Televising Toronto the Good
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Televising Toronto the Good

Dr. Julia Ogden (Hélène Joy) and Detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson) from Murdoch Mysteries.

The Victorian Era, when the city gained its nickname Toronto the Good, is usually thought of as a time of staid social order upheld by unwritten laws of morality. In the name of propriety, boarding houses had a strict ten o’clock curfew. And keeping up public appearances was paramount. There was, however, another side of the city beneath this prim and proper surface, as journalist C.S. Clark describes in Of Toronto the Good (1898)—which despite its name is actually an excursion into the bars, brothels, and gambling dens to uncover the city’s underbelly of vice.
Murdoch Mysteries, the Shaftesbury Films–produced television show that follows the exploits of William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson)—the Victorian detective first encountered in the best-selling novels of Maureen Jennings—helps bring this other side of Toronto’s history to life. Currently riding a wave of success, the multiple Gemini-nominated show just got renewed for a third season on Citytv and will begin being aired on American Public Television at the end of the month. Season one was released on DVD earlier this week.

The main characters on Murdoch Mysteries.

Murdoch Mysteries works both as a straight-ahead detective procedural as well as an illuminating take on mid-1890s Toronto. On the one hand, the straight-laced Detective Murdoch employs all the latest scientific and forensic techniques, including fingerprinting and ballistics, and blood-testing to solve each week’s murder. Some critics have dubbed the show CSI: 1895. Other critics have suggested that some of the mysteries wrap up a little too conveniently, but that’s really no different from any of the other television procedurals that must go through the requisite twists and turns before the final credits roll.
The show’s real strength is in the main characters: Detective Murdoch and the city of Toronto. Murdoch is an emotionally stilted bookworm, a methodical thinker who devises his own contraptions—like building his own lie-detector device—and scientific methods based on what he scours from journals. But his character is complicated at moments, paced over the course of season one, when the strength of his convictions is challenged—most notably when the mysticism of a séance shakes his certainty about the infallibility of science, and when his single-minded antipathy towards his estranged father forces Murdoch to confront his own biases during an investigation.
Toronto is more than just a character because its cobblestone and dirt streetscape provides the setting—and incidentally the show is filmed on soundstages and in Cambridge. The show captures the historical character of the city: its fashions, its social codes, and its corridors of power. It’s also a deeply Protestant city that places severe limits on the advancement of Catholics, as Murdoch—who crosses himself every time he sees a dead body—encounters when he’s refused a promotion solely because of his religion.
Murdoch’s investigations take him across the city’s class spectrum, from “ratting”—betting on which terrier can kill more rats—in dingy taverns to fundraisers for Barnardo-like charities in upper-class drawing rooms. Another episode wades through the cutthroat debates and back-stabbing politics surrounding public utilities and power in the city.
While Murdoch is a progressive in scientific method, he is also a man of his time. Rarely does Murdoch Mysteries fall into the all-too-easy trap seen in historical dramas of giving a smug nod and a wink to the present by making a statement about how far we’ve come. The era’s social attitudes are, for the most part, presented matter-of-factly. When a groom’s murder on the morning of his wedding leads Murdoch into the city’s homosexual subculture—a group that meets under the subterfuge of being a tennis club—the detective isn’t at all antagonistic, but he isn’t an anachronistic champion of rights either. It’d be unbelievable. Rather, the unease he displays promises to repeat over the course of the series when Murdoch is forced to reexamine his steadfast beliefs. Likewise, in deference to the social protocol of the day, Murdoch’s romantic pinings for Dr. Julia Ogden—the pathologist played by Hélène Joy—remain largely limited to stiff sideward glances and awkward, unfinished conversations throughout season one.
Rather than framing the Victorian era as entirely dark or oppressive—as in David Lean’s Dickens adaptations—Murdoch Mysteries has a sense of humour, provided by Constable George Crabtree, Murdoch’s assistant. The constraints of Victorian social mores are humorously examined when Crabtree makes a social visit upon a lady or when he has to baby-sit a wild, ne’er-do-well prince visiting Toronto while Murdoch investigates Fenian rebels conspiring the prince’s abduction.
While Murdoch Mysteries gives a good representation of Victorian Toronto, it doesn’t overwhelm by enumerating an abundance of quaint but unenlightening historical detail intended only to emphasize historical verisimilitude. When such subtle details do arise, like when one character eating an orange casually mentions how difficult it is to acquire one, they serve the story or as scene-setting.
Sure, there are probably anachronisms if you want to find them, and the rotating case of visitors, from Nicola Tesla to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, stopping by to help the detective solve crimes is a bit far-fetched. But a lighter tone for the Victorian era—while still illuminating the era’s darker shades—is a refreshing change from an overly noir or stuffy costume drama.
The four-disc DVD set, released yesterday, includes commentary on the first episode, and brief interviews with all the key players—including Jennings—on disc four along with textual background information.
All images courtesy of Shaftesbury Films.