‘Vienna Blood’ retreads popular BBC premise

Photo courtesy of BBC

This past fall, BBC Two aired “Vienna Blood,” a British-Austrian crime drama set in Vienna during the early 1900s. The series enjoyed moderate popular and critical success in Britain, and PBS is now airing the
series in the U.S.

The Robert Dornhelm (“The Break”) and Umut Dag (“Kuma”) directed miniseries stars Matthew Beard (“The Imitation Game”) as Max Liebermann, a young British physician as he assists Detective Rheinhardt (Jurgen Maurer, “Vorstadtweiber”) with the investigation of a series of
unusual murders.

The series is set against the backdrop of Vienna’s pre-war café society. Liebermann, who comes from a prominent Jewish family, balances his obligations to his family and their reputation against his dedication to his work as a physician and a proponent of Sigmund Freud’s work on
psychoanalysis.

Liebermann applies Freud’s techniques to practical problems, constructing psychological profiles of victims and suspects and offering insights to Detective Rheinhardt to guide his investigative efforts. Throughout the first episode, the viewer sees Detective Rheinhardt warm up to Liebermann’s contributions. Initially, he is skeptical and acts annoyed at Liebermann’s presence, but as the psychological insights prove fruitful, he begins to respect the doctor’s abilities.

The narrative of the first episode is interesting, and the characters are deep enough to rope the viewer in, but about a quarter of the way through the first episode the viewer makes a realization that changes things — “Vienna Blood” is just a slight variation on the “Sherlock Holmes” concept.

The series follows an unconventional investigator as he uses a seemingly mystical ability to deduce broad facts from minute details. There is a central pairing of a detective and a doctor — even if that pairing is reversed from the usual format — and Detective Rheinhardt’s character arc even has similarities to the character of Dr. Watson. Once the viewer spots them, the similarities between “Vienna Blood’’ and the “Sherlock Holmes” premise become impossible to ignore.

This does not make the show any less interesting or any less entertaining to watch. The story is riveting, and at the end of the first episode the viewer is left in eager anticipation of what is to come next. The problem is that the viewer begins to feel like “Vienna Blood” is a bit lazy. Rather than developing a truly original show, the BBC has simply taken a premise that has brought it tremendous critical and popular success with Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s “Sherlock,” moved it to Vienna in the early 1900s and tweaked the characters slightly.

Because of these similarities, the viewer begins to judge “Vienna Blood” against the standard set by “Sherlock” — seeing the miniseries almost as a special one-off season of the show. As a run-of-the-mill crime drama, “Vienna Blood” is well above average. Judged against the standard set by “Sherlock,” however, “Vienna Blood” feels like an absolute failure. The dialogue writing, cinematography and acting are simply not comparable to “Sherlock,” and as a result, the miniseries feels less like an excellent crime-drama and more like the worst season of “Sherlock” to date.

In spite of this glaring issue, “Vienna Blood” is an undeniably thrilling and entertaining
miniseries. 

The first episode leaves the viewer craving more, and to condemn it for its similarities to the “Sherlock Holmes” stories is unfair. Although the BBC might deserve some criticism for taking the safe route, the new drama series is still definitely worth a watch.