DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Last month, the PBS mystery series "Poirot" began presenting the first episodes in that show's final season. But the show's vanished on PBS. And the remaining episodes, which began appearing this week, are much harder to find. Our TV critic David Bianculli solves that mystery and has some reflections on the long-running "Poirot" series.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Agatha Christie published her first novel "The Mysterious Affair At Styles" in 1920. It featured fussy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who proved most popular of all her mystery-solving characters. Hercule made his final appearance in 1975 in the novel "Curtain." And this month, nearly a century after he first appeared in print, the mystery series completes its lengthy run as a TV series, still starring David Suchet in the title role. But as the final episodes of television's "Poirot" provide closure, they are for the moment somewhat of a mystery themselves. But in this case, it's not a whodunit, it's a where-are-they? That's because for the 13th and final season of Agatha Christie's "Poirot," the show's producers and distributors have staged a sort of new media bait-and-switch. Suchet began playing Poirot, with his waxed mustache and elegant walking stick, on the PBS mystery series way back in 1989. Suchet has been playing the detective ever since. Referring to himself in the third person, always referring to his brain powers as his little grey cells and invariably holding court at the end of each episode to both solve explain the mystery at hand. This year's final season of "Poirot" presents the last five of the seventy episodes produced for TV, a video canon covering virtual all of Christie's Hercule Poirot novels and short stories. This seasons last hoorah began as usual on PBS. But after two episodes were shown, the series vanished earlier this month. The final three appear beginning this week - not on broadcast TV or even on cable, but on a streaming site called Acorn TV. Later this fall, the last three stories in the "Poirot" TV canon will indeed show up on broadcast television, distributed to local public TV stations. But if you're impatient, especially if you're a loyal fan who has watched and enjoyed this series for a quarter century, enjoying it as I do as the TV equivalent of comfort food, the only way to get satisfaction for now is to seek out www.acorn.tv. What you'll get, once you get there, are these three stories, unspooled weekly - "Elephants Can Remember," available now, features Zoe Wanamaker making her sixth and final appearance as crime novelist Ariadne Oliver, Agatha Christie's thinly veiled version of herself. "The Labors Of Hercules," has Hercule fighting depression after failing to catch a killer. And the final episode, called "Curtain: Poirot's Last Case" is precisely that. It features the return as Hugh Fraser as Captain Arthur Hastings, who basically served as Dr. Watson to Poirot's Sherlock Holmes for the TV show's first eight seasons. They reunite at the same estate, at Styles, where they solve the first case together. But this time, both men are decades older and Poirot is in a wheelchair and in ill health. But he still has enough fire to complain. When being steered on a stroll around the grounds - about the lodgings, the food and even the way his old friend pushes Poirot's wheelchair.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "POIROT")
HUGH FRASER: (As Captain Hastings) And how are you?
DAVID SUCHET: (As Hercule Poirot) Me? I am a wreck - no, ruin. I cannot walk, I am crippled and twisted. I have to be tended to like a baby. But the core Hastings, that is still sound.
FRASER: (As Captain Hastings) You have the best heart in the world, Poirot.
SUCHET: (As Hercule Poirot) Heart? No. But the brain - as magnificent as ever. Hastings, too fast. It's not a wheelbarrow.
FRASER: (As Captain Hastings) Sorry old chap. So is it good to back after all these years?
SUCHET: (As Hercule Poroit) The food, it is disgusting.
FRASER: (As Captain Hastings) Rationing, I suppose.
SUCHET: (As Hercule Poirot) No, it is the English cooking. And the water - always so tepid and the towels so thin. They have no use at all.
FRASER: (As Captain Hastings) Then why did you come?
SUCHET: (As Hercule Poirot) Because when I see the advertisement in the newspaper and discover your daughter, she will be here. I conceive of a plan, I will persuade my old friend Hastings to join us and we should all be together on family. That is most agreeable, n'est-ce pas?
FRASER: (As Captain Hastings) You're up something, aren't you? I knew it, otherwise why come back to the scene of our first murder.
SUCHET: (As Hercule Poirot) Because mon ami I feel it will soon be the scene of another.
BIANCULLI: Poirot's last case ends like any other - with a detective patiently and proudly explaining the facts and exposing the murderer. The key difference in this episode is that he's doing it from beyond the grave. And if you think I should've prefaced that with some sort of 40-year-old spoiler alert, we have very different ideas about how long a mystery should be kept a secret. But since these are absolutely the last TV episodes featuring Suchet as Poirot, they do provide a satisfying conclusion to a very long running viewing experience. The actor has grown into the role, sporting wrinkles to match the wisdom and perfecting the twinkle in his eye whenever, as the detective himself would put it - Poirot has finally solved the case as only Poirot can. And think of it, the actors of the current movie "Boyhood" have gotten lots of praise for filming and playing their roles over a 12-year period. David Suchet as Hercule Poirot has done the same thing for twice as long. He's done it so long in fact, that he's ending his run on a medium that didn't even exist when he started. Wrap your little grey cells around that.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website tvworthwatching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.