The Death of ‘Death in Paradise’ – The BBC mystery series that has truly been murdered.

One of my most popular blog posts has been a piece I wrote in early 2017 about the award winning, view rating smasher, exotic-come-bumbling British crime drama Death in Paradise. In that piece I looked at how its diverse representation of mixed gender and strong well written BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) characters, alongside wonderful plotting and original crime ideas made the series a real hit, and one to watch for fans of crime fiction.

Death in Paradise S6
The new team

But, this was at the end of season 5, and I am sad to say that since then and particularly with the most recent series, everything that I praised about this programme has been totally reversed. And it is unbelievably shocking.

Let’s start with Race. Each episode has the main cast of the Saint Marie police force, and then the selection of characters who will be involved in the murder investigation. In this cast of suspects is where the series used to take BAME representation and gender balance very seriously, most importantly portraying BAME characters as normal people, and not making them stereotypes of their race or giving them stories that were only about race and nothing else. It was bold and exciting writing, bringing a diverse cast into millions of people’s homes each week. Even winning them awards for diversity. But things have changed horribly.

As I write this we are midway through season 7, and (get ready for this) in the first 3 episodes, nearly half the series, that entire cast of characters are totally white. How is it possible that a series that is set in the Caribbean can have no black characters for its first 3 episodes? What on earth are they thinking? The crimes explored have mainly become about the problems of a white elite that can afford to holiday, own multiple hotels, or lead poker tournaments on the island.

Now I may hear you say that the programme still has its diverse main cast. 3 out of the 4 are black and all non-British. However, the issue is now that the rich character development, tensions and cultural explorations that were dealt with through the main cast in the early series have all been gutted out. The main cast are as cardboard as possible, the black characters being now of mainly fairly low intelligence, only able to do desk work, and seemingly unsure of anything until the white detective amazingly explains it to them, and they are slowly becoming parodies.

We get to episode 4 of this series 7, and we do get to a black cast of characters. However, the major problem here, is that they are given stereotypical ‘black roles’. They are crazy Christian faith healers, and American pentecostal preachers. This is a major issue, as we go again towards the terrible idea that holds so much of our televisual output in this country: that only things about ‘race’ or about ‘black culture’ happen to people of colour, and everything else happens to white people.

The gender balance still remains high, with a mixture represented on screen, but a similar problem occurs here as with racial representation, let me give you an example.  Florence Cassell, right hand woman to both D.I Goodman (of series 3-6) and D.I Mooney of the current series, has become so thin a character as to seemingly have no thoughts of her own. She is written to stand around, asking what is going on, and watching D.I Mooney do everything for her. Then in a recent episode she had the role of chasing a suspect and grabbing them, both of them falling into the water. This caused a spate of write ups calling patronisingly calling her an ‘action woman’. The co-detective before her, Camille Bordey, was a fully rounded, complex and fiery character, who actually did detection. Having a full character, Camille was never called out and lifted up for one specific thing that she did in an episode, but Florence is written so vaguely that when she does one thing (running once in an episode) she gets the patronising name of ‘action woman’, seemingly because she has done nothing else before that or since.

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The classic duo – D.I Poole and D.S Camille Borday

All of this is down to bad writing. This show used to have a gorgeous set of character relationships, with the simple but brilliant premise of an Englishman forced to solve crimes in the sun, and everything that built from that culturally and racially was genius. But now any tension is totally lost. Those who take up the detective role at this point just enjoy being there. They don’t seem to suffer from any tensions apart from some food being too spicy, or a drink being odd, and everyone gets along. And if they don’t it’s because of some extremely base misunderstandings of each others cultures. Like for example in episode three of series 7 where poor Florence can’t possibly understand the idea of the ‘Desert Island Discs’ radio show: “Why would you be thinking about what music you are listening to, you need to survive if you are stuck on an island alone”– I mean please.

And the most tragic of all, for a detective series is the mysteries themselves. What used to be a wonderfully written show, with clear links to the great books of the past, without over stating, and using the best aspects of the genre in a new context were what made series 1 and 2 so wonderful to watch. Now the whole programme has the level of detective writing that you would expect to find in a do-it-yourself murder mystery box that you order for a birthday party.

The crimes used to link so well to the context built, and evolve naturally out of a situation (take the series masterpiece ‘Predicting Murder’, from series 1 as a perfect example), but now it seems that a writer has had a cool idea they want to get out and have then written a ridiculously convoluted and weak set up in which to show that idea off. Take for example, episode 2 of the current series 7 The Stakes are High, where there is seemingly no reason for the killer to create a highly complex and risky murder when they could have bumped off the victim at anytime they liked elsewhere. The ideas, context, motives and clues just don’t stack up, and nothing gels, leaving you covering your eyes in despair.

Take also episode 1 of series 7 Murder From Above, (penned by Robert Thorogood, the series creator, writer of some of the best episodes of the programme, and an actual authority on detective fiction and who therefore should know better.) This episode sees a woman commit suicide by jumping from the balcony of her room locked from the inside. But DI Moony thinks it’s murder. Why? Because the victim left the lid slightly off of her nail varnish and had only painted her thumb nail. How does he convince us as the audience that this small clue means murder? Well he just tells us that’s what it means of course! DI.Mooney (and I paraphrase here) points to the victims bed where there are some shirts folded up neatly and says “no, she would never have left the lid off of her nail varnish, look she is an extremely neat person, this doesn’t make sense.” This represents the worst kind of writing in detective fiction, where the writer simply tells us what things mean, and that they could have no possible other meaning or function – aside from the fact that a folded shirt on one occasion doesn’t make you a neat person, or a hotel maid could have folded them, or someone else etc etc etc.

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But only her thumb nail had been painted!

I could go on and on but you get the point. It’s this kind of poor writing that was satirised in books like The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkely back in 1929!

“Don’t waste time on unessentials. Just tell the reader very loudly what he’s to think, and he’ll think it all right. You’ve got the technique perfectly, Why don’t you try your hand at it? It’s quite a paying game, you know.”  (Poisoned Chocolates Case, Anthony Berkley, 1929) 

Other than these murderous writing problems, the general dialogue and delivery is so wooden, full of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, with endless stretching out of the most simple concepts that it is actually cringe inducing. I had to take breaks in watching the 3rd and 4th episode in particular because the writing was so poor. The actors (and there are some great ones in the series) fed this terrible dialogue, sound like they are reading their lines from cards next to the camera.

Why does this all frustrate me so much? Well I am of course a fan of detective fiction. When I see a chance that the form may get solid representation, with possible new takes on the genre, not to mention all the other great points about inclusion that this show can bring up, then it’s super exciting. But Death In Paradise now represents why many people think detective fiction is so poor, unintelligent, weak, unliterary and not worth their time. And for a programme that pulls in more viewers than ever (8.79 million for episode 1 of series 7), it’s a tragedy that this is what most people will believe detective fiction is.

It’s so sad to see something that once had such credibility in every area, become the most empty and conservative parody of itself. I implore any readers to go back and watch an episode from series 1 or 2 against this series, it’s like watching two entirely different shows. I want to say there is still a chance that it could pick up again. But unfortunately, I already know that it’s too late. At least I can go back to the days of D.I Pool and Camille Borday, but I know that we cannot have them back again.

 

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23 thoughts on “The Death of ‘Death in Paradise’ – The BBC mystery series that has truly been murdered.”

  1. Sorry to hear that DiP has fallen so thoroughly. As for myself, I still have series 6 to watch before even reaching the current one. So far (i.e. up to series 5), I’ve still found the show fairly engaging. Sure, the best plots came earlier on, but you could still rely on one or two great ones in each series.

    Is series 6 still worthwhile? I’ve seen some complaints about it, but nothing to the extent of your review of series 7.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think series 6 is where the most major problems started, it was holding on by its finger nails at that point. But then again it depends what you want out of the series I will always compare everything to series 1 and 2 which were so brilliant. But essentially from series 3 onwards it is a different programme with different goals. I personally think those goals are weak, and have gutted the life from it, but it depends on how you feel about that and what you can cope with.

      I think your point stands that there are always good episodes and moments of glory amongst the chaff, so series 6 is worth it for that reason. Series 7 however has nothing going for it so far.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I haven’t really minded the moved goal posts of series 3 – 5. Shallow as I am, I’m mainly in it for great mystery plots, not for the stuff you mention about equal representation or so – though it’s disheartening that Florence is reduced to a stooge.

        Ah well, if we got to the seventh series before the wheels really came off, I’d say that this was a successful show. Maybe it’s time to hope for a new one that can take over – similarly to how DiP took over after Jonathan Creek lost its way…

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  2. There’s a difficult, too, in how much any long-running show maintains its quality. Sometimes a show takes a little while to find its feet — the first series of Blackadder, for instance, contains only about three good jokes and is tonally all over the place — then hits its stride, and then must maintain that pace and can’t. I mean, think of a show that lasted past about four series and stayed as good (or, hell, got better) as it went…sure, it’s subjective, but it’d be a short list.

    Detection is a difficult prospect, because the nature of the clues and the cases needs to vary and also remain the same. This (in part) is why Jonathan Creek nose-dived so sharply, but at least there’s the extra consideration of David Renwick writing every single word of that show; DiP has a slew of writers, and doesn’t quite maintain the quality because of how big and loose its plotting is becoming (the episode with the man whose wife leaves an answerphone message of her being murdered — episode 5, I think, of the most recent series — has a tonne of holes in it that are glossed over by handy flashbacks which in turn answer none of the problems they raise).

    Maybe the considerations you raise also go out of the window as the difficulty in maintaining the plot quality becomes more of an issue. We need to fill the episode up with something, so Dwayne has to be hilariously inept in love, or Florence has to…er, well she doesn’t really do anything now — these are easy ways to add an extra couple of minutes to the run-time. Don’t worry about the quality or the portrayal of the characters involved, just give me an extra five minutes of content!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with your point on the quality of TV shows dropping after a few seasons. British series are generally better at staying good than American ones – mainly because they produce a smaller number of episodes per series, and therefore don’t need to put in filler episodes and have an extensive overarching plot. That’s also why I generally find that American shows that are based on some other media (be it comics, a book series or something like that) have a better chance at staying good. For British ones that generally only produce six or eight episodes per season it’s easier to keep the quality longer.

      And of course you have another good point that there will be different problems with TV shows that have just one writer as opposed to having several writers working together. They have different advantages and drawbacks that will affect the quality of the show.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thorogood had his hand in most of the episodes in series 1 and 2, but the pool of writers has grown hugely. This doesn’t always mean that quality drops off (Elementary has a group of writers but remains consistent for example) but in this case, as JJ mentioned, the plotting has got so wide that it’s totally lost it’s heart.

        And I agree Christian, I also come to a show like this mainly for the mystery of course! But a mystery I feel is reinforced and made deeper by its characters, its use of context and the way in which the mystery is embedded in the world created. Now the world of DIP is so odd and disconnected with itself that the mysteries become strange floating anomalies against it all. Then when the plotting, clewing and solutions of the mysteries started to drop off so badly then none of it works. Even the denouement’s – something I didn’t have space to write about above – used to be an important part of the plot. Poole always brought people together to tell the solution for a reason; something was revealed in the room for example, or someone needed to be there to force a confession etc. But now people just seem to sit around together for no reason while the detective tells them what has happened. It just doesn’t gel.

        And I must say that I don’t feel DIP has taken over from Jonathan Creek. I mean, what could ever take over from Jonathan Creek!
        I don’t know how you feel Christian but there is a certain amount of misinterpretation about DIP that it is an impossible crime series, but it certainly isn’t.

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  3. Well, I still enjoy it.

    I do take a lot of your points, but my main gripe of this series, bar the sidelining Of Florence, is the repeating of plot structures from earlier series – without spoiling this, episode 4 of this series.

    But I enjoy it, nonetheless. I thought the first three mysteries were clever enough. Episodes 4 and 5 were more disappointing, but the central cast are entertaining company and at least it is making an effort – unlike, for example, series 3 where I’d solved most of the mysteries by the time the opening credits rolled.

    As for it’s popularity – well, I’ll cite my Four Queens and no Kings of crime theory. The man of the street (or on the sofa) looks at the entertaining sleuths first and the plot a distant second…

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s heartening to see that you still think there’s something worthwhile about the show. It gives me some hope that I won’t be completely disgusted when I reach series seven. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Tirially agree on the plot reuse, episode four is unbelievable for that! And there were a few in 5 and 6 that had the same set ups and solutions as well.

      Glad you still get something out of it.

      And if we are talking entertaining sleuths, how anyone could find Ardal O’Hanlon’s performance entertaining is beyond me.

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    3. Just thought I’d mention that I was quite impressed with last night’s episode. Blindingly obvious to someone whose read a few locked room mysteries, but well set up and well clued with enough of an original spin on events to make it a little different. Just saying…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Argh, why is it only possible to reply up to certain levels here on WordPress?

    “And I must say that I don’t feel DIP has taken over from Jonathan Creek. I mean, what could ever take over from Jonathan Creek!
    I don’t know how you feel Christian but there is a certain amount of misinterpretation about DIP that it is an impossible crime series, but it certainly isn’t.”

    It’s not an impossible crime series, but it does have its fair share of them. But I didn’t really mean that DiP took over from JC as an impossible mystery series, more that it took over as a proponent of the fair play mystery. Because apart from these two I can only remember two other ongoing British mysteries that purport to be fair play: “Father Brown” and “Midsomer Murders”.

    And say what you will about the former (I actually enjoy it quite a bit, much more than the real Father Brown stories, to be honest), but as a fair play mystery it generally doesn’t work. And the latter we need not go in on, I think…

    So maybe it’s time for another, new fair play mystery series?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ugh, sorry to hear this, Dan; my family and I have been great fans of Death in Paradise for much of its run, and I still think that “Wicked Wedding Night” and “A Stab in the Dark” are ingenious by any standard. With that said, I also detected the obvious falling-off in quality for Series (or “Seasons,” as we call them here) 5 and 6; the solutions were not only fairly obvious, but the scripts just weren’t very well-written. (“Murder in the Polls” was unbearable.) Disappointed to hear that Season 7 continues that trend, though I did have a feeling because I found O’Hanlon’s Mooney rather boring.

    In all honesty, as much as I liked Kris Marshall, I think the program lost some of its soul when Ben Miller left; it really ruined much of Thorogood’s original concept, as you noted. Oh, well, I’ll still be watching whenever PBS decides to show Season 7…

    Karl

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, I think I liked Marshall more than you did, but I thought the biggest problem was that the writers (including Thorogood, unfortunately) made him so much of an anti-Poole that it came off as straining for effect. (“See, see, he’s different!”) That kind of quieted down after Season 3; while Season 4 may be the weakest overall, it did give us one of the recent wonders of the TV impossible crime—“Stab in the Dark,” a brilliant episode, finding a new solution to a Carrian problem, that (I would argue) is just as good as Jonathan Creek at its best (“Black Canary,” “Jack in the Box,” “Mother Redcap,” “The Tailor’s Dummy”). While I far prefer DiP’s characters to Creek’s, the latter’s plots are superior, on the whole.

        I can see where you’re coming from in saying that it’s an entirely different program, and in many ways I agree, as its whole raison d’être was changed. I still found it fun, though, and Thorogood could still pull in a good plot every once in a while. More than anything, I just enjoyed spending time with these characters: I really liked Dwayne, Fidel, and Col. Klink—I mean, the Commissioner! ;)—and I had my requisite crushes on the lovely girls the show has/had.

        Oh, well, as I said, I’m still going to watch, but at least with one wary eye.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Agreed on this Karl. I think the anti Poole idea also meant that any tensions were lost because he simply enjoys the island and the people. I think with Marshal is where any comedy elements started to be really poor.

        Stab in the Dark is he impossible killing at a seance right? It didn’t really stick with me so I’ll have to check it again seeing as you like it so much.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yup, that’s the one. I think the reason I liked it so much was that the set-up was taken in its entirety from a Carr (“The Black Minute,” a radio-play with Dr. Fell), but Thorogood managed to find another, and (IMO) equally clever, solution.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel exactly as you do, Karl. We’ll be watching the new season when it arrives on PBS, because despite the decline it’s still likely to be better than most of the alternatives, but really the rot set in when Miller left. We must have watched most of his episodes three or four times, so the mysteries ain’t mysteries no more, but the time still seems well spent.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m starting to feel as you and Dan do, John; I watched “The Man with the Golden Gun” (a Goodman episode) the other day and found it far slower and duller than I originally thought—and, quite simply, Marshall didn’t deliver a particularly good performance. Now I’m watching “Spot the Difference” (a Poole episode)—and the difference is remarkable. Everyone’s performance is superior; Miller is far superior. And I actually think “Golden Gun” has a cleverer plot than “Difference,” but everything else in the latter episode is better! Oh, well…

        Liked by 1 person

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