Lillian Daniel: Murder-free DVD's

What TV shows should a leader be borrowing from Netflix? Lillian Daniel has some (unconventional) answers.

My husband recently complained that I only watch one kind of television show and that they are all about murder, preferably British. That is absolutely not true. I also watch shows that take place in outer space, and which case murder is truly optional for me.

But I took his point as a challenge. Where are the good dramatic series that do not center on violent death and its ensuing investigation? I decided to seek them out from my memory, to see if there were any murder-free DVD’s I could enthusiastically recommend to people who want to care about characters lacking a gun or a badge.

After all, I am assuming that anyone reading this website does not have time to watch real television in real time, so here are a few DVDs that you may not have watched before. But I warn you, some of them will be British, since the British seem to have a better handle on dramatic television than we do, or maybe it’s just that they are more likely to avoid those deadly laugh tracks.

William and Mary is a remarkable ITV series about a developing romance between an undertaker and a midwife. While it sounds like a ridiculous comic set up, the show is poignant and complex. These two lonely heroes meet through a dating service, fall clumsily in love across class lines, and try to blend their families with integrity. As William and Mary minister to those at the two gateways of life, both of their professions are portrayed with realistic dignity. William seems to take the same care with dead bodies that Mary lavishes upon newborns and their mothers. These are ordinary people struggling to live out lives that have meaning and integrity, and none of this is driven by a murder and the search for justice. It is the raw emotions of these lovable, regular people that keep you on the edge of your seat, gasping not at the killer’s ax, but at the cutting word between coworkers, the darting glance between lovers and the glare of the teenager at his parent.

Spoiler alert: As in many British shows, the characters are actually allowed to look like normal people. We Americans seem to only be able to watch beautiful people make out and have sex, but the British actually allow folks who look average do these things on film. So Americans, please do not be shocked to see a man with love handles kiss a woman with wrinkles. It can happen, but apparently only across the pond.

More murder-free DVD? The Canadian series Slings and Arrows is a send up of a famous Shakespeare theater and all the characters that work there. You don’t have to know Shakespeare to enjoy it, but if you do, you are treated to a whole other layer of meaning in this tightly written and hilarious script. Anyone who has ever been in a school play or seen one will relate. The laughs and character development go hand in hand.

If you’re not too sensitive and can tolerate some vulgarity in your edgy TV, treat yourself to Shameless, another British show that takes on class difference in direct ways that Americans avoid. This drama centers around the dysfunctional Gallagher family, whose outrageous and misguided behavior is so boldly presented it makes you cringe and wince as often as you laugh. The oddly resilient characters eke out meaning in a depressing Manchester housing project, where nothing appears to be off limits. It’s sharp, satirical comedy, and therefore often painful to watch. But you’ll be sad to discover that Netflix only carries season one.

Lastly, let me share my newest discovery, the Australian 1991 series, Brides of Christ. It has a campy soap opera feel, but the characters are nuns in the sixties, coping with the changes of Vatican II. For people obsessed with all things churchy, this little treasure offers a behind the habit look at life for nuns running a girls school. As an added bonus, young, skinny Russell Crowe plays a teenage heartthrob and Naomi Watts plays a troubled Catholic schoolgirl. Nuns, church politics and Naomi Watts in pigtails - what’s not to love?

My husband’s challenge reminded me just how immune I have become to murder, serial killers and on film. I have come to see violent death as a necessary precursor to drama and character development, just like the opening credits. But in remembering these murder-free DVD’s, I was embarrassed as a person of faith, convicted as someone who claims to follow the prince of peace. These memorable characters’ troubles made my heart race a lot faster than the opening murder on Law and Order. I remember their joys and sorrows so much more clearly than the agonies of the latest crime scene.

And that’s a good thing. Isn’t it?