In October, I traveled to France to visit my family whom I had not seen for a year. Exactly two days after my arrival, the entire country went into lockdown. COVID-19 cases were dangerously surging, and we were all ordered to stay home, except for the occasional trip to the grocery store and the permitted one-hour walk that could extend no farther than 0.6 miles from our place of residence.
As we are all too familiar with by now, when you’re stuck at home with no end in sight, you need good books and good TV to keep the boredom and relentless anxiety at bay. But not any type of TV will do. My antidote to the stress of lockdown is an old-fashioned British detective story.
Marcella, Bodyguard, or The Fall might be some of the best recent Brit mystery TV out there, but there’s little relief to be had in the nail-biting suspense and psychological torments of their protagonists.
What we need are stories devoid of cliffhangers and unexpected twists, whodunits that make your brain work out the puzzles without letting it go into overdrive, and archetypal characters who are so unbelievable that you don’t invest in their tragedies. What we need are stories that don’t revel in the gore, the sexual, or the suffering.
Modern thrillers be damned. The simple, standalone episodes of late-‘90s Midsomer Murders and Jonathan Creek bring a sense of certainty that’s nowhere to be found in the real world these days. Within an hour, you’re sure to have the story wrapped up nicely, the bad guys in prison, a victim avenged. All done and dusted.
But beyond the appeal of the expected and logical closure is the enjoyable naivete of those TV series. Often set in rural villages where the annual garden festival is the biggest event of the year, or in oh-so-perfect Oxford, nothing about the background of the stories are relatable. Have you ever heard of a wealthy orchid hunter getting stabbed in the back with a pitchfork in their own manor (Midsomer Murders)? Me neither. There’s no real-world equivalent to a magician consultant solving locked-room plots throughout England (Jonathan Creek) or a crossword and opera fanatic tracking murderous university professors in his fancy red Jaguar (Morse). It’s all pure fantasy. Everything about those TV shows is so far away from our reality that it becomes a pleasure to watch, a welcome escape.
There’s also the atmosphere of comfort these shows work hard to establish: Characters drink pints in riverside pubs, live in funky but cozy windmills, read books and knit in chintz armchairs while the birds chirp outside and the milkman makes his daily delivery. There’s no anguish of the world gone berserk or loneliness — there’s mostly warmth, friendships, pleasures, and humor, all of which we need badly this year.
Of course, not everything about these outdated series is enjoyable. There’s next-to-no ethnic, gender, or sexual diversity, and there are sometimes offhand comments or jokes about the LGBTQ community that will have you cringe in disgust. Although they would justly deter some viewers, these moments are sporadic and shouldn’t define the shows in their entirety. And watching these scenes with 2020 eyes, you’ll see how far we’ve come, and how ahead of the game some were (Jonathan Creek’s Maddy is a strong, sexually liberated female character, and Morse’s 1989 Dr. Grayling Russell is a modern feminist and a much-needed LGBTQ ally).
Now is not the time for stressful entertainment; instead, it’s the perfect moment to dive into international TV that’s comforting, simple, and a tad fantastical. And old-timey British detective shows, with their clichéd characters and uncomplicated plotlines, will provide all the easy escape and coziness you need right now.
If you don’t live in the UK and feel like I’ve teased you onto a dead-end road, note that you can access these TV shows on Britbox from the US and Canada for the price of a Netflix subscription.
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