There are good reasons for dramas to retreat to the past.
They need limits and obstacles. Romances work best amid “don’t” and “mustn’t”; crime stories are best if you can’t just call the cops or check the DNA and the video footage.
So Americans return to cowboy or pioneer days … the British visit the Victorian era … and “Miss Scarlet and the Duke” (shown here) – debuting at 8 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 17) on PBS’ “Masterpiece” – fits that era well.
Even Henry Scarlet, a retired cop, draws frowns for having a detective agency. “Chasing criminals is no job for a gentleman,” someone grumbles.
Then there’s his daughter Eliza, who learned his skills and soon dreamed of being a cop. “Women do not have the same freedom as men,” she’s told. “That’s just the way the world is.”
A lady isn’t even supposed to go out at night alone, she’s told. But she persists, sometimes with the reluctant help of Detective Inspector William Wellington, known as the Duke.
Some viewers may balk at the Hollywood-style perfection here: Wellington, played by Scottish actor Stuart Martin, may be the best-looking TV guy since Jon Hamm became Don Draper. Eliza is played by Kate Phillips, who previously drew some criticism as being “too pretty” to play Jane Seymour (the third wife of Henry VIII) in “Wolf Hall.”
Put these people in the precise, Victorian finery and you have a duo suitable for the top of a wedding cake. They are the Rock Hudson and Doris Day of the Victorian age, barbs and all. “Being a detective is a job for a man,” he proclaims … to which she responds: “And yet, you do it.”
Once we forgive them their telegenic luster, however, we notice that these are interesting characters, thrust into solid mysteries. She has a Sherlock-style ability to spot small clues … he’s a good cop who means well … and a third character – originally introduced as her reluctant suitor – helps the story.
In the first episode, she takes over her dad’s case, with a rich man who says he must find his niece. There are twists, turns and just enough obstacles to make this fun.
That opener leads into the second episode of the “All Creatures Great and Small” reboot.
This is the hour that introduces Callum Woodhouse (who played the gun-loving brother in “The Durrells”) as the less-diligent brother of Dr. Siegried Farnon. Put those shows together and you have an enjoyable night of period-piece British TV.