SHAUN Micallef spent years trying to find the right project so he could work with Kat Stewart again. The pair first teamed up in 2007 when she came into play on his SBS news satire, Newstopia. There was an immediate chemistry; they got each other's humour, they had fun together.
''We got her after she'd done Underbelly, but before it went to air,'' recalls producer Jason Stephens, who also worked with Micallef on his latest production, Mr & Mrs Murder, from its inception. ''When Kat came into the show, you couldn't take your eyes off her and she brought so much more to the scripts. As a comic actor, she wasn't overplaying it and she had a lovely touch in terms of character work. Those kinds of actors come along so rarely.''
It took time to find the right vehicle to reunite them, and both were busy - Micallef working on Talkin' 'bout Your Generation, Laid and Mad as Hell, and Stewart on :30 Seconds, Offspring and Tangle.
The project that brought them back together is deliberately different from what they have done before and also represents a fresh take on the popular crime genre. A 13-part series of self-contained mysteries, Mr & Mrs Murder features a happily married and relentlessly curious couple running a business cleaning up extreme messes that usually involve dead bodies. It is an occupation that affords them a left-field entry into the wonderful world of crime-solving.
''With cleaners, people tend to lower their guard,'' Micallef says. ''With cops, people might put on a mask. But cleaners are a bit invisible and that's their advantage. The police leave and people think, 'Oh great, and there's just a couple of idiots in the corner mopping up the blood', and they might give something away in the way that they carry themselves, or in a conversation that they have on a mobile phone, or a chance remark.''
In tone and structure, the series recalls the kind of warm, light-hearted crime shows that were popular in the 1970s, with the loving couples of Hart to Hart and McMillan & Wife happily working together to crack cases. But the origins can also be traced further back, to Dashiell Hammett's cocktail-swilling socialites, Nick and Nora Charles, in The Thin Man. The protagonists in the new series are named Charles and Nicola Buchanan.
The director of development for FremantleMedia Australia, Stephens says the show was ''an easy pitch'' to Channel Ten and abroad. ''The German distributors said, 'Yes, we know this type of program. We call it crime with a smile.' I think that's perfect because it's not a comedy. The audience will think Shaun's in it so it could be light, but it's not Kath & Kim, for example. It's not sitcom. It's not broad situation comedy. It's not sketch comedy. These are real characters in a comedy that's not a laugh-out-loud comedy. It's a light mystery, which leaves you with a smile.''
While the concept might have initially been an easy sell, Stephens says that, ''to be honest, it was a tricky development because it was hard to find writers confident enough to tackle it''. ''The genre's been done with period pieces, but this is a contemporary murder mystery and there are not a lot of examples of it in Australia recently.
''There are a lot of elements to juggle. It needs to be entertaining in a comic way. It needs a Chinese puzzle aspect, making sure that we're always a step ahead of the audience, which is a difficult thing to plot. Then there's the tone, making sure that it feels grounded and real: if it's too heightened or arch, the audience won't care.''
While the self-contained episodes allow for a lively parade of guest stars - including Vince Colosimo, Stephen Curry, Diana Glenn, Alison Bell, Damon Gameau and Anthony Hayes - Mr & Mrs Murder needs a convincing and appealing couple at its heart.
''I wouldn't have done it if Kat had said no,'' Micallef says.
''He's lying through his teeth,'' Stewart grins when she hears of his accolade. ''But he's very convincing; he's a good actor.
''The Buchanans are like two halves of one superhero; they're unorthodox but their intentions are good.''
Micallef describes Charlie, who is prone to staging rudimentary, un-CSI-like crime re-enactments in his shed, as a man ''who doesn't have a mean bone in his body. He reads a lot, knows a lot of stuff, but doesn't necessarily engage with life a lot, and maybe lacks a bit of focus.''
That focus is provided by Nicola, a former police officer who is keenly observant, curious about people and an avid reader of crime books. She is also nosy and determined to sniff out the truth when something doesn't sit quite right with her. She wants to see justice done and order restored.
The Buchanans are the antithesis of the streetwise, seen-it-all detectives on duty in many crime shows. ''They follow their own non-police procedural path to solve the case,'' Micallef says.
Stewart adds: ''They're eccentric, a little bit odd, they're not run-of-the-mill. Nicola likes hugging people, a little too much, often hugging someone who doesn't want to be hugged.''
Playing a serial hugger is new for Stewart. ''I tend to play people who are a bit spiky or abrasive or lack filters, or say what they think. Nicola is so polite, so diplomatic; I've never played anyone this nice. This is a genuinely happy, functional relationship, and Shaun and I were both attracted to its sweeter elements.
''Sitting in bed, we're both in pyjamas. And he wears his buttoned to the top. And his glasses have strings on them. It's really kind of charming.''
Director Daniel Nettheim says a former B&B that was used as the Buchanans' home and lovingly fitted out by production designer Penny Southgate offered scope to emphasise the cosy unity of the couple. ''The house is open-plan and it allows the option of shooting almost in a Woody Allen style, where you can choreograph movement from room to room.
''The actors have things to do - letters to open, wine to pour, food to pick up - and you can make a two-page dialogue scene very interesting and dynamic, without the traditional means of cutting to close-ups and single shots. Particularly for Shaun and Kat, who have such a great onscreen rapport, it encourages a looseness and fluidity in the performances that's really helpful.''
As they investigate a succession of mystifying fatalities in a variety of settings, everyone involved with the series is hoping this crime-solving couple, in their overalls, gumboots and rubber gloves, will charm viewers keen to watch them working to make the world a better, and cleaner, place.
Mr & Mrs Murder premieres on Wednesday at 8.30pm on Channel Ten.