Vienna’s Golden Age is the heady years before WWI in which the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a center for philosophy, science, and art. Its coffeehouses were a gathering place for some of the sharpest minds in Europe, and its opera was internationally famous. But as with any celebrated time period in history, there was also a darker side. Vienna Blood, a recent mystery series, delves into both the good and the bad of early 20th century Vienna while also serving up murders.
This series first came to my attention when Julie mentioned it to me, and I’m glad she did! It’s an entertaining show with a unique setting–thanks for the recommendation, Julie! The basic premise is that Max Liebermann, a British Jewish doctor who is living in Vienna, has a professional interest in crime. He’s a neurologist who works for a mental hospital and is drawn to the teachings of an upstart named Sigmund Freud. His views put him at odds with his boss but also lead him to request the chance to observe a criminal case, so he can better study criminal psychology. He’s paired with a gruff veteran detective named Oskar Reinhardt, who is initially less than thrilled with his arrogant but perceptive companion.
Vienna Blood delves into its fair share of mystery clichés, but it’s still a refreshing change of pace from many other Masterpiece Mystery shows I see on PBS. (And I say this as someone who really loves Masterpiece Mystery!) Part of that is simply that Max and Oscar are great characters, and Matthew Beard and Jürgen Maurer, the actors who play them, do a fine job of bringing these characters to life. The show doesn’t dwell too long on the initial tension between them, and one of my favorite aspects of the show was how their relationship believably evolved from one of mutual antagonism to a genuine friendship (though one still laced with some mildly playful antagonism).
The other reason the show is a refreshing change of pace is that, even beyond its non-British setting, the tone feels very different from other British mysteries. That’s probably because it is not solely a British production. Vienna Blood is a joint British-Austrian venture that is filmed on location in Austria and features a significant number of Austrian actors (including Maurer) in the cast. As a result, I really didn’t recognize anyone in the cast, which is unusual for me. Usually, these shows are a parade of familiar faces from British television and movies, but the only person I recognized was Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones), turning in a fantastic performance as Max’s father.
The tone of the show is also quite a bit grittier and more adult-themed than your average Masterpiece Mystery but without being quite as dark and edgy as basic cable murder mysteries. That’s not going to be for everyone, but I enjoyed the change of pace. With its focus on the role of psychology in crime in a period drama, it reminds me quite a bit of The Alienist, though Vienna Blood is significantly less disturbing and graphic. I think both the history and mystery aspects are more realistic in The Alienist–though both shows are based on novels–but Vienna Blood is still a really fun watch. And it’s not entirely fluff. One of the recurring themes is the intersection of class and ethnicity in Vienna, as well as the rising anti-Semitism that the Liebermann family must cope with, and those elements are well-handled.
This show originally ran as three 90-minute episodes in Europe but was split into six 45-minute episodes when it ran on PBS earlier this year. I watched the show by finishing off 2 episodes (1 original episode) a night, and I’d recommend watching it that way. Some of the initial mysteries, though fun, seemed a bit contrived to me, but I thought the show really came into its own with the last mystery. The mystery and history elements are blended the most seamlessly in this one, and the mystery is an excellent one. I thought I had that case figured out, but I was waaaaay off the mark. And as much as I smugly enjoy being right about a mystery, I actually delight in being wrong much more because I love when a story can surprise me like that.
The only real downside to Vienna Blood is the season is so short. Fortunately, the show was renewed for a second season, which is slated for release next year. I’m excited to see what adventures are next for Max and Oskar. And if you enjoy jaunty murder mysteries with historic settings and compelling leads, odds are you’ll love this series too.
Are you looking forward to Vienna Blood’s second season? What’s your favorite Masterpiece Mystery show? What’s your favorite historical mystery series? Tell us in the comments! And as always, check out our online library catalog to learn more about any item or to place holds.