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Howard Rosenberg / TELEVISION

Real Mystery: What Was PBS Thinking?

January 29, 2001|Howard Rosenberg

There are whodunits and whydunits. Now, PBS dunit.

Stiff upper lip, now. The victim--soon to be planted in present form, face down beneath the rosebushes--is the celebrated "Mystery!," which has more than earned its exclamation mark during nearly 21 years of offering U.S. viewers British imports ranging from fair to flat-out brilliant.

On the high end was "Prime Suspect," with Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison. And not far below were a host of others, including "Reilly: The Ace of Spies," "Game, Set and Match," "A Dark Adapted Eye," "Agatha Christie's Miss Marple," "Mother Love," "Praying Mantis," "Die Kinder (The Children)" and "Commander Adam Dalgliesh."

But PBS no longer owns this franchise, as Brits keep expanding across the TV landscape. Noting the number of their mysteries on cable's A&E and BBC America, for example, PBS says its own "Mystery!" audience has shrunk.

It confirmed last week that "Mystery!," as now constituted, is headed for the slab (perhaps as early as 2002), to be succeeded one of these days possibly by a series mining America's own fat archive of vibrant mystery writers.

And bulging it is: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, moderns like Carl Hiaasen. The list goes on and on, even though small-screen mysteries of depth and texture from U.S. writers are as extraterrestrial as Plutonians. A&E has dipped its toe gingerly into that gene pool a few times with only rare creative success. ABC botched its version of the British "Cracker." And that popular CBS oldie, "Murder, She Wrote," spoon-fed its audience one-dimensional puzzlers that just about anyone was able to easily decode.

So even card-carrying Anglophiles will agree, surely, that waving Old Glory here makes sense, especially for a U.S. public network that has spent much of its life wrapped in the Union Jack.

PBS has already begun edging that way, with so-so results, in occasionally airing works by prominent U.S. writers on Wednesday nights under the banner of its signature "Masterpiece Theatre."

Packing it in after 64 episodes even before "Mystery!" expires, though, is one of that anthology's most popular, appealing and intriguing sleuths--morose, erudite, boozing, eternally teed-off Inspector Morse. Losing him won't be easy.

Coming next month is a retrospective of the character followed by "The Remorseful Day: The Inspector Morse Finale," a two-hour farewell to this Colin Dexter-created figure played so vividly by John Thaw that it's been hard accepting him (the actor's nightmare) in other roles. Perhaps that's a reason why Thaw earlier had ended being Morse except in occasional movies like this one.

When last checking in on Morse in "Mystery!" we found him solving a 140-year-old murder from his hospital bed while crankily awaiting results of a biopsy. And now, bent over in pain, his stomach a war zone, he's so seriously ill that he's getting his personal affairs in order. Yet as he embarks on his last case while knowing his time is limited, the chief inspector is not about to go easily, and you just know they'll have to screw him into the ground.

A wealthy tart of a woman he once knew and cared for turns up murdered in her mansion after some "kinky rumpy pumpy" in bed. And Morse and his usually pliant sidekick, Sgt. Lewis (Kevin Whatley), intersect acrimoniously at times while peeling back layers of inky enigma obscuring a family's secret.

You get here the usual layered plotting, first-rate supporting cast and camera dexterity. Even more, "The Remorseful Day" is among the best-told stories in the superb Morse skein, its multiflawed hero departing as one of the most arresting, densely written and complex sleuths in all of British crime fiction.

Morse's nature is as dark as Thaw's hair is white. He's much the royal pain, a lonely, arrogant, impatient scowler who is bookish and cultured, yet as drawn to vices as Wagner, as addicted to ale as cerebral crosswords and poetry. For Morse, there is always time for one more pint while nosing into murders often as sick and gory as his Oxford surroundings are civil and refined.

In fact, there have been 81 corpses in the TV series, reports Dexter, the Latin and Greek scholar who invented Morse in 1972 in the first of many best-selling novels featuring his unique cop.

Morse has been readying his own body bag for years, and as the camera frames him in a close-up in "The Remorseful Day," you are watching a man who is the depleted sum of his excesses. There is much to mourn, though, the Morse finale turning sentimental as it trails off, a fitting requiem for a sensitive character who was moved by tenderness and repelled by death.

"Inspector Morse" ranks surely with the cream of "Mystery!" Not on quite the same pedestal with early "Prime Suspect" (which was ultimately moved to "Masterpiece Theatre"), but well above the middlebrow crowd typified by Jeremy Brett's tightly coiled Sherlock Holmes and Leo McKern's amiable Horace Rumpole.

Would PBS be able to create an anthology of U.S. mysteries with this much class at the top? There's no reason it couldn't, using as a role model the Brits, who have been there, dunit.

* The two-hour finale of "Mystery!'s" Inspector Morse series, "The Remorseful Day," airs Feb. 22 at 9 p.m. on KCET. It is preceded at 8 p.m. by "The Last Morse," a retrospective on the detective.

*

Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be contacted by e-mail athoward.rosenberg@latimes.com.

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