The source for this week’s other television literary adaptation can’t claim the same global reach as ‘The Lord of the Rings’, but Sally Andrew’s Tannie Maria novels have proven reliable bestsellers in South Africa. the author’s native South since their debut in 2015. They now provide the basis for “Recipes for Love and Murder”, a South African-Scottish co-production that represents the most daffist addition to date to the burgeoning portfolio of awesome pastimes from Acorn TV.
To some extent, it’s a formula with a capital F: light-hearted comic, romantic and criminal misadventures in a picturesque setting. Watch enough of it and you’ll realize that even individual scenes have their own formula. Find a comfortable spot, add light plot and piano seasonings, and – lest anyone feel too challenged again – serve with a cute punchline, usually someone offering to put a kettle somewhere . Since its foundations, it has been tea-break television.
However, designers Karen Jeynes and Annie Griffin themselves offer two variations. The first is geographic. The backdrop is Andrew’s own backyard, the Klein Karoo, a 350 kilometer valley that encompasses both mountainous rural outskirts and vibrant multi-ethnic urban centers which – as passing here recall what a journey the real South Africa has been on in recent decades.
The second is a one-of-a-kind heroine: matron Maria Purvis (Maria Doyle Kennedy), a committed foodie turning to the agony aunt – “Tannie” meaning aunt in Afrikaans – and amateur detective between drizzling raspberries with honey and complete the lattice top for an ostrich meat pie. (No man could multi-task.) Gradually, we glean that Maria might even be hiding another secret identity, which perhaps explains Doyle Kennedy’s shifting accent. There are multi-faceted female characters, and one orders every dish on the menu hoping they’ll sit well on one’s stomach.
It’s clear where “Recipes” wants to position itself. Like those afternoon TV movies about bakers-turned-crimefighters, the show bridges the gap between the brightly lit cooking shows of the day and the post-shoot procedural drama. Nothing in the early episodes draws the same attention as a sequence in which Maria bakes TV’s most desirable cake, an indulgence that brings rescue to a local woman accused of murder before taking a bullet herself. signaling the invaluable command, “Take this cake into custody.”
Christiaan Olwagen, who directs six of the 10 episodes (Jeynes helms the other four), described “Recipes” as the midpoint between “Chocolate” and “The Killing,” a description that isn’t entirely inaccurate, though it leaves hear the sometimes awkward tonal changes of the show. In the season premiere, Maria’s fate intertwines with that of abused housewife Martine (Tinarie van Wyk Loots); montages of domestic violence are covered in Maria’s recipe for the perfect mutton curry (“Boil the potatoes and add the garam masala, and voila.”).
While establishing an empathetic connection between the townswomen, it also betrays seemingly sparse narrative strategies. Both soapy and surreal, the show often seems much less interested in any element of the crime – the detective is thinly laid out at the start – than in returning to the cutting board. (The opening credits find Maria busy slicing, dicing and sautéing: you’d call them “Dexter”, if the scarlet droplets pictured weren’t so obviously good loganberry juice.)
The thought has however been applied to bringing a stable entertainment format into the 21st century. Caucasian of a certain age, Maria has just identified a potential teammate in Jessie (Kylie Fisher), a young black colleague whose rival advice column apparently starts an online broadcast war. Although the characters are defined in simple, fun terms by their lines – “Tannie Maria’s Advice for Life” versus “Jess Saying” – the pair’s growing bond is one of the most appealing aspects here, enhanced by the natural presence on screen debutante Fisher.
Traces of conservatism linger, most visibly in the (strangely undercrowded) Barbie pink walls of the press room. And while episode two poignantly sketches a closeted farmer driven to write his own letter to Dear Tannie, it also features rustling town butcher Doep (Terence Bridgett) offering frowning Detective Meyer (Tony Kgoroge) a “nice thick and juicy rump”. It’s progressive, up to a point. Yet its eccentricities – which are clearly those of a fledgling TV industry looking to create broadcastable content for international markets – have thrived on this viewer.
Employed regularly since her debut on “The Commitments” in 1991, Doyle Kennedy does her best to cohesively cohere a character who is part Julia Child, part Miss Marple, and part mystery beyond anyone’s immediate comprehension. There’s something innocently enjoyable about Jessie’s flirtation with shy cop Regardt (Arno Greeff), a subplot one suspects should be treated differently in any comparable American drama. I even found myself vaguely invested in the fate of Morag, Maria’s chicken confidante, observed wandering the surfaces of her caretaker in blatant violation of conventional health code legislation.
“Recipes” is unlikely to deepen and darken as the series settles and unfolds. Each week’s letter to Tannie folds into additional life experience, while expanding our understanding of the Karoo community; there’s even a glimmer of genuine grief in episode three, as town elder Grace (Lee Duru) mourns her murdered son. But her own recipe seems inked for the moment, established when Maria told this aggrieved prisoner “No cops, don’t worry, just cake.” If you took a knife to it, the “recipes” might be just that – a fluffy sponge held together by a light cream filling. But some afternoons it can also be appetizing.
“Recipes for Love and Murder” airs on Acorn TV starting September 5, airing two episodes a week with 10 episodes in total (the first three screened for review).