It would have been nearly impossible for me to watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, which WGBH is currently re-airing on Thursdays at 8pm on WGBX 44, and not fall instantly in love. Let’s review the facts: the main character is a free-spirited modern woman, who, despite her wealth and privilege, is deeply invested in improving the world and helps everyone who crosses her path (check). The historical setting is late 1920s Australia, so the costumes are absolutely stunning (check). Miss Fisher’s pals include a snarky lesbian doctor best friend (check), an omniscient butler literally named Mr. Butler (check), a tenacious reformed jewel thief ward (check), sweet, hardworking sidekicks who fall in love (check), a pair of rabble rousing communist cabbies (double check), and mother-freakin’ Miriam Margolyes as the snooty but loving elderly aunt (triple check? A whole book of checks!). Yes, the show has some blind spots. The 1920s setting allows the production to rather lean into orientalism, and while a couple of episodes do incorporate stories of Indigenous Australians and Black folks, I’d love to see more. All that being said, I haven’t even gotten to the reason I used my hard-earned public media wages to buy the box set yet. THAT, friends, can be expressed in one word: Phrack.
For those not initiated in the world of fanfiction, here's a quick primer. "Ship" describes not a seafaring vessle, but a relationship, usually romantic, between two characters, whether the show makes that relationship canon or not. Like many ship names, Phrack is a portmanteau of the names of the two characters involved: Phryne Fisher and Jack Robinson. Now look, I can (and will) tell you all the reasons that I think this pairing is so delightful, but let’s get two things out of the way:
One, still images really just can’t capture the completely bonkers chemistry these two actors (Phryne is portrayed by Essie Davis, Jack by Nathan Page) somehow contrive to ooze out of their pores when they’re in close proximity. Sometimes a production just gets lucky when two actors spark, and boy howdy, this one is FIRE. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone live-tweet their experience watching Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries online, gleefully following their descent into madness that inevitably culminates with some version of “OH MY GOD JUST KISS ALREADY.” It truly has to be seen to be believed, and I really think you should see it.
And that brings us to two: to say that these actors are attractive is perhaps the biggest understatement I’ve committed to print. Tumblr user (and one of my favorite fanfic authors) @firesign23 tags all of her pictures of Essie Davis “congrats on your f***ing face” and it’s the most apt descriptor I have ever seen. I think about it often. I’m just as into hot actors with undeniable chemistry as anyone else; that’s pretty much table stakes for a network television ship. But there’s a lot more to Phrack, and that’s why I keep coming back to this show year after year.
One of the most refreshing things about this show is that it turns typical TV norms around sex on their head. This isn’t a case of simply having a sexually motivated female lead and a romantically motivated male lead, though Phryne is unapologetically sexual and Jack is a true romantic. Phryne doesn’t let society stop her from having sex; she relies on her own screening system — no suspects, no one who’s got other committments, and no one who isn’t enthusiastic. She’s not particularly interested in romantic love; it’s not part of her personal system. In a typical narrative, her behaviour would be coded as “bad,” but the show never questions the morality of her sexcapades, just whether she’s personally ready to combine them with romantic love. Jack doesn’t judge her for said sexcapades either, for the record; he gets jealous, but firmly owns that that is on him. His journey is also about figuring out if he’s ready to love someone: he may be drawn to romance, but Jack knows exactly how love can go pear-shaped. Is he ready to take the leap? In essence, the show actually explores the complicated nuances of sex and love, rather than resting on well-trod tropes.
It’s incredibly refreshing, in a world of media that centers the stories of youth, with all its naivety and carefree belief that everything will be fine, to watch two people fall in love who know very well that it might not work out, and decide to risk it anyway. I detest a "will they/won’t they," but there’s something very satisfying and human about a “we could, but should we?” Their experience means that these two actually communicate with each other. In the first season, Jack is still married to someone else. It’s over. It’s been over. But it’s 1920 and he’s pretty traditional, so despite the fact that he and Phryne both clearly want each other, they respect that boundary. There’s a bright line between what they will and won’t do; they both know where the line is, and constantly walk right up to the line, and sit on the line’s desk, and enjoy late night drinks with the line, but they won’t cross it until they’re both ready. It’s an implicit affirmation of consent and a promise of more all in a tidy package, and it’s absolutely part of what gives the relationship so much heat.
Both of these characters survived WWI, and it’s central to how they behave. Jack’s caution and Phryne’s risk-taking seem like opposing traits, but they both spring from surviving trauma, and, crucially, both of the characters are fully aware of this fact. They both see what could be a dealbreaker in the other, and instead of considering it a flaw and trying to fix it, they think carefully about whether they can accept the other as they are (and in the process, they both evolve). This isn’t to say the characters are resistant to growth; far from it. There’s a critical difference between being told to change in order to earn love and choosing to change for yourself because of the influence of someone you care about. These characters never ask each other to change their nature, dull their shine, or give up on themselves.
So, if you’re looking for a TV couple crush featuring two hyper-competent badass adults who respect the heck out of each other, constantly communicate and renegotiate their boundaries, and choose in every interaction to keep growing together, have I got a show for you. Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries airs Thursday evenings at 8PM on WGBX 44.