Western TV reviews

Hailey Dean Mystery: Dating is Murder (2017)

I find dating a drag too, but murder? That’s a bit hyperbolic, unless you’re in Hailey Dean world, in which case dating does prove to be a deadly affair. It’s a game that the former attorney turned therapist gets ensnared in when a family friend is found stabbed and buried under a pile of leaves in the woods. The victim is a well known fitness personality in the area, and suspicion first falls on people in that orbit. The owner of a start-up shoe company is targeted because he suffered losses to his reputation and finances after she negatively reviewed his revolutionary new shoe. But another lead opens up when Hailey connects the case with an unsolved murder and notices that both victims used Penguin App, the sexy dating alternative to Tinder, OK Cupid, and a drunken night out at the bar with your friends.

I think the lesson to be learned here is not that dating is murder but that dating apps are sketchy AF. Anonymous dates are creepy, not mysterious and tantalizing. Hailey’s (Kellie Martin) friend and coworker, Sabrina (Emily Holmes), is an eager Penguin App user and thinks nothing of it when her date plays coy and doesn’t reveal any personal information. Needless to say, it’s no surprise when things don’t go according to plan. Communication is also a super important lesson. Besides getting the fundamental details about your dinner date’s identity, you should also make sure you and your long-term date are on the same page. Hailey and her coroner boyfriend, Jonas (Matthew MacCaull), need non-solving-murder related hobbies since she at least is consumed by this and every other case. He’s tagging along because he likes her and he’s got useful coroner skills. But these two really should talk things out.

There’s not much else to say about this movie. This is one of those clean, no-nonsense scripts that is as trim as it gets. It executes all the elements of a TV mystery in a straightforward way with little fuss. Hailey and her team of police detective and attorney friends are slow to pick up on the dating app connection and how they can use it to catch the killer, but then again, technology and Hallmark don’t make the most natural pairing. The efficiency of the plot is what makes the movie kind of boring. Nancy Grace, who wrote the books this series is based on, has a cameo that shouts at you from the screen, but these are starting to prove as distracting as Stan Lee’s appearances in Marvel films.

I haven’t given up on Hailey Dean and still like what I’ve seen so far. She’s different from the other Hallmark sleuths because she’s a victim of a violent crime herself. The cases are personal, not just a little something on the side to keep her and her friends entertained. Plus, the last film revealed a potential new direction for the series, one that explores Hailey’s own hunt for justice. If future movies push this storyline, the series can only improve. Until then, this film merely gets a passing grade.

Highlight for spoilers: It’s Jessica. It was always Jessica, and we knew it because she couldn’t hide the fact that she still had a thing for Wade. Jealousy’s a bitch, but it shouldn’t make you a killer. However, Wade’s growing profile meant that Jessica’s crush, her long-time work buddy and fellow nerd was seeking companionship outside their bubble. When he started using the app that they developed together, it was a step too far. She created a ghost account to track his dates and then made sure they never went out with Wade, or anyone else, again.

Released: 2017
Dir: Michael Robinson
Writer: Michelle Ricci
Cast: Kellie Martin, Giacomo Baessato, Viv Leacock, Matthew MacCaull, Emily Holmes, Toby Levins, Kieran Sequoia
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018


Hailey Dean Mystery: Deadly Estate (2017)

Of all the Hallmark murder mysteries, Hailey Dean is the darkest, as in it literally takes place at night, at least many of the scenes do. But the material is also somber because Hailey (Kellie Martin) is trying to come to terms with a shooting that killed her fiancé, making every case a little more personal. Though she’s changed careers from assistant DA to therapist, her instincts for criminal prosecution keep pulling her back. That and circumstance.

Her friend, Pam (Michelle Harrison), goes missing soon after she decides to sell her parents’ house. It’s not too alarming initially. Pam’s parents are recently deceased, and she hasn’t had much time to grieve while she’s been getting the estate in order. She could use a quick getaway, say to Aruba, a trip her new boyfriend, Ryan (Jim Thorburn), arranges for the two of them. But Hailey grows suspicious when she gets a call from Pam, who has decided to lay low in Hawai’i instead. At least that’s what she claims. Hailey thinks her friend has actually been kidnapped and is calling under duress.

Like the other Hallmark sleuths, Hailey decides to poke around on her own, except she actually has experience and knows a thing or two about law and criminal behavior. I like this change of pace, and I think we all benefit when our protagonist isn’t being treated as if she’s a kid on some adventure. For once, she’s the expert who has to protect her boyfriend, Jonas the cutie coroner (Matthew MacCaull), when they sneak into Pam’s house. She doesn’t do a great job though, and they both get arrested in a scene played for laughs because – oh my gosh that would never happen if either character was black. Well, Jonas doesn’t like it either, though he lives to tell about it, and the budding romance is put on ice.

A couple crazy things then go down in quick succession – someone is hit by a car, another person is poisoned, someone from Pam’s past makes an appearance. It’s all very contained and there are no stray characters or plot strands. What attention isn’t given to the case is given to Hailey’s struggle with the past. It’s not pleasant, and we have to relive her fiancé’s murder with her as she experiences one awful flashback after another. However, this trauma sets the series apart from others. It’s not Scandinavian noir, but it’s looking in that direction.

Hallmark is going to have a Hailey Dean blitz in another month or so, and the new episodes could go in some dark directions. This movie ends with a revelation about the murder that could profoundly change some characters. That would shape the series into something with more gravity than we’re used to with the one and done cases. Then again, maybe nothing new will happen. Whatever the it may be, I hope at least two of the supporting characters, the fiancé’s brother (Giacomo Baessato) and Hailey’s black best friend (Viv Leacock), continue to get substantial screen time. Both emphasize her talents and call her out on her faults without talking down to her.

Highlight for spoilers: Whenever you see Jim Thorburn, he is the murderer! I think he’s hit every Hallmark Movies and Mysteries series by now, and sure enough, he’s unleashing more nastiness in Hailey Dean-land. But it’s not just Ryan this time. His accomplice, rather the mastermind, is his mother, the loopy estate sale agent. She and her son have hopped around the country apparently targeting single women with dead parents who need to sell a house and all its belongings. They kidnap the women and keep them alive long enough to sign the deed before killing them. It seems like a very research intensive crime that isn’t worth the trouble, but okay. Pam makes it out alive, thanks to Hailey’s tenacity. The movie ends with Hailey’s realization that her fiancé’s murderer was targeting her; it was not a random mugging.

Released: 2017
Dir: Terry Ingram
Writer: Jonathan Greene
Cast: Kellie Martin, Giacomo Baessato, Viv Leacock, Matthew MacCaull, Jim Thorburn, Michelle Harrison, Peter Bryant, Gwynyth Walsh, Emily Holmes, Joshua Hinkson
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

Darrow & Darrow: In the Key of Murder (2018)

I’m still nursing hurt feelings over the cancellation of the Flower Shop Mystery series, which had a very capable lead in Brooke Shields. She upped the game on Hallmark’s amateur sleuths, insomuch as they can be, by creating a character who was sharp and a little silly while also dealing with weightier issues of love and tragedy, and murder. Darrow & Darrow slides in to replace that show and brings its own talented cast. So far, the team of Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Wendie Malick, and Tom Cavanaugh have shown strong outings, even if their movies have been less consistent.

In the Key of Murder improves on the first film with a high stakes case and a story that doesn’t have to meander around it for the sake of establishing new characters. There’s still a lot of traffic, but this time the subplots don’t drag the action too far from the main case, which is the murder of a verbally abusive music producer. The movie opens with him berating everyone in the recording studio, from his aspiring star to the backup singers to the sound mixer. It’s clear this guy is not long for the world, and sure enough, he’s dead by midnight. He manages to call his wife before his untimely exit and is heard shouting the name of the singer, Phoebe (MacKenzie Porter). She becomes the primary suspect.

This normally wouldn’t be a case for Claire Darrow (Williams-Paisley), who deals with less lethal matters, but Phoebe happens to be the sister of her friend and the assistant DA, Miles (Cavanaugh). It doesn’t look promising for either of them when all the evidence points in Phoebe’s direction. Not only is she heard on the phone call, but she threatened the deceased and is less than forthcoming about her relationship with her new producer. Miles adds fuel to the fire with his own suspicions about his sister.

The personal connections pushes the case to the forefront, unlike in the first movie where legal matters were an afterthought. Malick, who plays Claire’s mother and the other titular Darrow, continues to exert a strong presence even though she’s not involved in the main story. Her character, Joanna, earned my sympathy despite being a corporate lawyer with a taste for the high life. She wasn’t going to let her sanctimonious daughter blame her for having ambition and an understanding of life’s grittier realities. (Good on sanctimonious daughter for having the most diverse office in all of Hallmarkland though.) But Joanna’s mellowed out and is getting on board with the socially minded ethos of her deceased husband’s law firm. This time, she’s assigned to mediate between a little girl running a lemonade stand and a sourpuss who loves zoning laws, and she discovers that pro bono work has its perks.

I’m optimistic about this series and hope it has a longer life than Flower Shop Mystery. The relationship between the Darrow women is far more exciting to watch than a predictable one between plucky female sleuth and her lover, and their dynamic pushes the story in directions that we don’t see in Hallmark’s other series. One subplot involves Claire’s daughter, Lou (Lilah Fitzgerald), who’s determined to keep her spot on the all-boys baseball team. The writing is clunky and the resolution doesn’t make a lot of sense, but at least we get to see three generations of women pushing their way past the patriarchy. If anything, the show could make better use of its male star. Cavanaugh is too good to be sidelined, but the creators have yet to define his role. Miles looks to be moving towards love interest territory but hasn’t quite gotten there and is kind of milling around holding lots of cups of coffee for now.

Highlight for spoilers: The big, blindingly obvious clue was the motor oil, which gave a false positive on the gun residue, which means the couple in the garage did it, i.e. the backup singer and her husband, the sound guy. No idea what their names are and also got confused with backup singer and the lookalike wife of the deceased. But the short is, she was jealous of Phoebe and thought she could kill her way into becoming the star. Her husband used his sound mixing skills to frame Phoebe; the phone call was fake and just a recording. Claire confronts the couple in court instead of in an abandoned warehouse because she ain’t no dummy and girl’s got skills.

Release: 2018
Dir: Mel Damski
Writer: Phoef Sutton
Cast: Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Wendie Malick, Tom Cavanaugh, Lilah Fitzgerald, Barclay Hope, MacKenzie Porter, Paul McGillion, David Paetkau
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018

The Royals (2014)

I’m still caught in the royal wedding weekend afterglow, which means non-stop Britishness from now until the next celebrity bauble comes my way. That’s how I ended up revisiting The Royals, a documentary series on Netflix that plays like a supermarket tabloid in televised form. It purportedly offers a glimpse into the life and times of (mostly) the Windsor clan, with a Hanover here and even a Tudor there, and it gives some insight into lesser known aspects of royal life. Royal pets, for example, get a full 45 minute episode, an unexpected but welcome change from your average BBC documentary about the monarchy. On the whole, however, The Royals is an uneven production that veers from the reputable to the kind of trashy.

The series consists of six episodes presented in no particular order. First up are royal weddings with the then-recent nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton kicking things off. Much is made of Diana’s wedding to Prince Charles, though after three decades there is not a lot of new ground to cover. The celebratory atmosphere of this episode contrasts with the second one about royal funerals. Again, Diana’s death takes center stage while stories about the deaths of actual monarchs orbit hers. Come to think of it, you can call this the Diana show. The fourth episode about royal scandals deceptively begins with jolly Edward VII before picking apart the Edward VIII’s affair with Wallis Simpson, but all this is just prelude to the scandaliest scandal – Diana, Charles, and the paparazzi. A gentler fifth episode about royal babies follows, I think to cushion the earlier bad behavior.

If you’re a casual observer of the royal family, the series can be an informative binge, particularly if you know little about earlier generations of privileged people. The emphasis on Diana, Charles, and their sons though means that a lot of the material has already been floating around the internets and the covers of People magazine for ages. Anyone who subsists on a steady diet of well sourced documentaries or with a distaste for sensationalism, on the other hand, should stay well away. Also folks who have watched The Crown, a veritable newsreel compared to this.

To say that The Royals is based on rigorous research is laughable. There are some actual historians and other commentators of note, including authors and journalists, but the series scrapes the barrel when it comes to royal experts. I’m all for expanding expertise beyond academia and stuffy white dudes nestled in institutions of power, but I’m not going to take things seriously when one of your talking heads is a 21 year old geography student whose sole qualification is running a fab Prince Harry fansite, especially when she’s being interviewed via Skype. There’s an unusual number of website founders, in fact, as well as self-proclaimed “Diana fans” and memorabilia enthusiasts. I threw my hands up, however, when a psychic appeared and did her bit about aligning star signs.

The gossipy tone of this production is off-putting, and you don’t even have to watch the whole thing to come away feeling like you’ve been party to some cheap hit job. In the first episode, someone’s already making snide remarks about, in her opinion, the Queen Mother’s hideous wedding dress. Another expert makes known her distaste for Eton and still others feel the need to comment on Princes William and Harry’s poor fashion sense. No royal escapes condemnation; Kate Middleton is chastised for going topless, as if it is her fault for getting caught by the paps, and Prince Charles and Camilla are ridiculed for an intimate if awkward phone conversation that resulted in something known as the tampon scandal.

With such distasteful commentators, it’s hard not to come away feeling sympathy for the royal family, and that’s the last thing they need or deserve. The whole of the third episode reveals just how degrading that lot can be, the ones who regularly traffic in gossip and get off on others’ misfortunes. Part three is about royal teens, particularly about their bad behavior and rebelliousness, and it really serves no purpose except to judge. Prince Harry gets quite the beating. We know now that he was acting out in part because he was under a constant spotlight when his mother died and didn’t have space to mourn. Also he was just a kid. But you don’t get to shame teens for being teens when you’re one of their problems. There’s no sense of self-awareness, a quality that’s kind of necessary when it comes to documentaries.

Released: 2014
Network: Channel 5
Dir: Laura Linton, Marco De Luca
Writer: Jonathan Callan, James Krieg
Time: 270 min (45 min x 6 episodes)
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2018

Flower Shop Mystery: Dearly Depotted (2016)

Flower Shop Mystery, we hardly knew ye. After three short episodes, the Brooke Shields helmed murder mystery is no more, gone and likely forgotten. But that’s not to say it didn’t go out with a bang, or at least a small celebratory pop. It improved on its opening chapter and the characters were just starting to feel settled in, but it was not to be. With Shields gone, the Hallmark orbit dims somewhat. Respect to the other actors, even CCB, but Shields brought a touch of glamour and worldliness to a channel that thrives on the small town aesthetic.

Abby Knight’s (Shields) last case is a family affair, one that everyone gets to take part in whether they want to or not. Her fickle cousin Jillian is getting married, at least that’s the hope since she left her two previous fiancés at the altar. Cold feet is not the problem though, not in the traditional sense. The real trouble starts after the nuptials when Abby finds the body of one Jack Sutcliffe, downed by a punch bowl.

The obvious suspects are the folks who sneaked out after checking their phones. Serves them right for not switching to silent mode. That means cousin, Melanie, and her father, Josiah, are at the top of the list along with Richard, husband of Abby’s friend and business partner, Nikki (Kate Drummond). The first two have a clear motive; Melanie is ex-wife to the deceased and her father was none too happy with the way Jack discarded his daughter, but Richard, owner of a jewelry store, might also be hiding a connection to the victim. Abby rejects all these leads and instead has it out for the groom’s snooty mother, Glory. The woman is not only condescending but also rejected Abby’s father (Beau Bridges) years ago in high school, so there’s that.

It’s nice to see Bridges contribute to the story in a meaningful way. He appears in the previous movies but is a nonentity. The same goes for Drummond’s character, Nikki, who finally does more than smile in agreement with her friend and warn her about approaching customers. The secret weapon, however, is the pairing of Shields and her onscreen partner, Brennan Elliot, who plays Marco, owner of a bar and grill across the way. Among the Hallmark sleuths and their other halves, these two are the most dynamic pair. That’s because their relationship is one of mutual admiration and respect, also seasoned with wit and sarcasm. I really appreciate that Marco does not feel the need to protect Abby or warn her to be careful. He knows the woman’s got skills and a sound mind, and that’s exactly why he likes her.

Dearly Depotted is a better example of what this channel can do when it corrals a group of capable actors who aren’t above having fun with the genre. They know how turn up the drama when necessary and break out the humor at all other times. One instance of good comic timing comes when Abby and Marco try to sneak into Jack’s apartment for clues. Marco approaches, ready to pick the lock and perhaps show off, only for Abby to simply open the unlocked door. The other series have their funny moments, but Flower Shop Mystery never shies away from what it is, a lazy Saturday afternoon diversion.

Highlight for spoilers: Wedding planner Bethany, you monster! Yes, it was the non-suspect, because it always is. Bethany had a relationship with Jack, which Abby discovered after seeing a picture of the couple in Bethany’s house. Bethany is also separated from her husband, whom she said was dead but is very much alive. Jack rejected Bethany and wanted to reunite with Melanie, and the ex-husband dumped her after two weeks of marriage. Humiliated by both men, Bethany gets even by smashing Jack in the head with a punch bowl and then staging Melanie’s death to look like a suicide. Sad times.

Released: 2016
Dir: Bradley Walsh
Writer: Neal H. Dobrofsky, Tippi Dobrofsky
Cast: Brooke Shields, Brennan Elliott, Beau Bridges, Rachel Crawford, Celeste Desjardins, Kate Drummond, Dru Viergever, Dani Kind, Marie Ward, Sonja Smits, Chad Connell, Kimberly-Sue Murray
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2018