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Shows you should be watching: 'Foyle's War'

Michael Kitchen stars as Christopher Foyle with Honeysuckle Weeks as his driver/assistant Sam Stewart.

Acorn via Associated Press

Michael Kitchen stars as Christopher Foyle with Honeysuckle Weeks as his driver/assistant Sam Stewart.



I do watch television shows that are American. I swear I do. I also swear I watch shows that aren't murder mysteries like Miss Fisher and Gran Hotel. I promise I do.

But there's nothing quite so engrossing as going down the rabbit hole of a well-crafted crime series, trying to guess at what is and isn't a clue. You know it's true. It's why TV is flooded with crime procedurals (see some of Brittany's favorites) and the bestsellers list is equally aflush with with mysteries.

Personally, I'm particularly susceptible to falling for Sherlock Holmes (♥♥♥ them all from Benedict Cumberbatch to Robert Downey Jr. to Jonny Lee Miller) and similar types — the ever-observant, eccentric and occasionally sassy Miss Fishers and Patrick Janes of the world.

But my latest fix is Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle of Foyle's War. Plain talking, fly-fishing DCS Foyle runs a police force in Hastings on England's south coast during World War II, constantly being ridiculed for "searching for murderers in a time of war" (not that he doesn't, for the record, try to join the war effort). By and large, Foyle refuses to bend the law or the principles of justice simply because a war's being fought around him. Spies and soldiers aren't exempt from the consequences of killing someone in Hastings if Foyle's got anything to say about it. (Though there are rare cases where he lets a guilty party go off to face ultimate justice in battle.) In the later seasons, Foyle retires from the police force and joins MI-5, Britain's domestic counter-intelligence agency, as the show transitions from World War to Cold War. He is no more lenient in the world of espionage than he was in the police force.

The best period pieces dig into the growing pains of progress, into the everyday daily struggles of a time and changes on a larger cultural scale.

Foyle's War is such a show.

Beyond and sometimes in the midst of the twisty turns of various murder mysteries, the show is a fascinating look at how much things changed during and after the war(s) and even more so an interesting examination of morality in wartime. Does a civilian death mean less when there are military ones going on a massive scale, not to mention military-initiated civilian deaths? What about getting along with the American troops, even when they want to establish segregated GI bars? What about complications with prisoners of war, like their labor conditions and sending them back to their home countries when they don't want to go? What happens to the women who have been working hard in jobs throughout the war when the men who did them before come home? Foyle's War poses all of these questions and more.

If that makes you worry that the show is somehow preachy, don't. It's still full of meticulously plotted mystery, motives and malicious intentions, not to mention the light-hearted moments (see above GIF). The show is created and primarily written by Anthony Horowitz, who most recently took over writing James Bond books and made headlines for saying actor Idris Elba was "too street" to play Bond. (Fun side fact: Foyle's War star Michael Kitchen played Bill Tanner in the Pierce Brosnan Bond films GoldenEye (1995) and The World Is Not Enough (1999).) Luckily this show is more masterfully crafted than Horowitz's comments, and Foyle actually manages to say a lot without actually saying much at all.

In his own quiet way, Foyle crusades for justice throughout all of these sticky situations, solving murders and usually other smaller crimes in the process.

Star Michael Kitchen is fun to watch as he plays Foyle very understated, almost uninterested as he pokes around casually — I particularly have fun imitating his dismissive "yeah" and "yup" acknowledgements to serious questions. As L.A. Times critic Mary McNamara expressed better than I ever could, "his performance as Foyle is a master class in the power of subtlety."

That, perhaps, is one of the things that most fascinates about Foyle. You can spend several seasons trying to figure him out and still not get him by the end. He's got all of the observational prowess, the crime-solving genius of a Sherlock Holmes, but none of the flamboyance. Just a desire to see justice served, including to those who would underestimate him.

The supporting cast members are no slouches either. Throughout the seasons, Sam Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks, surely winning some award for weirdest name) serves in a way as Foyle's foil, the more vocal moral compass with a personal life that plays out on screen including romantic and other domestic struggles we don't see from Foyle. There are other more important ways, though, in which she is like Mr. Foyle: also rather understated (though she specially in her crimesolving ability) and determined to do what she sees as right, no matter the consequence (frequently it gets her into trouble). Sam starts off as Foyle's driver, briefly seems as though she might become his daughter-in-law and eventually becomes his assistant within MI-5.

Beyond Sam, the secondary characters help more fully explore relevant social issues, including injuries from war, both physical (Foyle's right hand man at the outset is Paul Milner, who has a prosthetic leg after a fiery crash) and mental (Foyle's own son, Andrew, goes AWOL for a bit as he wrestles with what we'd now call PTSD). Then, of course, there are the more episodic issues that bring in a very worthy list of guest stars that includes Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class, Mr. Tumnus), David Tennant (the 10th Doctor, obvs) and John Mahoney (Frasier).

Is it worth your watching? As Mr. Foyle would say ...

Before I get into where you can watch this fabulous show, a warning: The number of seasons is a little confusing as Season 4 was divided into two parts, sometimes counted as separate seasons entirely. So if you look at an episode guide, you'll likely see that Foyle's War ran for eight seasons, the last of which aired this year in the U.K., but Netflix has "1-7," which actually correspond to Series (as they call them across the pond) 1-6. Streaming service ($49.99/year) has the show's entire run, plus bonus features. Acorn also sells the DVDs, and a box set is available for pre-order — it drops Nov. 10, in plenty of time for Christmas — from Amazon, Barnes and Noble or for $119.99-$149.99.

Like many other foreign dramas from Downton Abbey to Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, Foyle's War has aired before on PBS's Masterpiece series. No word on whether that'll happen again, but it's probably likely. (Masterpiece is currently airing Indian Summers, fascinating to me with my well-documented interest in India but a bit thin on production quality while heavy on complicated relationships.)

[Last modified: Friday, November 6, 2015 11:54am]


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