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NEW YORK (CNS) -- Set in its titular city in 1906, the PBS period murder mystery "Vienna Blood" features only a cameo appearance by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (Franz Josef Koepp). Yet Freud's radical and controversial theories figure prominently throughout the limited series.
Stylishly atmospheric but tedious and overwrought, the show debuts Sunday, Jan. 19, 10-11 p.m. EST. It will air consecutive Sundays concluding Feb. 23. This scheduling might suggest that the program's narrative occurs over six episodes. But, in fact, it consists of three two-part movies all featuring the same principal characters.
Steve Thompson ("Sherlock") created the series, which is adapted from British novelist Frank Tallis' popular Liebermann detective novels. It first aired on BBC television in November and December of 2019.
Along with the crimes integral to its genre, "Vienna Blood" deals with other mature subject matter, including mental illness, racism and anti-Semitism. True to its name, it doesn't stint on gore, either.
Sexual acts and nudity, some of it gratuitous, are also on display. Thus, although the dialogue is generally free of vulgarity, even many adults may find the program an inappropriate choice.
Tallis' sleuth, Max Liebermann (Matthew Beard), narrates the opening episode. Transplanted from London where, he says, he was known simply as Max, in the Austrian capital "obsessed with titles," he's become "Doctor Maximillian Lieberman."
A 20-something neurology student at the University of Vienna, Max chafes under the tutelage of Professor Gruner (Oliver Stokowski) whose electric shock methods he considers barbaric and antiquated.
He's become an acolyte of Freud's instead, enamored of his fellow Jew's ideas that "human behavior is eloquent," and that even "our little foibles and jokes," in Max's own words, reveal much about us.
Informed by Freud's ideas regarding neuropathology, Max strives to understand the criminal mind. Asking to observe a murder investigation, he's paired with gruff, impatient, unintellectual veteran police inspector Oskar Reinhardt (Jurgen Maurer).
The unlikely duo work to solve the murders of a purported medium, immigrants killed in the name of racial purity and a schoolmate of Max's teenage nephew, Daniel (Luis Aue).
A strong undercurrent of anti-Semitism informs the story. The Liebermans are an upper middle-class family, but they realize their status in Austrian society is tenuously held. Nonetheless, at a political fundraiser, the fictional version of real-life Mayor Carl Lueger (Hans Peter Bruckner) reassures Max's father, Mendel (Conleth Hill), that "we decide who is a Jew and who is not."
Graf von Triebenbach (Ulrich Noethen), by contrast, a prospective investor in Mendel's shop whom the latter previously believed was "honorable and decent," delivers a flier promoting the crackpot ideas of a group called the Brotherhood of Primal Fire, thereby menacing Mendel and threatening his livelihood.
Gruner, for his part, is disdainful. "We don't change our work and practices," he tells Max, "every time some Jewish doctor publishes a book."
Breaking free from outdated methods to treat the mentally ill more humanely and compassionately, Max finds himself in unchartered territory and up against ethical dilemmas he hadn't anticipated.
When scientist Amelia Lydgate (Jessica De Gouw) suffers a breakdown, Max treats and falls in love with her, ending his engagement with his long-suffering fiancee, Clara (Luise von Finckh).
The program's increasingly lurid melodrama, its deep, dark secrets, overly raw emotions, indiscriminate passions and the extreme, desperation-driven actions it depicts, will exhaust those viewers who stay with it. But it's the imbalance between the two leads that ultimately derails "Vienna Blood."
Beard's Max comes across as brooding, intense, impulsive, distracted and condescending. As he grieves the loss of his deceased daughter, Oskar, by contrast, is a far more sympathetic and likable character. Max's dominance, however, overwhelms Oskar's appeal.
Max's standard greeting, "Welcome to the case, professor," for instance, grates not only on Oskar but on the audience as well. So viewers will readily concur with Oskar's assessment of his partner: "You haven't lost your ability to irritate." Consequently, neither does "Vienna Blood."
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.