miss scarlet knows how to wear a hat

Yesterday I came across a news item…wait, make that a ‘news’ item. I mean, there’s news, which is information important to me, and there’s ‘news’, which is information I might find momentarily interesting. Like, say, ‘sports news’ or ‘religious news’ or, in this case, ‘entertainment news’.

Yesterday I came across a ‘news’ item which informed me that the protagonist in a BBC/PBS show called (and I am not making this up) Miss Scarlet and the Duke was patterned after Miss Elizabeth Bennett (of Pride and Prejudice, I shouldn’t have to tell you that). You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire Miss Bennett. I’ve always been of the opinion that her keen observational skills coupled with her lively wit and plucky nature would make her an excellent detective.

So, of course, I determined to watch the show. Last night I watched the first episode. Let me just say this: I know Miss Elizabeth Bennett. Miss Bennett is a friend of mine. Miss Eliza Scarlet is no Miss Elizabeth Bennett.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The differences between the two characters are actually important to the narrative. Miss Bennett, of course, is a gentleman’s daughter; Miss Scarlet is the daughter of a police detective. In addition, Miss Bennett is the product of the Regency Era, whereas Miss Scarlet is firmly planted in the Victorian. Finally, the pace of Miss Bennett’s life is determined by the rhythms of a rural and village existence; Miss Scarlet lives in London. Those differences–in social class, in social status, in societal change over time, and in environment–radically expand the parameters of Miss Scarlet as a character.

Being a police detective’s daughter in Victorian London allows the character of Miss Scarlet access to most of the common tropes of the modern criminal investigation show. This is both unfortunate and very convenient. It’s convenient in that it makes the nature of the show familiar to the viewer; it’s unfortunate since the viewer knows pretty much what to expect.

And the first episode of Miss Scarlet and the Duke meets that expectation. There’s nothing new, nothing original, nothing surprising. Basically we have a 21st century woman protagonist set in 19th century London, with a nod toward a more historically restrictive patriarchal system. In other words, we have a generically plucky woman detective who has to 1) strive to be taken seriously, 2) overcome obstacles presented by the patriarchy, 3) defy gender norms, but only to a certain degree, and 4) establish her independence.

That said, I think we can all agree that you can’t judge a television series on the basis of the first episode. Or even the second or third. But you can, I think, get some idea of the nature of the show. And Miss Scarlet and the Duke gives every impression of being…pleasant. It wasn’t exciting, it wasn’t intriguing, it wasn’t compelling, it wasn’t even particularly interesting. It was a mildly entertaining diversion that doesn’t require much on the part of the viewer. It was…pleasant.

That’s not a criticism; there’s a need for mildly entertaining diversions, especially during a pandemic. So let’s take a look at that first episode.

WARNING — ENGAGE SPOILER ALERT SYSTEM. SPOILERS FOLLOW. STOP READING IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS.

Because it’s the first episode, a certain amount of narrative has to be spent introducing the characters. It opens with Eliza being led by a street urchin to an unsavory part of London. She’s paying the kid to lead her to a dead body. Not any particularly dead body. Just a random dead person. Why? So she can…investigate something? The body appears to be that of a woman we assume to be a one-eyed prostitute. She is, in fact, one-eyed and a prostitute. She is not, however, dead. Only drunk.

As a scene, it makes absolutely no sense–unless Eliza has some sort of necro-curious fetish, which doesn’t seem likely from PBS. The point is to show she’s eager to prove herself to her father, a retired police detective turned private investigator. Eager, but inexperienced. And not very competent. Not only does she not get a dead body, she doesn’t get her money back from the urchin.

Her father would be horrified, but he doesn’t learn of the encounter because he’s nowhere to be found (ooh, suspense). He’s not at his office, and his police protégé (Chief Inspector William ‘Duke’ Wellington) hasn’t seen him. Eliza assumes he’s either working a case or drunk. He’s not. He’s dead.

Eliza returns home to find a stranger–a doctor, no less– and her dead father in the drawing room. This stranger found her father dead and apparently brought his body home. I suspect in a later episode we’ll learn there’s something odd about her father’s death (because that’s how the Mystery Story Universe works). Possibly the doctor is involved (the Mystery Story Universe is predictable).

Before she can even begin to mourn, Eliza encounters a prospective client looking for her father. Needing the money, she lies to him, telling him her father will accept the case. This is where the actual plot begins. Oh lawdy, the plot. Let’s dispense with the plot as quickly as possible; it’s convoluted, and the least interesting thing about the first episode.

The client, a man dying of some undisclosed illness, is looking for his estranged niece, Tilly, his last living relative. She married unwisely and was cast off by the family. Now that he’s dying and has an estate to dispose of, he wants to find her again. Eliza finds Tilly working as the human target for a knife-throwing act in an unsavory dance hall in Soho. Tilly confesses her uncle was right–her husband, a once-widowed actor, was only interested in her uncle’s fortune. When he learned she was disowned, he disappeared. She’s willing to meet and reconcile with her dying uncle.

Case closed! No, of course not. The dying uncle turns out to be–and, again, I’m not making this up–Tilly’s husband in a fake beard. He’d learned of the uncle’s death, and as her husband in Victorian England, he basically has control of the estate she inherited. He has the estate, but he has no need of a wife. And yet he decides FOR REASONS that he must find her. Does he return to Soho where he left her? No. Does he look for her? No. Instead, he puts on a disguise and hires somebody to find her. Does that make any sense? No. Doesn’t matter. When Eliza brings Tilly and her husband together, he removes his disguise, calls in a pair of ruffians, and has Ivy hauled off to be committed. Which allows him to control the estate he’s already controlling. I know, I know…just go along with this.

The husband pays Eliza her fee. She feels awful (girls have all these emotions), so she decides FOR REASONS to investigate the husband’s first marriage. She discovers his first wife wasn’t actually dead (gasp)! This makes him a bigamist. Eliza threatens him with arrest, he threatens to strangle her, but she’s had a maid lace his tea with laudanum, knocking him out. She then calls her friend Chief Inspector Duke Wellington, who arrests the husband and chides Eliza for being a girl doing police work. Why didn’t Eliza simply notify Duke of the husband’s crime and let the police arrest him, avoiding the need to 1) risk her life and 2) spike the man’s tea with drugs? REASONS, that’s why.

Tilly is released from wherever she was committed to and everybody is happy, except the Duke who insists Eliza shouldn’t investigate anything because she’s a girl. The end.

This sounds painfully bad…and it would be, if you were only interested in the plot. Or in the characters. But Miss Scarlet and the Duke is meant to be a confection. It’s a teacake, not a meal. It’s a show about Miss Scarlet’s costumes, and men with precise beards wearing bowler hats and long coats. It’s about stage sets depicting Victorian London, the drawing rooms, the taverns, the bawdy houses. It’s not meant to make you think.

Oh, Miss Scarlet takes on the patriarchy in a variety of non-threatening ways. She mocks the men for being protective and condescending, she out-thinks them, she finds a way around whatever attempts they make to keep her docile and biddable. The viewer understands that the patriarchy is awful, but isn’t it cute and clever how Eliza gets around it?

Only two scenes were potentially interesting, potentially dramatic. Eliza, in her search for Tilly, encounters Moses–the black man who ‘protects’ the women who work in the dance hall. There’s something awkward about the only person of color in the show being a criminal. But Eliza wants information about Tilly, Moses wants a bribe; she pays the bribe, he takes her coin purse. When he refuses to return the purse, Eliza flirts with him (Miss Elizabeth Bennett would have vapors). When Moses responds, Eliza quickly handcuffs him to a rail (a tangent: ratchet cuffs weren’t invented until the early 20th century). She then threatens to burn him alive unless he 1) returns the money and 2) tells her where to find Tilly.

The second scene was momentarily very distressing. Eliza is arrested during a raid on the dance hall where Tilly is employed. Three men take her by force to a room with an exam table, and are apparently about to ‘inspect’ her to see if she has a venereal disease. For a brief moment, there was nothing amusing or sugary about the show. Eliza quickly defuses the situation by claiming to be the preferred prostitute of Chief Inspector Wellington, who then rescues her. What was potentially traumatic and horrifying becomes somewhat comedic. Eliza is completely unfazed by that sexual assault.

Is Miss Scarlet and the Duke a good show? Not by most PBS standards. Is it worth watching? It’s a nice diversion. I’ll watch the next episode, if only for the set design and the costumes. Miss Scarlet knows how to wear a hat.

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