About halfway through “Miss Marple,” the realization struck that this was a dramatic series starring an old woman, something about as apt to be witnessed on American television as Sean Hannity criticizing the Bush administration. Leisurely paced and lovingly assembled, this latest installment in the “Mystery!” franchise offers a pleasant English throwback to the merry old days, given that the only comparable figure in primetime is a sleuthing teenager named Veronica Mars.
Four Marple mysteries are being adapted and presented in two hourlong installments each, with Geraldine McEwan bringing a sprightly, almost impish quality to Agatha Christie’s titular creation, the grandmotherly figure with a gift for solving homicides.
The opener, “The Murder at the Vicarage,” takes its time building toward the slaying of a persnickety colonel (played with a proper dose of starch by Derek Jacobi), after providing just about everyone in the tiny village of St. Mary Mead with a motive to do him in.
Along with a set-upon representative of Scotland Yard (Stephen Tompkinson), Jane Marple goes about sifting through clues, from the rebellious daughter and the unfaithful wife to the bitter maid or the mysterious houseguests. “How clever. How wicked,” Miss Marple muses, a twinkle in her eye, when the answer finally dawns on her.
Beautifully shot, nicely cast and impeccably appointed with trappings of the period, the episodes develop so assiduously as to feel positively prehistoric, which for some will render this “Murder, Most Boring.” Marple even dares reconstruct what happened without the benefit of computer-generated imagery to illustrate precisely how the bullet penetrated the thorax.
Although probably most closely associated with Margaret Rutherford, who played Miss Marple in the 1960s, the septuagenarian McEwan — an accomplished stage actress — puts her stamp on the part, and the premiere humanizes the character further with melancholy flashbacks to her youth.
Personally, Marple has never held quite the same allure as other famed literary detectives, though at least it’s easier to spell than Hercule Poirot. Still, an audience exists for this genre that almost certainly would go begging without PBS filling the breach, as one-time imitators such as A&E become home to the exploits of “Dog the Bounty Hunter.”
“Miss Marple” likely won’t be a smash within the 18-to-49 demo, and there’s even an amusing reference to how much “old fogies” enjoy a good murder in the second adaptation, “A Murder Is Announced.” (The other cases are “The Body in the Library” and “What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw.”)
The strongest case for PBS’ continued existence is that being less enslaved by commercial pressures theoretically allows public TV to serve two demographics generally neglected by commercial television: Children and seniors. In our youth-obsessed culture, it doesn’t require a great detective to recognize which bracket draws the shortest end of the programming stick.