As the new season premieres on BBC One, does the popular murder mystery series deserve a more thorough inspection?
I have a confession to make: I’m a metropolitan snowflake who likes to think carefully about her media choices, and over the last two lockdowns I watched all 72 episodes of Death In Paradise. For the uninitiated, Death In Paradise – which kicked off its tenth series on BBC One tonight – is a murder mystery show set on the fictional Caribbean island of St Marie. Starring a revolving-door cast of Anglo-Irish actors as the lead detective on the island, the show’s original premise is an inherently problematic one: a “fish-out-of-water”, awkward, white male British copper arrives in a country he has never visited and violently dislikes, is hired as the boss and is instantly much better at solving the crimes than the local police. At best it’s a bit naff, at worst it’s glorifying colonialism. I know this, so what has compelled me to watch every single episode and – frankly – quite enjoy myself?
It’s not just me: Death In Paradise is consistently in the top ten most-watched shows each week when it is airing, attracting over 8 million viewers (for reference, the most recent Britain’s Got Talent final was watched by 5.8 million). Last year Ed Power wrote in The Independent about “the weird phenomenon of Death In Paradise,” exploring why this show – so disdained by critics, when they bother to write about it – remains enormously popular. Power’s theory is that it’s “an irresistible weekly escape hatch” for viewers, from a world that is “angry and frightening”. (Side note, isn’t it so cute that we thought the world was frightening in January 2020?). That it’s set on a gorgeous island certainly helps – it airs in the harsh post-Christmas winter and it’s filmed on Guadeloupe, so the glowing ocean vistas it features are all genuine.
St Marie, like Midsomer and Oxford before it, happens to have one neatly-solveable murder every week, with enough intrigue to keep viewers guessing right up to the 55-minute mark before wrapping everything up in time for the team to grab some beers in front of an impossibly beautiful sunset. Critic Sam Wollaston wrote in a reluctant Guardian review of a 2015 episode, “there’s nothing really wrong with Death in Paradise, it’s a pleasant enough way to spend an hour of your time. But nor is there anything interesting about it.”
This is where we disagree: Death In Paradise is definitely interesting. It might share its formulaic detective DNA with favourites like Morse and Midsomer Murders, but it has something else going on. As I watched the show in 2020, during a time of heightened awareness and education about structural racism and inequality, it is hard not to question some of the more, well, questionable aspects of the world-building. St Marie is, apparently, a former French colony? But also the British were involved at some point? And although the circumstances of the murders vary a fair amount, white people (either economic migrants or holidaymakers) are drastically over-represented as both perpetrators and victims.
Shades Of Noir, a project out of University of the Arts London, published an anonymous article a few months ago, entitled The Problem With Death In Paradise. The writer examines the first season and concludes, “the popularity of the series has to be down to a longing for the ‘other’ from its fans … it [is] evident that white viewers are the target audience.” It is undeniable that Ben Miller’s original detective’s schtick about the weird food and the glaring sun and the inability to access a good cup of tea (on an island with a British colonial history and a roaring tourism industry that attracts almost exclusively people from the UK? Sure, Jan) feels less acceptable today than it perhaps did when it first aired, or when it was dreamed up in the early noughties by creator Robert Thorogood, back when the concept of microaggressions was less mainstream and white people could plausibly allege ignorance. Subsequent detectives, played by Kris Marshall, Ardal O’Hanlon and Ralf Little, have embraced St Marie life a little more, with the focus of the humour subtly shifting from the ‘strange quirks of the locals’ to the strange quirks of the Inspector himself.
Danny John-Jules, who starred as Officer Dwayne Myers between 2011 and 2018 and whose parents came to the UK from Dominica as part of the Windrush generation, told The Mirror a few years ago, “I’ve been on telly for 26 years and it’s very rare you get old West Indian ladies coming up to you in Sainsbury’s approaching you saying ‘Oh, I can’t wait for the next episode!’ That has been the biggest achievement – the fact the show seems to work for everybody.” But Death In Paradise has not totally solved its problems – the setting is little more than a prop, the white male detective possesses a preternatural talent for solving the entire case in his mind before the Black officers have a clue what’s happening, and the island is still by definition ‘othered’ as part of its charm.
Despite its issues, it would be unfair to dismiss Death In Paradise as a problematic relic from a bygone era with no merit at all – it can be a lot of fun. One of the highlights of any episode is the aggressive smash cut from the pre-credits murder (there is always a pre-credits murder) into the glaringly jaunty theme tune, creating a delightful juxtaposition that sets the tone for the evening: people are dead, but we’re all going to have a great time!
As critics have pointed out, there is a comfort to knowing exactly what you’re in for. There will be a Death and it will be In Paradise and it will always unfold in exactly the same way. There will be four, very occasionally five or three, suspects; there will be one who seems like the culprit who ultimately isn’t; and the conclusion will more than likely involve some absurd last-minute development that you couldn’t possibly have seen coming. In its best moments, it is gentle murder mystery at its finest. Even after nine series, the twists and turns remain engaging: death at the art show, death up the mountain, death at the yacht club, death at the hotel, death at the salon. And the calibre of guest star – no doubt at least partly attracted by the all-expenses-paid trip to Guadeloupe – is unusually high. Three-time Olivier Award winner Sharon D Clarke was my personal highlight, and Lucy Davis (recently in Wonder Woman), Simon Callow, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Sally Phillips have all dropped by the island in between movie projects, among countless others.
I will be tuning in live for the first time tonight and I’m genuinely excited. Who will meet Death? And which bit of Paradise will it be in? I don’t believe in the concept of ‘guilty pleasures’, so I will be letting myself enjoy my favourite comfort telly. It’s undeniably nice to watch something that will definitely have no impact on my Twitter feed: there will be no ‘discourse’ later tonight. However, I also believe it’s important to consume culture with a critical eye, especially as someone who has benefitted from systems that I have been trained to overlook. Yes, Death In Paradise is formulaic and comforting, but to snobbishly ascribe all of its appeal to mindless escapism, as mainstream television critics tend to, is too simplistic. As a phenomenally popular show, Death In Paradise perhaps deserves a little more scrutiny – and respect – than it gets.