Things are a little shaky in Europe these days. But the Old World remains united in one thing, at least: its never-ending appeal to American television consumers.
Four midlevel specialty streaming services – two of which just opened up shop in the United States this year – are doing battle with Netflix, Amazon and Hulu in the wide niche of European and British TV series.
That’s a lot of dark Nordic dramas and edgy British sitcoms to keep track of, and we’re here to help. Here’s a quick look at the contenders – AcornTV, BritBox, MHz Choice and Walter Presents – and some interesting shows they offer that won’t come with your Netflix subscription. Streaming services provided their own figures regarding their exclusive content, which may include miniseries, TV movies and nonscripted shows.
$4.99 a month or $49.99 a year (also available as an Amazon Prime add-on); about 125 exclusive shows.
Like a big-box store for shows from across the Commonwealth, Acorn comes closest among these services to the enveloping Netflix experience. There’s “Masterpiece”-style comfort food – the “Poirot” and “Marple” catalogs, elderly comedies like “French Fields” and “Pie in the Sky,” new seasons of “Doc Martin” – and more challenging contemporary fare like the Canadian cop series “19-2” and the lovely British comedy “Detectorists.” It’s probably the best single source outside Netflix for popular British mysteries (“Foyle’s War,” “Midsomer Murders,” “Vera”).
Most distinctive – if not always successful – are Acorn’s efforts in original programming, which have recently included the charming Irish dramedy “Striking Out” and an overheated TV movie, “Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution.”
‘A Place to Call Home’ Designed to satisfy your sprawling-period-saga hunger in the absence of “Downton Abbey,” this 1950s Australian melodrama is at four seasons and counting. It’s a solid, smart soap starring the ubiquitous (in Australia) Marta Dusseldorp as a woman who comes home after a liberating sojourn in Paris and has to reacclimate to the constraints of rural New South Wales. Illicit romance, noble suffering, the usual.
‘Decline and Fall’ Making its United States premiere on Acorn TV on May 15, this BBC adaptation doesn’t entirely do justice to Evelyn Waugh’s riotous first novel – about the bewildering, hilarious misfortunes of a theology student in 1920s Britain – but it gives you a sense of Waugh’s comic genius that you won’t get from rewatching “Brideshead Revisited.” Jack Whitehall is good as the unfortunate Paul Pennyfeather, and Douglas Hodge, Vincent Franklin and Stephen Graham are excellent as his various tormentors.
$6.99 a month;about 100 exclusive scripted shows.
New this year, BritBox is a joint venture of the British network ITV and BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC. As you would expect, that means a selection of recent British series, minus shows sold to American TV channels like PBS or BBC America. (No “Call the Midwife” or “Broadchurch.”)
It differs from the other services here by including more nonscripted and more archival programming. Anglophiles of the “green and pleasant land” variety can indulge in shows like “Countryfile” and “This Farming Life,” while those looking for more American-style reality can check out “Fantasy Homes by the Sea” or “Hairy Bikers Everyday Gourmets.” For TV nostalgists, there are seasons of British standbys like the soap opera “Emmerdale,” the hospital drama “Holby City” and the ultimate cult item, the original “Doctor Who” (Season 1, from 1963-4, is currently available).
‘Not Safe for Work’ The original “The Office” has spawned countless dysfunctional-workplace British comedies. This recent example, a Channel 4 series created by the playwright D.C. Moore (“The Empire”), is one of the darker takes on the genre. Set among civil servants of varying degrees of dedication who have been exiled to a backwater office in Northampton because of budget cuts, it features an impeccable performance by Sacha Dhawan (NBC’s “Outsourced”) as the dimwitted, drug-addled supervisor.
‘Quirke’ Based on mystery novels by the Irish writer John Banville, this series about a Dublin coroner has a good cast – Gabriel Byrne as the hero, Michael Gambon as his father – and an odd fixation on women dying in childbirth (three instances in its three episodes). The stories are a little undercooked, but the show is redeemed by its finale – an atmospheric, intelligent missing-persons tale adapted by the leading Irish playwright Conor McPherson, his first TV screenplay.
$7.99 a month; about 115 exclusive shows.
The streaming arm of a Virginia-based educational broadcaster, MHz Choice is like a Hulu for European TV: a selection of mainstream, crowd-pleasing favorites. It ranges widely across the continent, with current shows from Serbia (“The Scent of Rain in the Balkans”) and Switzerland (“The Undertaker”). It has deep reserves of crime dramas from countries like Italy and Germany, some of which are nearly unwatchable by American standards but which offer entertainment for the aficionado.
Its single biggest strength is probably its selection of Scandinavian mysteries – some, like “The Bridge,” can be found elsewhere, but having them in one place along with lesser known shows like “Beck,” “Arne Dahl,” “Camilla Lackberg” and “Annika Bengtzon: Crime Reporter” is a boon for the fan of Nordic noir.
‘A French Village’ The early seasons are available elsewhere, but only MHz has the full run of this wartime soap opera, one of the most popular shows in France. Tackling the fraught subject of French reaction to the Nazi occupation, the series has followed life in a fictional village in the Jura mountains beginning with the arrival of the Germans in 1940. It has dealt about as honestly as you could hope for with the issues of collaboration and passive acquiescence; the melodramatic style has a cushioning effect.
‘Detective Montalbano’ Because everyone should watch at least one show featuring a world-weary, macho, epicurean Sicilian cop.
$6.99 a month or $69.99 a year (also available as an Amazon Prime add-on); about 40 exclusive shows.
Walter Iuzzolino, a former programmer for the British TV network Channel 4, is the face of this boutique service with its tasteful interface (shades of purple on purple). A partnership of Channel 4 and Global Series Network, it applies the peak-TV philosophy to European fare (no British shows), with Iuzzolino curating what he claims are the most distinctive series. He also supplies short, impassioned video introductions, which help orient you in the often cryptic story lines but can be spoiler-heavy.
The catalog tends toward Western Europe, with France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands predominating; a few Czech and South American shows creep in. The elegance of the presentation and Iuzzolino’s energy can’t hide the ordinariness of many of the interchangeable detective shows and thrillers, but the best offerings – Scandinavian, as is often the case – support the idea of his superior taste.
‘Valkyrien’ If you binge-watch one series from this list, make it this loopy, ingenious Norwegian thriller set in the bowels of an abandoned Oslo subway station. (The location, if not the actual sets, is real, a former station called Valkyrie Plass.) It’s like a more lighthearted “Breaking Bad,” in which a doctor desperate to find a cure for his wife’s rare disease and a doomsday-prepper civil servant hide out in the same subterranean lair, finding a common cause in their very different predicaments.
‘Young and Promising’ Tamer than “Girls,” the show to which it’s universally compared, but charming and sometimes painfully funny, this Norwegian comedy (yes, they exist) charts the professional and sexual misadventures of three 20-something friends: a budding comedian, an aspiring writer and a floundering actress.