In “Cocaine Blues,” the first episode of Australian import “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries,” the eponymous heroine arrives in Melbourne, taking to the docks as one might to a catwalk, sun catching her porcelain skin and comically long Sylvia Plath scarf. One could be forgiven for initially presuming this show was a sequel to “Downton Abbey,” as Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis) shares both a pale complexion and Snow White bob with the eldest Crawley sister.
“Downton” highlighted the societal shift in the West between the 1910s and 1920s precisely because it was the most dramatic: From horse-drawn carriages to cars, ankle-covering dresses to fringed corsetless gowns, operetta to jazz. In the modern age, too, something shifted at PBS and in our idea of the “Masterpiece,” with its unprecedented success. The moment poor Mr. Pamuk (Theo James) expired in Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) arms, something moved underneath the surface, and our American experience of PBS — its sternly pedagogical intensity; the inherently middle-class cultural capital it bestows — changed forever too.
Enter Phryne Fisher. Based on the heroine of more than 20 novels — a series which only began publication in the late 1980s; a far more contemporary literary source than the usual — Miss Fisher is a woman of many interests. There is her hobby of solving murders, of course, but her many passions also include fashion, jewelry, makeup, cat burgling, films, tango dancing, jazz music, science and sex. Notably, each of these facets are equally on display throughout the show’s three (so far — a fourth is rumored but not yet official) seasons, but only one caused a furor when the show launched stateside on PBS. Guess which one — and it’s not the tango dancing!
It’s not simply the frequency at which Phryne gets laid that’s revolutionary, it’s how matter-of-fact the show is about it: Sex on TV — not just in costume dramas, but everywhere — is typically intended to titillate (“Game of Thrones,” “Outlander”) or to concretize the joining of souls who’ve been smoldering at one another for some length of time (“Outlander” again — and, among others in the Masterpiece Theater franchise, notably “Poldark” and “Grantchester”). There is plot about, surrounding, directing the sex: Whether to increase the intensity of a calamity to follow — miscarriage, botched abortion, STI, the aforementioned expiry of Mr. Pamuk — or to lock down a will they/won’t they, whatever it is, the sex serves the story … or else it would be just sex.
For Phryne Fisher, the sex is just sex. The show highlights the boudoir sequences no more than any other art deco showpiece. Sequences of Phryne having her dresses tailored, eating breakfast and clambering along a moving train like a ninja are filmed equally lovingly. Sex is just one more thing she does, just like it is a thing we all do: Surprise! People throughout history have had non-eventful, for-pleasure’s-sake, non-plot-oriented sex.
It’s also notable that neither the show nor the supporting cast judge Phryne’s choices. And make no mistake, these are choices. She is no weepy spinster, clinging to a one-night stand in hopes to make something more of it. We never see her conquests chasing after her, either: clearly a night with Phryne is one entered into with eyes open, two adults enjoying one another in television’s most exquisite boudoir set. Her seasons-long partnership with DI Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) will inevitably lead into a relationship of some measure — and though they both see it written in the stars of the franchise, he wouldn’t deserve her if he stooped to judge her now, and she’s clearly able to separate the mutual respect she shares with Jack from the adventures she’s having.
A good way to ruin the experience of “Miss Fisher” is to keep a running tally of its historical veracity (though the costumes, jewelry, and decor are startlingly true to period) — this bizarre desire to complain most loudly about the things that delight us always seems to take root deepest when it comes to period, presumably because everyone is a self-certified expert in one thing or another. And of course, the murder mysteries themselves are always enjoyable, thin excuses for delightful showpieces (Phryne goes undercover as a fan dancer! Phryne solves a ghost mystery! Phryne directs a silent film!). But there is something unique, and perhaps uniquely Australian, about its due diligence when it comes to documenting and reminding us of the fact that, throughout history, people have been having sex and acting completely normal about it.
While the artifacts of those times, our history as explained in self-cleaning and self-abnegating art, might tell a different story, the fact is that believing those lies is the first step in hating yourself. The truth is that every fundamentalism, from ISIS to the KKK, is based on the fantasy that things used to be different, better, cleaner — that women once knew their place, and people of color did everything they could to protect the feelings of white people, and nobody chose to be gay. That we have lost something, that we have fallen, that we are in free-fall still. That only a return to this fairy-tale time of safe authoritarianism can save us.
We know already that it’s a lie; it’s toxic and it shapes the world, and every Bowdlerized account and every secret we keep, between the pages of our histories, prolongs the infection. It’s a mirror, but it’s twisted and it makes us look so much uglier than we really are: Thank Lady Mary and Mr. Pamuk for shattering it — and welcome Phryne Fisher, and her rotating harem, to dance the shameless night away that follows.
“Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” is currently streaming, all three series, on Netflix US.