Mrs H and I recently watched an episode of Midsomer Murders. The TV isn’t a gadget we use much these days. The grandkids use it more than we do, but old habits and so forth.
As you may know, the main character of Midsomer Murders is Chief Inspector Barnaby who is kept busy by endless bizarre murders in a land of chocolate box English villages where almost everyone is middle class, where sharp-eyed old ladies clip their roses on the lookout for scandal or blackmail opportunities and village fetes are absolute death traps.
It’s all terrifically silly, but to my mind that’s not the most interesting aspect. As characters come and go it isn’t always easy to remember who they are and how they fit into the plot. That's the interesting aspect, because it doesn't matter.
Jemima’s body is found floating in the duck pond. Who the hell is Jemima? Damian scowls his way to an untimely death at the hands of a mysterious archer. Was Damian the guy in the sports car? Or was that Brian? Or was Brian Jemima’s fiancé? And who on earth is pouting Penelope?
Fortunately Barnaby knows all, although he seems to rely on inspired guesswork rather than clues. However as the mystery unfolds a completely different type of clue rears its interesting head, a clue to our own behaviour. It soon becomes obvious that the viewer doesn’t need to know who everybody is or their role in the plot. Gerald may or not be Samantha’s old flame and therefore a prime suspect, but knowing it isn’t essential. It isn't all that important to know who Gerald and Samantha are.
I’m sure there are a number of ways to explain the inessential nature of plot details for Midsomer Murders, but the one I favour is the broad picture explanation.
Bucolic English villages, people being bumped off, old rivalries, tempers bursting out all over the place, thatched cottages, idyllic pubs, no real work, mild hanky panky and an infallible detective who is bound to wrap it all up on time and within budget. That’s the broad picture and broad pictures are all we need in many areas of life.
We humans are good at relying on vague outlines. We are able to apply the faculty of vagueness to a complex murder mystery because the complexity isn’t what entertains us. To know enough and make do with enough is one of our most fundamental characteristics. Watching Midsomer Murders allows one to see it in action.
Jemima’s body may have been floating in the duck pond and Damian may have scowled his way to an untimely death at the hands of a mysterious archer, but knowing who Jemima and Damian are is not essential. Not because the programme is vacuous escapism, which it is, but because a broad picture is almost always enough in most areas of life.