Murder on the Home Front (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD), a lively and witty murder mystery set in 1940 London, is ostensibly a stand-alone telefilm made for British TV but it plays just like a pilot for a new mystery series designed to combine the popularity of historical detective shows with the banter of a cute crime-solving solving with a flirtatious chemistry. Think Foyle’s War with a younger Foyle, a spunkier Sam, and a screwball sensibility stirred through with gallows humor.
Based on the memoirs of British writer Molly Lefebure, it stars Patrick Kennedy as Dr. Lennox Collins, a brainy civilian serving as police coroner during the war, and Tamzin Merchant as quick-witted newspaper reporter Molly Cooper, drafted by Lennox to be his secretary when she proves to be smart, gifted, and unfazed by dead bodies. They are a classic TV crime duo, the brilliant but socially maladroit coroner who clashes with the conservative detectives who don’t trust his science and the spirited, bubbly female partner who isn’t shy about sharing her ideas or going undercover, dropped into the social and physical upheaval of London during the Blitz. Kennedy underplays the part a little, which could use some development (assuming there are more mysteries to come) but Merchant fills in the personality vacuum with overflowing enthusiasm. (Trivia note: Merchant was the original Daenerys Targaryen in “Game of Thrones” in the pilot but recast when the show went to series.) David Sturzaker and Iain McKee have rather thankless roles as the stubborn, plodding police detectives but they are finally given a little personality by the third act as take a little initiative of their own.
The mystery involves a serial killer who leaves swastikas carved in the tongues of his female victims, a Nazi Jack the Ripper so to speak, and is complicated by interference and obstruction from high command trying to shut down the investigation. But where other wartime mysteries take a serious, dour approach, this has the lightness of a romantic thriller in the darkness of the Blitz. When sudden death is a daily possibility, the population lives life even harder through a wild nightlife in a thriving club scene roaring between the air raids. The finale makes great use of the maze of tunnels off the London Underground.
Blu-ray and DVD with a six-minute “Interviews with Cast and Crew,” which is basically a colorful promo piece.
The Bletchley Circle: Season 2 (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD) reunites the quartet of the 2012 mini-series “Cracking a Killer’s Code” with two new feature-length mysteries, each told in two 45-minute episodes. Set in 1950s London, the original series gave us a portrait of post-war Britain where smart, talented women whose intelligence helped crack the Nazi communications codes used were now expected to leave the thinking (and the ambition) to men.
“Blood on their Hands” takes place a few months after the original series, when Jean (Julie Graham) discovers that former Bletchley colleague Alice (Hattie Morahan) is on trial for murder and refuses to put up a defense of any kind. Jean reunites the group (Rachael Stirling as the single young Millie, Sophie Rundle as Lucy, and Anna Maxwell Martin as married housewife Susan) to uncover the truth, which involves the cover-up of a wartime scandal. While the ghosts of World War II haunt the first mystery, “Uncustomed Goods” takes on the black market of post-war Britain when Millie, who dabbles in illegal perfume and cigarettes, discovers that her suppliers are also human traffickers. This second mystery feels more contrived, as if creator / writer Guy Burt was having trouble finding ways for these civilians to tackle another case. It’s also the first show without Martin’s Susan, who was the leader of the original series but left the show after “Blood.” Alice takes her place and Alice’s daughter (Faye Marsay) even pitches in during the investigation, which puts the women against a ruthless Eastern European racketeer (Brana Bajic) who thinks nothing of murdering an inconvenience.
Both the Blu-ray and DVD include a 27-minute featurette that goes in some depth about the new series and includes an interview with a real female code-breaker from Bletchley Park discussing her experience after the war, when she was sworn to secrecy about her work. The BBC announced the cancellation of the series earlier this month so this is likely the last you’ll see off the show, though a revival is still possible. It worked for …
Ripper Street: Season Two (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD), the BBC mystery series set in Whitechapel in the decade after Jack the Ripper ended his bloody reign but still haunts the fears of local residents because he was never caught. Matthew Macfadyen is the stalwart Inspector Reid, who polices a cesspool of a slum with his loyal Sgt. Drake (Jerome Flynn, better known as Bron, Tyrion’s bodyguard, on Game of Thrones). The show was initially cancelled by the BBC but Amazon Prime struck a deal to co-produce a third season. Which means that Season Three will debut online in the U.S. sometime in 2014.
Eight episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, plus the featurette “Beneath Ripper Street.”
Also new and notable:
The Address (PBS, DVD), the new Ken Burns documentary, profiles Greenwood School, a small school for learning disabled boys in Vermont that teaches its students to memorize and deliver the Gettysburg Address in a public recitation as part of the curriculum. It arrives on DVD a week after its debut on PBS.
Flowers in the Attic (Lionsgate, DVD), the made-for-Lifetime TV-movie remake of the infamous V.C. Andrews novel about siblings held prisoner in an attic by a mad grandmother, is headlined by Heather Graham and Ellen Burstyn according to the disc cover but Kiernan Shipka, the talented young actress who came of age on TV as Don Draper’s daughter on Mad Men, is the star of this one. Includes featurette.
The Making of a Lady (PBS, Blu-ray, DVD), an adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel “The Making of a Marchoness” made for British TV, stars Lydia Wilson, Linus Roache, James D’Arcy and Joanna Lumley.
Nikita: The Complete Fourth and Final Season (Warner, Blu-ray, DVD)
Anger Management: Volume Three (Lionsgate, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Practice: The Final Season (Shout Factory, DVD)
Midsomer Murders: Series 8 (Acorn, DVD)
Midsomer Murders: Series 9 (Acorn, DVD)
Midsomer Murders: Village Case Files (Acorn, DVD)
Newhart: Season Three (Shout Factory, DVD)
The Beverly Hillbillies: Season 4 (Paramount, DVD)
Petticoat Junction: Season 3 (Paramount, DVD)
Doctor Who: The Web of Fear (BBC, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Carol Burnett Show: Carol’s Crack Ups (StarVista, DVD)
The King Family: Classic Television Specials Collection Volume 1 (Royal Entertainment / MVD, DVD)
American Masters: Billie Jean King (PBS, DVD)
Russia’s Open Book (PBS, DVD)
The Hidden Art of Islam (PBS, DVD)