Mike Shepherd, a New Zealand senior police detective, likes to talk to dead bodies. Having been sent from Aukland, the most populous urban area in the country, to Brokenwood, with a population around 5,000, to investigate a local police officer, Shepherd is soon involved in solving a murder. Detective Kristin Sims is initially put off by Shepherd’s style, but soon she, and Detective Constable Sam Breen, recognize Shepherd’s empathy for the victims, his intelligence, and his ability to lead. They enthusiastically sign on to his team.
Tim Balme, who conceived and is lead writer for The Brokenwood Mysteries, has created an appealing and addictive detective series, which has amassed a fan base worldwide. Mostly filmed in Warkworth, a town in the upper North Island of New Zealand, cinematography beautifully displays the farms, vineyards, beaches, village shops, and homes – both quaint and fabulous – that will make many want to jump on the next plane. (As with other shows that have become popular, if you travel to New Zealand, you can tour where Brokenwood is filmed.)
The episodes serve as a guide for meeting and mingling with the locals. Pubs with quirky names – the Snake and the Lion, the Frog and Cheetah – are gathering places. And there are many occasions to showcase the country’s award-winning wine industry. (In one episode, two people die after being drowned in a fermentation vat.) While more than 70 percent of the residents identify ethnically as European, more than 16 percent are Maori, indigenous Polynesian, with Asian and Pacific minorities making up the rest. Several of the regular and recurring actors are of Maori descent and ethnic tensions between the groups often figure into the plots. New Zealanders are called “Kiwis,” from the flightless bird that is a national symbol. The demographic label is not considered offensive, but is embraced and often turns up in conversations in Brokenwood.
Like their British counterparts, residents of Brokenwood mostly prefer tea to coffee, although the Brokenwood police patronize a coffee wagon run by a colorful character, Frodo (played by Karl Willetts), ordering with shorthand that would befuddle a barista at Starbucks. A beginner’s guide to language includes “ta,” for “thanks,” to “taking the piss,” for joking or making fun of someone.
Seven season are available to stream on Acorn TV with four stand alone 90-minute episodes. (Season seven has six episodes.) Cleverly framed around a particular place or event, the show takes the viewer inside a slice of life on the island that never fails to entertain. Settings include: a vineyard, a golf course, a deer hunt, a rugby club, a theater company, a failing amusement park, a skydiving group, an historic village, and a home for seniors.
Investigating one murder, Shepherd soon realizes that all the suspects, as well as the victim, have surnames similar to those in the board game “Clue.” Miss Scarlett is the one found dead during a staged mystery evening in a mansion whose rooms include the library, ballroom, kitchen, study, conservatory – well, you get the idea. Participants spent their time scurrying from room to room to hide the weapons. Solving the crime turns out to be more complicated than winning the board game, but Shepherd manages to identify the guilty party without throwing the dice.
Shepherd is a rabid fan of country music and the series shines a spotlight on New Zealand’s own stars. (Three volumes of soundtracks covering three seasons of the show are available on Apple Music, Amazon, and Spotify.) The senior detective drives a 1971 Holden Kingswood equipped with a tape deck and subjects country music hater Sims to his favorite mixes. In season two’s “Blood Pink,” Shepherd is thrilled that one of his favorite musicians is coming to perform in Brokenwood. But when she’s found dead, he must investigate her death. Even that, however, can’t dim his love of country music.
While the scenery is gorgeous and the scripts well-written, the series owes its success to a talented and appealing cast. Neill Rea’s Shepherd is scruffy, at times unkempt, but still becomes a magnet for the women he meets, some of whom turn out to be the criminals. Having been married five times (two of his exes show up in episodes), he’s not looking to settle down. That doesn’t discourage medical examiner, Russian Dr. Gina Kadinsky (the actor, Cristina Ionda, is actually Romanian), whose attempts to get Shepherd alone on a date are often thwarted by the protective Sims. Gina’s language flubs are hilarious. “Mike, I need to have you here right now,” initially raises alarm bells for Mike, until he realizes she just wants him to come to the morgue. On another occasion she tells him, “It always makes me laugh when you answer your phone, `Gina, how can I do you?’” He tells her what he actually said was, “What can I do for you?”
Sims, as played by Fern Sutherland, is smart and organized, but soon realizes she has a lot to learn from a veteran like Shepherd. Because she has lived in Brokenwood for a long time, her knowledge of the people and their histories proves invaluable. And she never shies away from a tough interview, lobbing questions even, in one case, at a woman who was her best friend. Nic Sampson’s Breen is a serious detective, but the situations he often finds himself in can prove comical. With his red hair and well-tailored looks, he’s the opposite of Shepherd, but like Sims, he has a lot to learn. When Breen announces at the end of season six that he’s moving to the Solomon Islands to be with his girlfriend (in real life Sampson returned to London), he’s replaced by Detective Constable Daniel Chalmers (Jared Rawiri).
Supporting cast includes some real standouts: Pana Hema Taylor as Jared Morehu, Shepherd’s Maori neighbor who often helps out in murder investigations; Elizabeth Page as Mrs. Jean Marlowe, an elderly woman who keeps up to date on local gossip; Shane Cortese as Dennis Buchanan, seemingly the only defense lawyer in town who turns ups whenever someone is arrested; and Colin Moy as Simon Hughes, the area police commander and close friend of DSS Shepherd.
Spending time in Brokenwood is like spending time with a close group of friends you are reluctant to leave. Hopefully, there will be more seasons for us to enjoy in this bucolic small town where murder never takes a holiday.
The Brokenwood Mysteries can be streamed on Acorn TV.
Top photo: Cristina Ionda, Neill Rea, Fern Sutherland, and Nic Sampson. Photo Credit: Matt Klitscher/AcornTV