There can be few more enduring pleasures in TV watching than settling in and spending an evening solving a nice juicy murder. And the good news is we're at absolutely no risk of ever running out of them. Poor saps are forever meeting their untimely ends in Midsomer. Old Miss Marple's always got her beak in a case. And then there's Poirot, Frost, Morse. Murders never cease.
The Brokenwood Mysteries, which returned to Prime for its second series last night, has carved out its own niche in the genre. Its first series, which screened last year, drew upon the abundance of essential murder mystery ingredients on offer here in New Zealand - small towns, eccentric locals, strange love triangles, petty infighting - and distilled them all into the fictionalised country town of Brokenwood.
While the show mercifully never strays too far from the conventions of the genre, it has always had a good eye for our local peculiarities. One episode in the first series revealed that Brokenwood has an emergent and highly competitive wine industry, for example, and Peter Elliott's pretentious, wine-obsessed big city radio host was almost certainly a gentle parody of Mike Hosking.
It's playful, often quite funny, but rarely feels quirky or contrived. There are steady hands at the wheel - the credits are full of people who have been around long enough to have a sense for what works and, perhaps more importantly, what doesn't. And despite the uniquely local tone, there is a definite universal appeal. Brokenwood is weirdly big in France - earlier this year an episode was watched by 3.5 million viewers, the second most watched thing on French TV that night.
Do they use subtitles, or are Detective Senior Sergeant Mike Shepherd and co dubbed en Francais? What's French for "whoever G.G. is, it looks like she's missing her underwear"? The first episode of series two introduces the Brokenwood Rugby Club, whose premiers the Cheetahs have gone 50 games on the trot without a win, and whose coach has been found naked and tied to the goalposts with a pair of monogrammed knickers in his mouth.
DSS Shepherd (Neill Rea) and Detective Kristen Sims (Fern Sutherland) are straight on the case. In the grand tradition of male TV detectives, Shepherd is a complete shambles. He's been through something like 12 divorces. He gets about in a 1971 Holden Kingswood. He listens exclusively to country music and his tie is so poorly tied he'd be better off without it.
He takes the Kingswood for a spin out to interview the poor dead bloke's estranged wife, while Detective Sims questions his team. Everyone's a suspect. Brokenwood's other detective, DC Breen (Nic Sampson), the Cheetahs' first-five, is stood down from the investigation. It's good to see Breen back for the second series - along with the town's resident pathologist, the conspicuously Russian Dr Kadinsky (Cristina Ionda) and resident wine savant Jared (Pana Hema-Taylor), the show's supporting characters are all valuable additions.
Things kick up a notch when Shepherd and Sims find the body of a young woman in a stream in the bush on the outskirts of town. We could we be looking at a double murder. What on earth has happened here in this small town only ever gestured at vaguely on maps, but seemingly about an hour and a bit south-west of Auckland.
The early main suspect is the ex-wife. Why's she so abrupt and evasive? Where's she going in such a hurry? Why the lingering shots of rugby boots in her hallway? But then we meet the Cheetahs' big angry lock, played by Ben Barrington, an actor whose celebrity is massively overinflated in my mind ever since he was on Dancing With the Stars. The coach kicked him off the team last week for scrapping. It has to be him... Bloody Barrington.
Suspicion soon shifts again, and again, and then a few more times after that. Shepherd runs out of space for all the suspects and clues on his whiteboard because he's written the central clue, the "G.G." from the knickers, in letters about 50cm high right in the middle. Eventually, of course, they solve it, and explain it, and it all makes perfect sense. It's magic of a kind we've seen a hundred times before, but no less satisfying for it.
Investigating a murder can lead you to some dark places - at one point Shepherd finds himself at the Brokenwood Public Library. He has some questions to ask the librarian, but they soon begin to flirt over their shared love of a country singer called Holly Collins. "Did you know she's coming to town on her next tour?" Cool - but also, she will surely die. Poor old Holly Collins.
* The Brokenwood Mysteries - Prime, 8:30pm Sundays; repeats 7:30pm the following Saturday.