Hooray!! It’s now official – Phyrne has won the hearts of America, as well as Australia, according to an article published in The Guardian on 14 October. Read on.
With its sumptuous interiors, beautiful clothes and badass feminist heroine who is neither an ingenue nor matron, the Australian show has won a cult following
Move over, Orange is the New Black. There’s another female-led Netflix show that’s winning over a growing, devoted fan base: the Australian TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. Based on a popular book series by Kerry Greenwood, the show follows Phryne Fisher, an heiress in 1920s Melbourne, as she fights crime and the status quo – all while impeccably dressed in flapper chic kimonos, beaded dresses, jeweled brooches, and cloche hats.
Many of the show’s American fans first discovered the show through its mentions on style blogs. Dodai Stewart, director of culture coverage at Fusion, did a story for Jezebel about the best-dressed characters on TV, and people in the comments kept mentioning Miss Fisher. Intrigued, she checked the show out on Netflix and, despite not being a fan of crime procedurals, was immediately hooked. “She’s badass,” Stewart says of the show’s heroine. “I’m always on the lookout for other strong female characters, but sometimes they hit you over the head with it.”
Beyond the sumptuous interiors and beautiful clothes, though, there are major feminist messages. One of Phryne’s close friends, Mac, is an out lesbian doctor, and episodes have touched on everything from women getting clandestine abortions to unsafe labour practices in a factory staffed by female employees. “It’s secretly informative about the oppression and suppression of women,” Stewart adds.
The series, like its heroine, mixes playfulness and resourcefulness: for example, there’s an episode where Phryne traps a poisonous spider – under her diaphragm. The Holmes to Fisher’s Watson is her housekeeper and travelling companion, Dot, who goes from being a soft-spoken religious girl with no life goals outside of making tea to a fine detective in her own right – with her own burgeoning collection of cloches to match. Miss Fisher and Dot’s feminist power is strong enough to pull men into its orbit. Dot’s erstwhile police constable boyfriend comes around to agreeing that she should keep working after they get married and that a civil wedding might be as valid as a religious one.
Crush of the week: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries
Miss Fisher occupies a space rarely seen on television: the woman who is neither an ingenue nor a matron. Essie Davis, who portrays Phryne, is 45. Miss Fisher’s age is never specifically mentioned, but she seems to be in her 30s or 40s. “She’s an age that you don’t usually see as a female lead on a TV show,” says Jenna Scherer, a pop culture critic based in Brooklyn. “You get a twentysomething, or you get an older woman like Miss Marple or Murder She Wrote.” Athough Scherer is wary of whodunnits and thought the show’s name was “too precious” when it popped up on her Netflix recommendations, several friends convinced her to give it a go, and she is now hooked. “It has a strong, charismatic female lead. And it’s written by women, too, which is sadly very rare. It’s very high concept and fulfils the concept right away.”
Evie Nagy, a freelance writer in the Bay Area, compares the appeal of Miss Fisher to Joan and Peggy on the lately departed Mad Men. “Period shows are a brilliant way to introduce feminism to TV, because they are set during eras that we consider far more backwards on gender equality issues, so bringing those issues up in the narrative feels more natural and palatable and non-political.” She adds: “When Phryne stands up for a badass widow who is being slut-shamed or tries to save a gay couple from being prosecuted, we’re fist-pumping. At the same time, she is ridiculously beautiful and stylish while not being afraid to get her hands dirty – and she has a lot of sex.”
Scherer agrees that the period element and the gorgeous styling helps the show get away with strongly feminist plotlines: “I think women specifically are hungry for this kind of show, where a woman’s role isn’t defined by her romantic relationships, where she’s not taking a back seat.”
Possibly the show Miss Fisher gets compared to the most, though, isMoonlighting. The Bruce Willis to Phryne Fisher’s Cybill Shepherd is Inspector Jack Robinson, whose chiselled jaw and dreamy eyes make him the good-boy working-class counterpart to Phryne’s winking naughty rich girl. Although he at first writes her off as a wealthy woman wasting her time on a hobby, he quickly comes to realise that despite her unorthodox tactics – flirting, going undercover as a fan dancer to solve a murder at the circus, more flirting – she’s a fine detective with great instincts.
The will-they-or-won’t-they tease continues into the third season of Miss Fisher, which finally became available on American Netflix last month. Miss Fisher fans on Twitter can usually be found either coveting Phryne’s wardrobe or wishing she’d just kiss Jack already – often in the same tweet. On the Toast, Mallory Ortberg wrote a post entitled Things I have yelled at my television, which cannot hear me, while watching Miss Fisher’s Mysteries during my convalescence, which included an all-caps exhortation to “MAKE TWO MOUTHS WITH YOUR ONE MOUTH.”
Phryne and Jack’s flirtation manages not to veer into romcom territory thanks to some switching of gender norms and to multilayered characters who have more urgent things to deal with (kidnapping, murder, attempted murder, other felonies) than their relationship. “He’s not always saving her,” Stewart notes. “Sometimes she saves him. She’s not a damsel in distress. She’s smart. She’s not an ingenue.”
While there has been talk of an American remake of the series, for now the show’s Australian producers are concentrating their efforts on a feature film about Phryne flying around the world in her plane while generally looking and being fabulous. Your move, Litchfield Penitentiary
P.S. from Sisters in Crime Australia: Check out the map on the D I Jack Appreciation Society detailing how NY fans are connecting up.