Formulaic and generic or culturally vital? In this post I consider race, sexuality and detective fiction in one of the BBC’s most popular series.
The exotic-come-bumbling British crime drama Death in Paradise is well underway with its 6th series. The detective show has had some of the highest ratings on British television with the opening episode of this new series being watched by 9.26 million viewers. However, Death In Paradise for a long time has received a huge list of bad press. Being called formulaic and cliche-ridden. Sam Wollaston in The Guardian called it ‘the TV equivalent of a boring holiday timeshare.’ However, even at an initial glance, Death in Paradise has many elements that have huge importance in our current cultural climate.
The main thing that is powerful about this show is its level of inclusion. Gender balance throughout the series is extremely high. In the last series there were upwards of 5 lesbian and gay characters most of them in relationships that weren’t considered shocking or unusual. And the highest credit is that it’s Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation is on top form. Out of the 4 main cast 3 are black, and all of them are portrayed as non english.
But it’s not just this racial and sexual inclusion that is so important. What is most vital about the stories that these inclusive casts inhabit, is that they are deeply normal. This is huge because although things have moved forward in our presentation of diverse characters on screen, many stories that feature BAME characters are usually about ‘race’. Race-based stories are hugely important and when handled well can speak about many issues that need to be addressed on a daily basis, but if that is the only context in which say a black woman is seen on screen, it totally belittles the vast experiences of being black. It proclaims that everything that happens for BAME people is only ever about their race, and that every other story happens to white people.
Death in Paradise therefore seems to be carrying one of the mantles of representation at a national level, bringing us BAME actors playing roles that are not focused on their race as their only quality, and not there just to tick boxes of diversity.
But what about the writing itself? Is it all generic and formulaic, like a ‘boring holiday’? Well the answer in many ways is yes of course it’s formulaic, because it’s written in a particular form, that of the golden age style of detective fiction. It’s not just accidentally missing out being gritty or psychological, it’s simply not trying to do that at all. It is detective fiction pure and simple, focussed on plotting, clueing and enigma, and it does that very very well. Take for example a few episodes like the series masterpiece ‘Predicting Murder’ from series one, which has one of the most clever (and most horrific) hidden in plain sight clues that I have come across. Locked room mysteries like the series opener and one of my favourites of the last series ‘Flames of Love’ are brilliantly penned. And the series has also come out with some of the most original premises for it’s crimes, like a man being impossibly stabbed in the back while handcuffed to the detective himself in ‘Spot the Difference’ from series one.
However, Death in Paradise is not all without criticism. A lot of it’s early brilliance is now intermittent, and it’s a shame that as the series has gone on that there has been a dip in quality and the heart of it has slipped away. The main draw of the first two seasons was that DI Poole, maintaining a very British suit and tie against the sweltering heat, simply didn’t want to be there, which added an edge to each murder as it came. But since his departure that tension is all but lost. Also, Poole’s original sidekick DS Camille Bordey, was much more involved in deduction in the early episodes, but later on didn’t serve to move the plot forward. Her replacement, DS Florence Cassel, is gaining a little more traction, but sometimes only seems to have the role of the watching Watson. Some of the mysteries have also become less convincing or overly complicated, as could be seen in the first episode of this new series 6, where the denouement was so long, and much of the clues contrived, with the reveal dependant on a vast montage for it to make sense.
To bring it back to inclusion, there is another criticism of the series which also deserves more time. If the program relies on its formula to be successful, is the representation of the type of ‘Caribbean’ culture pictured in the series simplistic and unhelpful? Michael Hogan for the Guardian (again!) wrote at the time of series two: ‘Death In Paradise is also distinctly patronising. The locals invariably believe in myths, magic and ghosts. It takes a bumbling Brit brainbox to come in, cut through the superstition and crack their crimes.’
This is a very very important point, and I would appreciate some more discussion about this from readers of this blog, but I would like to break down this standpoint a little further. To my knowledge there was in the first two series only one episode that did refer to traditional myths and voodoo practices, ‘Predicting Murder’ (mentioned above), where a witch doctor and alternative therapist predicts her own murder. During the episode, in discussing spiritual world views, DI Poole says that he is more ‘church of England’. DS Camille Bordey’s mother Catherine in response asks him if he actually knows anything about voodoo, which although he has been slamming it the whole time, he doesn’t. She then goes on to explain how voodoo is related to ancient catholic practices in it’s lineage. This is a pretty major moment, particularly as DI Poole is trying to import his own cultural values against a culture that he doesn’t understand, only to be challenged by someone within that culture to rethink his point of view, which he subsequently does. The episode in the end becomes a meeting of cultures rather than a parody, and a satire of the ‘all knowing’ white British male.
Important stuff, particularly for white Brits to hear, when it’s so easy for things to be polarised and for false ideas about religions, even about Christianity itself, to be developed. This is potent as we have seen that kind of view coming up a few times of late (see here), not to mention the misplaced anger surrounding Brexit and the British right wing media’s representation of refugees. Also, this episode certainly doesn’t suggest that everyone on the team believes in the voodoo prophecies in this story, but at the very least respects them as an element of their own culture.
So what do you think? Is Death in Paradise trash or treasure? For me, with all its flaws, it’s a treasure, because what better time than right now, in an ever polarized world, to have a hugely popular traditionally English form of storytelling, be so inclusive, while also being of good quality mystery (even if there are generic elements). And the acceptance of Death In Paradise by the masses is making these BAME actors household names, and that is something truly wonderful.
Writing this article was inspired in part by a beautiful article posted by my good friend Jason about race and the comic strip Charlie Brown.
Black, female blogger Aydrea Walden wrote a fantastic blog article titled ‘Top 5 Diversity Mistakes Writers Make’ for writers website Bang2Write, which expands brilliantly on other areas of diversity in writing. Her satirical blog The Oreo Experience is well worth a read.
It might seem like I am slamming the Guardian a bit here, but I actually like the Guardian a lot. However, it does seem than whenever a traditional detective story gets to a reviewer its always unfairly slammed as ‘low culture’.