Those of a certain age may share my fond memories of watching the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie during the 1970s. Each week we viewers were entertained as a murder or other whodunit was solved by one of three different protagonists: Dennis Weaver’s McCloud, Peter Falk’s Columbo, or Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James’ McMillan and Wife. (Over the years, other shows came and went in the rotation, both in this series and its less-popular sister series on Wednesday and, briefly, Tuesday. But these three formed the perennially popular core of the lineup.)

Though I liked McCloud and loved Columbo, McMillan and Wife always charmed me the most. Not because of anything having to do with the crimes they solved, but because of the relationship of its two protagonists: San Francisco police commissioner Stewart (“Mac”) McMillan and his smart but somewhat ditzy wife Sally. They always seemed to be so in love with each other and to have such a cool yet pleasant life together. (A life which Wikipedia accurately describes as often consisting of “attending fashionable parties and charity benefits before solving robberies and murders”.) More than any other TV couple, with the possible exceptions of Mike & Carol Brady and Gomez & Morticia Addams, they made me think that marriage and life-long commitment were definitely for me. (All of which probably helps to explain why I still find myself sans boyfriend. But I digress…) When it came to my enjoyment of Mac & Sally, the whodunit was always secondary. It provided the structure for the story, but it was the byplay between the two of them that really made it interesting and fun for me to watch.

I found myself having a similarly pleasant reaction to On the Other Hand, Death: A Donald Strachey Mystery. Though all the particulars are very different from those of McMillan and Wife, the comfortable love that exists between its two main characters is still the crucial thing that, for me, makes it all worth watching. In this case, these characters are openly-gay, Albany-based private eye Donald Strachey (Chad Allen) and his husband, lawyer Tim Callahan (Sebastian Spence). Don and Tim are very different people. As a P.I., Don’s life is occasionally – well, not quite seedy, but perhaps a touch unseemly – while Tim looks to be the very soul of seemliness. It is these differences, though, that makes each the perfect complement to the other. That’s not to say, of course, that the appearance of Andrew – an old boyfriend of Tim’s who happens to be nice, hot, and occasionally naked – doesn’t make the situation a bit more complicated...!

Despite my somewhat dismissive comments above, the “whodunit” aspect of On the Other Hand, Death is both substantial and well-done. It centers around two older, out lesbians, Dorothy (Margot Kidder) and Edith (Gabrielle Rose), and the escalating vandalism and threats to which they have recently been subjected. On the surface, the crimes could simply be due to “run of the mill” homophobia in their small town. (After all, Dorothy is a wonderfully brash high school counselor with a big heart and a knack for recognizing kids who are in crisis over their sexuality. And the parents of those kids aren’t always happy to have to deal with such issues, especially with someone who is out, herself.) But things always seem to be tinged with noir when Donald’s around, and especially when people start turning up dead, his detective’s instincts know when people have secrets that need revealing, whether they involve a possible land deal with shady overtones, mistakes made in one’s youth, or even… ah, but that would be telling.

An important component of each Donald Strachey mystery seems to be the social and political aspects of gay life. Previous installments dealt with so called “gay reparative therapy” (a.k.a. the “ex-gay movement”) and the outing of celebrities or political figures. This one involves gay or questioning youth and their need for their family’s support and understanding. (But make no mistake: The film is no public service announcement. It does not preach, but rather weaves the social issues into the story in an appropriately organic and matter-of-fact way.)

The film’s acting ranges from good to very good. Even to those who, like me, have not seen the previous installments in the series, the down-to-earth decency of Allen’s Strachey immediately makes him likeable, as does the stiff but fierce supportiveness of Spence’s Callahan. Kidder’s Dorothy is enjoyably in-your-face, and Rose’s Edith is suitably supportive but haunted (whether by her fear of the vandals or by something else). And Nelson Wong is fun and energetic as Donald’s enthusiastic assistant, Kenny Kwon. It is Kenny who cluelessly but endearingly utters perhaps the best line of the film: “When I’m old like all you guys, I hope I have an amazing relationship, too.” Indeed.

On the Other Hand, Death is the third installment in here! television’s Donald Strachey Mystery series, based on Richard Stevenson’s books, though it is the first one I’ve seen. (A fourth installment, Ice Blues, is apparently also on the way.) Given how much I enjoyed this one, I’m thinking I’ll have to track down the disks for the others, as well.

Maybe I’ll watch them all on a Sunday night.

[DVD to be released Feb. 24, 2009. Rated R for adult language and a scene of nudity. Extras include a behind-the-scenes documentary and a photo gallery.]

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