PBS begins a summer season of its celebrated Mystery! series tomorrow night, and the best way to describe its theme might be: When it comes to murder, there is nothing like a dame.
Dame Diana Rigg not only serves as host of the series, but returns July 13 in The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries as Adela Bradley, the ultra-chic psychologist-sleuth in the chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce. Any lineup with Rigg in it is a winner, but she's not the only lady of high style who will be gracing the public airwaves this summer in Mystery!
The series opens tomorrow night with Dead Gorgeous, a comic thriller set in 1946 London. It stars Helen McCrory and Fay Ripley as Antonia Ashton and Rose Bell, long-lost friends who bump into each other on the street and, after a couple of cups of tea, find themselves confessing the misery of their marriages.
Antonia (McCrory), who married rich and lives large, has an idea as to how they can solve their problems: Help each of their husbands "have an accident."
"Sometimes you have to play dirty to survive. After all, we poor housewives have to stick together," Antonia says as she slips into her fur coat, climbs into her white Rolls and drives off, leaving Rose speechless.
Unlike Antonia, Rose really is a poor housewife. She married a dashing fighter pilot from the RAF who is quickly going to seed as a sour civil servant with a secret family on the side, mounting debts and a drinking problem. He treats Rose worse than a servant, verbally and physically abusing her.
A vicar's daughter, Rose suffers in silence. She is as mousy and dutiful as Antonia is flamboyant and brazen. Rose is the keeper of the social and moral order, while Antonia is the transgressor.
The screenplay adapted from a Peter Lovesey novel skillfully maintains a comic tone while showing viewers enough of Rose's wretched marriage to sell the proposition that the status quo definitely needs some transgressing - and Antonia is just the one to do it on Rose's behalf. But if Antonia is the rescuer, why does she seem like such a femme fatale? Beware the vamp in feminist clothing.
Dead Gorgeous borrows not only from Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train in Antonia's plan of crisscross murders, but also from The Trouble With Harry, as the two women struggle with the seemingly indisposable corpse of Antonia's husband.
As amusing as the scenes are in their physical comedy, there is also a deeper appeal at play - an appeal that runs throughout the entire summer season of Mystery! It involves female characters using their minds to overcome any advantages in physical strength that men might have. It is a narrative of unmistakable empowerment for female viewers.
The message of women using superior brainpower to set matters right is at the core of the journey traveled by Antonia and Rose in Dead Gorgeous as they commit their crimes - just as it is in The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries as the heroine solves crimes. Indeed, not even Hercule Poirot seems as smug in the superiority of his "little gray cells" as Mrs. Bradley does when she returns next week to her alma mater, Hadley Heights Academy for Young Ladies, to deliver the school's annual lecture.
The theme continues in Hetty Wainthropp Investigates, which returns Aug. 10 to PBS. While she's not from the social class of Mrs. Bradley, there's even more empowerment offered with Hetty. Like Agatha Christie's Mrs. Marple, Hetty (Patricia Routledge) is regularly underestimated and often dismissed not just because she is a woman, but because she is an older woman (in her 60s).
The season premiere finds Hetty locking horns with a muscle-bound bully who runs a fitness center. She gets involved only because her hairdresser asks her to.
As usual, it's a delight, and the episode's title couldn't be a more apt summary of a pleasantly feminine summer season for the Mystery! series: "Mind Over Muscle."
When: Tomorrow night at 9
Where: MPT (Channels 22, 67) and WETA (Channel 26)
In brief: Opening a smart summer of Brit mystery for the thinking woman.