugh sometimes stumbles in his efforts to let Dot be her own modern woman, he always comes around in the end. In one crowning moment, he equates personal bravery not with saving his girlfriend from danger, but with allowing Dot to take her own risks in her job with Miss Fisher. This show is not at all interested in equating the damsel-in-distress trope with any kind of romance, and its male love interests (usually) fall into line. When they don't, Phryne and Dot have an eye roll at the ready.

A show run by women about women's issues.

"A woman should dress first and foremost for her own pleasure."

Each episode of Miss Fisher has a different social justice issue at its heart. Often times, these issues concern women specifically. In the very first episode, Miss Fisher takes down a dangerous back alley abortion operation, in additon to exposing a drug trafficking ring and solving a murder. Other complex, underrepresented issues the show takes on include: reproductive rights, contraception, female sex workers, gendered double standards, and LGBTQ issues.

There is always a push for greater diversity in television and film. Much of this happens in front of the camera, but it is equally important behind the camera. Having a person write about something they have never experienced — i.e. being a person of color, a woman, an LGBTQ person, etc. — is never going to be as effective as having people write about identities they themselves have experienced. Watching Miss Fisher, you can tell that it is written by women.

Fiona Eagger and Deb Cox created Miss Fisher and serve as series showrunners. Cox spoke to Australian books and publishing blog Fancy Goods about the decision to adapt Miss Fisher for the television screen, saying:

"It was hard to find a reason to bring stories about psychotic killers and serial murderers to the screen. So when we alighted on the Phryne Fisher murder mystery series—and discovered stories led by an entertaining but wonderfully subversive, feminist character, laced through with our own history and tackling social issues with a balance of grit and humour—we knew we could turn it into something we could be proud of which would fit stylistically with our mode of storytelling and reflect moral values we shared."

The logistics of a potential fourth season.

Though Miss Fisher has done well in both Australia and abroad, it has not yet been renewed for a fourth season and its fate remains unclear. Davis has been cast in Game of Thrones Season 6, but the role doesn't seem to be a major one. However, Davis' relocation to London does seem to be a deciding factor. ABC Director of Programming Brendan Dahill recently told TV Tonight:

“I love Miss Fisher and we are currently trying to resolve the Miss Fisher conundrum, because Essie is living in London these days. She’s got young kids in school, in London and so, she doesn’t want to be away from them for 3 or 4 months at a go. So, there are some logistical issues that we are trying to resolve. We’d love to bring more Miss Fisher back, but it means finding an affordable way of doing it.”

There's no Miss Fisher without Miss Fisher...

Miss Fisher is a relatively expensive show to produce. Compared to most American shows and given the impressive costuming, acting, and production values, Miss Fisher is a steal at a little over one million dollars per episode — but that's kind of a lot for Aussie TV. Cox told Fancy Goods:

"We achieved the series for little more than your average non-period Australian drama series—and when you consider that Australian budgets are generally very low compared to the UK and certainly compared to US television, I think it’s impressive what we ended up with. Our crews are respected internationally because they’re inventive and resourceful and with our series that goes double."

Miss Fisher airs on Australia's ABC network, which is a publicly-funded channel comparably to the U.K.'s BBC. ABC has had some recent luck when it comes to hit TV dramas, and has another period murder mystery drama (with a male protagonist), The Doctor Blake Mysteries, that does just as well as Miss Fisher, but at least looks like it costs less to make. Furthmore, ABC just lost two of its key TV executives, one of whom was ABC's "head of fiction" Carole Sklan, who greenlit all three seasons of Miss Fisher. 

But there is still reason to hope. There hasn't been any news that Miss Fisher won't be returning, and the show has been met with both critical and fan acclaim — both domestically and abroad. The show has been sold to more than 120 territories across the world, and seems to have a particular following in the U.S., Finland, and France. The Guardian even wrote an entire piece on how Miss Fisher has "conquered" America. 

So what are you waiting for? If you haven't already checked out Miss Fisher, you're in for a hell of a ride in her Hispano-Suiza. In America, the series' three seasons are all currently available to stream on Netflix.