I’ve been watching a lot of Jonathan Creek on Netflix the last couple of days. I think beyond maybe the first one with Sheridan Smith a few years ago, I’ve not seen Jonathan Creek since it originally aired in the late 90s. I was in primary school at the time and it was pretty huge (our school played Danse Macabre in an assembly once and everyone knew it as the Jonathan Creek theme).
Going back to it, my first surprise was Tony Head in the pilot as Adam Klaus, who is then absent for the rest of the series (I guess they were banking on Buffy getting cancelled). It’s also a bit less family friendly than I was expecting. I mean there’s all the murders, yeah, but a fair bit of nudity and sex talk which I really don’t remember.
Anyway, the show’s quite cleverly constructed, as it’s really a howdunnit more than a whodunnit. The connection to magic is obvious, with Jonathan being a stage magic producer, but it’s really all about taking familiar tropes from magic tricks, stripping them of the safe context of a stage show (where, even though you don’t know how its done, you know it’s a trick), and presenting them with the full impact they would have if they were a real occurrence. It gels nicely with Magic’s Greatest Secrets Revealed (which I’ve also been watching on Netflix lately), in that you’re presented with a trick and the solution, and watching the latter has made me sharper on the mysteries in the former. I worked out one instantly as it was shown (while another I remembered dead on since it first aired, which is impressive for a 20 year old show), which feels oddly rewarding.
Everything else to the show is really just dressing on the mysteries really, giving you time to work it out, throwing in red herrings and a familiar character to explain it all to you. You can argue that all mystery stories are like that, but Jonathan Creek moreso than most. It’s just a few steps removed from those old Cluedo TV shows really.
I think the problem for me is Jonathan and Maddie themselves. Quentin’s a decent actress, but the relationship between Maddie and Jonathan is more annoying than anything. The “bickering besties” thing would be fine, but they try to mix in too much of a “will they, won’t they?” element, while making the characters too self-aware of that for it to feel real. Best part of two seasons in and I have no emotional investment in whether they get together or not, I just wish they’d pick one or the other. Maybe that’s hindsight playing a part from knowing Maddie isn’t in the later series.
Davies is also a bit limited as an actor. Again, maybe that’s seeing him so much as himself on QI and As Yet Untitled bleeding tainting my impressions. It’s not that I don’t believe his character knowing so much, it’s just that Davies’ performance is best described as “sleepy” for the most part. There are times when he really goes for it, feels like he’s engaged with story and characters, but they’re quite rare. His take on Jonathan is mostly just dour and bored, stuck having to investigate things he seemingly doesn’t care about and giving explanations to people he thinks are impossibly dim. The denouements are often the weakest part of the show, because it’s usually Davies droning with little emotion.