Saturday, January 16, 2021

Miss Scarlet & the Duke, on PBS

There is a Remington Steele-like situation going on at the Henry Scarlet Detective Agency, but Scarlet was certainly a very real person. He taught his daughter Eliza everything she knows about detective work, but now he is dead and she must provide for herself. It is definitely not considered an appropriate job for a lady in Victorian London, but fortunately she can rely on the reluctant help of her father’s protégé, William “The Duke” Wellington in Rachael New’s six-episode Miss Scarlet & the Duke, which premieres this Sunday on PBS.

Respectable women of the era are expected to earn their keep by marrying and having children, but that is not Miss Scarlet’s style. Even a marriage of convenience with her closeted friend Rupert Parker would constrain her freedom too much. She is convinced she can continue her father’s agency, but she must convince prospective clients her father will be the one performing the investigations (sometimes it was convenient living in pre-internet times). She also hopes Wellington (nicknamed “The Duke,” because of reputation for sartorial style, despite his humble origins) will throw her some work, but he is more determined to protect her from herself. The sparks will fly.

There is a lot of character-establishing in the first episode, “Inheritance,” but eventually Scarlet manages to land and solve a case. Unfortunately, the results will be more complicated than she anticipated. The tone and constant arguments are very similar in “The Woman in Red,” but it is a more fully developed mystery that also incorporates the Oscar Wilde-like dilemmas of Parker and his friends.

In “Deeds Not Words,” Wellington tosses Scarlet some undercover work she is uniquely suited for, but it causes her great moral conflict when she finds herself infiltrating a suffrage society.
 This episode really stands out most for how New explores the line between well-intentioned political commitment and violent extremism in a way that feels awkwardly timely.

Arguably, the last three episodes are significantly better than the first three. “Momento Mori” probably features the most entertaining mystery of the series, involving a death photographer, a phony medium, and threatening messages sent from beyond the grave. The final scenes also segues into a more complicated intrigue that require the final two episodes to resolve. Much to Wellington’s annoyance (and concern), Scarlet is reported missing, perhaps as a result of her investigation into her father’s real cause of death.

Scarlet is no Mrs. Bradley and Wellington is no Sergeant Cribb, but their series is serviceable enough. Still, the Tracy-and-Hepburn will-they-or-won’t-they bickering and bantering chemistry worked a lot better in moldy old
Remington Steele. Frankly, their constant arguments really do not make much sense for two reasons: Scarlet is obviously not an idiot, but as a contractor, she has a duty to protect her client’s reputation at all costs.

Fortunately, there are several supporting characters who bring a lot to the series. Ansu Kabia steals the show whenever he appears as the roguish Moses, who is sort of like Miss Scarlet’s equivalent of Hawk from
Spencer for Hire. His intense presence just blows everyone else off the screen. Conversely, Kevin Doyle’s warmly understated performance as Henry Scarlet (often seen giving Scarlet advice in her mind’s eye) adds a lot of heart and humanism to the series. In fact, when Wellington also has his own interior dialogue with the late Mr. Scarlet, it is unexpectedly poignant and probably the most memorable scene of the entire season.

New tries pull a few shocking revelations on viewers during episodes five and six, but she does not have enough recurring characters to surprise us. At a certain point, if it isn’t someone we know, then it’s just some schmoo. Still, it is nice to be back on the mean streets of Victorian London again. This setting and milieu just always seems to work (by the way, some streamer really ought to pick up
Cribb). Moderately recommended as a conventional but watchable odd couple British mystery, Miss Scarlet and the Duke starts tomorrow (1/17) on PBS.