It’s strange to say about a show with so much killing, but Three Pines is a pleasure to watch. In the spirit of Murder, She Wrote, it’s a mystery series set in a quirky small town, where bloodshed is balanced by meals at the local bistro and visits with a poet who cradles her pet duck like a baby. Even some of the deaths have wacky panache, like when a woman gets electrocuted at a curling match or an heiress gets flattened by a statue of her own father. Jessica Fletcher herself couldn’t ask for more whimsical crimes.
The Prime Video series is designed to be snackable, too. Adapted from Louise Penny’s popular novels by Left Bank Pictures (which also produces The Crown), the series follows Armand Gamache, a Quebecois detective who solves cases around the Canadian village of Three Pines. The first season covers four of the books, with a pair of hour-long episodes dedicated to each crime. Viewers looking for a low-commitment, well-written whodunit can watch any of these two-packs and be satisfied.
And there are richer pleasures for those who watch all eight episodes. Alongside the one-off crimes, there’s a season-long arc about a missing Indigenous couple. When Gamache (Alfred Molina) and his team aren’t solving the mystery of the moment, they visit members of the local Indigenous community, learning why none of them believe these young people simply ran away. This lets the show acknowledge Canada’s real-life epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, and to its credit, it treats the issue much more seriously than the crimes in its A-plots. The writers reference protests and art installations that have sprung up around the crisis, and they give Indigenous characters ample chances to speak for themselves. And when they finally reveal what happened to the missing pair, they balance the suspense with displays of hurt and healing.
Some may think it’s inappropriate to tackle something so devastating on a show that otherwise treats murder like a charming puzzle to be solved. It’s also true that the writing lacks psychological nuance. Everyone speaks in blunt pronouncements about their emotional lives – “I am so upset about this!” – and every major character has at least one expositional monologue that’s solely designed to push the plot forward.
But that’s how most whodunits work, from Arthur Conan Doyle on down. We forgive the clunky bits of writing for the joy of watching the clues click into place as the brilliant detective outwits everyone in the room. Three Pines addresses the plight of disappeared women within the confines of this genre. It’s a heartening reminder that populist crime series — the ones that lack the grit and gravitas of an Unbelievable or a Mare of Easttown — can still have narrative ambition.
They can have great performances, too. As Gamache, Molina gives the show a warm center: His eyes sparkle as he enjoys that poet’s pet duck, and his brow furrows when he wakes from another guilty dream about the people he cannot save. His intense concentration adds purpose to each story: We know he cares about every crime, no matter how bizarre.
Among the supporting cast, the standouts are Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Sergeant Isabelle Lacoste, an Indigenous woman who’s trying to help her people from within the world of white law enforcement, and Julian Bailey as Peter, an artist with surprising ties to several of the standalone murders. As actors, they’re both excellent listeners, snagging our eye in ensemble scenes because they react so subtly to what they’re hearing. In several cases, watching their facial expressions even helps us realize when something we’ve just heard is fishy. Their textured work speaks to the care that’s been taken with this juicy bit of entertainment.
The first two episodes of Three Pines premiere Friday, December 2 on Prime Video. Two new episodes premiere each week through December 23.
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Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.
TOPICS: Three Pines, Amazon Prime Video, Alfred Molina, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Julian Bailey, Louise Penny, Left Bank Pictures