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Pop CultureSeptember 13, 2022

The Brokenwood Mysteries is somehow still going strong


The local production is far more popular overseas, but The Brokenwood Mysteries still has much to offer, writes part-time Brokenwood podcaster Amelia Berry.

The lowdown

The Brokenwood Mysteries is a murder mystery series that stands as one of New Zealand’s biggest television exports. Having just finished airing season eight, it regularly pulls in over three million viewers in France, is a heavy hitter for Acorn TV in the UK and US, and apparently the Danish just bloody love it. Back home, it has more of what you might call a “cult” following, although admittedly it’s a cult made up mostly of your nan, your mate who was an extra in season five and local author Rebecca K Reilly.

If you have heard anything about Brokenwood, then you’ve probably heard that it’s “New Zealand’s answer to Midsomer Murders”. “A New Zealand Midsomer Murders,” says RNZ’s Afternoons with Simon Mercep. “A New Zealand Midsomer Murders,” says Jane Clifton for Stuff. “A New Zealand Midsomer Murders,” says DVD review website High Def Standard. And yes, this is probably as good a five word pitch as you can get for a local TV series, but really undersells what makes the series so successful, and its fans so dedicated.

Set in the fictional upper North Island town of Brokenwood, and following the crime-solving exploits of detective senior sergeant Mike Shepherd (Neil Rea) and detective Kristin Sims (Fern Sutherland), Brokenwood draws its stories and characters from the same part of the Aotearoa collective imaginary that houses Lynn of Tawa, Get It to Te Papa, and quotes from 30-year-old episodes of Shortland Street. Episodes are centred around beekeeping rivalries, golf club spats, poisoned bike shorts, and new age health retreats, deftly balancing dry humour and outsized characters with the good stuff of any detective drama; danger, deviance, intrigue and death. It’s like a crime series set in a half-remembered family trip to Warkworth.

The good

Season seven saw the final appearances from a couple of important characters: dopey yet charming police sidekick DC Breen (Nic Sampson) and saucy local gossip Mrs Marlowe (Elizabeth McRae, aka Marj from Shortland Street).

Having already met Breen’s replacement in season seven, it’s great to see the new DC Daniel Chalmers (Jarod Rawiri) given a bit more to do in the new episodes. For an actor with the kind of talent and career that Rawiri has, his staunch straight-man seriousness last season felt like a real under-utilisation. Thankfully, that now coalesces into an unflappable cool guy charm, feeling like Rawiri has been given a bit more room in the scripts to have fun.

Jarod Rawiri as DC Chalmers and Nic Sampson as Sam Breen. in The Brokenwood Mysteries. (Photo: SPP)

Episode two is a banger. Titled ‘Death n’ Bass’, it’s about (you guessed it) a murder at a drum and bass festival. This is really hitting all the things that Brokenwood does best: it’s themed around a peculiarly New Zealand situation, it has great material for Kimberley Crossman’s bogan groupie, and it manages to include an instantly recognisable type of guy (the snivelling gig promoter) who just doesn’t get included in other TV.

Another standout from the latest season is the final episode ‘Four Fires and a Funeral’. Written by Brokenwood’s own Nic Sampson, Four Fires is the perfect blend of ridiculous and tragic, featuring a fantastic performance from Laura Daniel as a hairdresser/volunteer firefighter/compulsive liar, and is probably the only episode from the season which feels like an all-time great.

The not-so-good

The Brokenwood Mysteries is in a bit of a difficult place. Of course, it’s hard to bring any show through eight seasons of television without it starting to feel a little stale, especially one with as restrictive a format as the murder-per-episode detective mystery. On top of that Brokenwood’s eighth season was filmed during the pandemic and all its various disruptions. 

Things don’t fare so well for iconic recurring character Frankie Oades aka Frodo (Karl Willetts), who has to carry a bit more of the “quirky Brokenwood local” weight with the departure of Mrs Marlowe. The dim-witted but relentless well-meaning Frodo feels flanderized – episode one of this season, ‘From the Cradle to the Grave’ finds him dumber than ever, mourning his step-mother, who’s also his aunty. The whole episode really edges into pantomime. I mean, it’s about an Egyptian mummy called “Rhutenkharmese” and the sale of human remains is totally illegal in New Zealand anyway! A shaky start for sure.

The verdict

Overall, it’s been an uneven season, but hey, it’s been an uneven few years. Brokenwood season eight still delivers on the comfy crime-solving goodness and endearing oddball characters that make the show what it is. If you’re just getting started, probably better to jump in at season seven, or season three if you can track it down. But for those of us already in the cult, circle “SOME TIME IN 2023” on your calendars and get ready for season nine.

Keep going!