There is something soothing about watching television made wholly for a foreign audience. Not a foreign audience+Netflix. Not a foreign audience+PBS. Not a foreign audience+global cult comedy and/or sci-fi fans. Just, television not made with American audiences (or critics, or trending topic hot takes) top of mind. Not only is all the baggage that accompanies watching television made for a native audience absent, the pressure to participate in any hashtag watercooler conversations about it is rendered moot. As much as I love being intellectually and ideologically invested in the art made for my American eyeballs, getting a chance to let that all go and just enjoy a good serial story can be such a relief.
Enter: Acorn TV, one of two major subscription streaming services* available to international audiences interested in watching content from across the pond. Well, across several ponds—in addition to series from Ireland and the UK, Acorn TV also distributes content from elsewhere in the English-speaking world (Australia, New Zealand, Canada), as well as from elsewhere in Europe (Sweden, Spain, France).
(*BritBox, the international streamer officially from the BBC and ITV, is profiled here.)
With its roots planted more firmly on this side of the pond (i.e., in AMC Networks, whose portfolio also includes BBC America, IFC and Sundance Now) Acorn TV is, on the whole, less comprehensive than its BBC/ITV-backed rival—a fact its slightly lower monthly subscription cost reflects. But what it lacks in volume, comprehensive vault access and next-day soap/news/panel show content, it makes up for in the specificity of its quirky comedy/cozy mystery/gritty thriller curation, the breadth of its international reach, and the speed with which it’s developing its slate of Acorn Originals. From complex longform murder mysteries to short, sharp sitcoms, Acorn TV has something for everyone who’s ever loved British(ish) television.
Cost: $5.99 per month (or $59.99 per year), with a 30-day introductory free trial period (use code FREE30). (And yes, gift subscriptions are available.)
Pro-tip: It’s worth surfing over to the digital services section of your local public library’s website, as many libraries in the U.S. provide free access to Acorn TV for patrons through RBdigital. If your library isn’t among them, ask! Your libraries work for you; let them do their magic.
Available on: Roku, iTunes, Google Play, Android TV, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV (on supported devices), as well as online at acorn.tv, and through an Amazon add-on subscription (exclusively for Prime members).
What Makes It Unique: Calling all Anglophiles! Well, Anglophiles, but also Canada-philes, Aussie-philes, Kiwi-philes, plus all the folks forever casting about for their next gritty Scandi-inspired detective thriller. Scripted dramas—mostly mystery, mostly cozy—are king (er, queen) here, but so too are contemporary comedies, foreign language thrillers, and rambling, arty reality fare.
What You’ll Find on This List: As one of the niche streamers in regular rotation in Paste writers’ homes, we’ve got enough outright Acorn favorites to have made this list a classic Top 10er. That said, the entire Acorn TV catalogue is still small enough that, like most other small streamers out there, it’s divided its content into a limited number of discrete (but richly populated) categories. To that end, please enjoy the lightning round we’ve wedged in before the main list, which highlights a title from each major Acorn TV category that may not have made our final Top 10, but is still worth knowing is part of the Acorn family.
The Christmas Collection 2019
(Paste logline: The entirety of Acorn TV, but curated to best reflect the Christmas spirit. If you need a place to start, try Miss Fisher’s John Noble-guesting “Murder Under the Mistletoe”.)
Line of Duty
Paste logline: What if corrupt cops, but they’re actually held accountable for their crimes?
Paste logline: Handsome Victorian Canadian detective invents forensics.
Paste logline: Dawn French and Emilia Fox defy the toxic masculinity that originally bound them together by co-running a hotel kitchen and making gorgeous food.
Only on Acorn TV:
Paste logline: The period-accurate WWII-era mystery series so beloved we couldn’t possibly have ignored it in favor of The Hour, or The Art Detectives, or Martin Clunes’ Manhunt, all of which are also exclusive to Acorn.
Paste logline: A Danish conwoman flees to New Zealand; graphically violent crimes and adrenalized grit ensues.
My Life Is Murder
Paste logline: Lucy Lawless compulsively solves crime, bakes pies.
Paste logline: A grief-stricken Australian family decamps to a quirky, coastal New Zealand town, where they somehow manage to live off the salary of the widower dad’s intermittent freelance gig writing 800-word personal essays. There are also jokes; that detail is not one of them.
Decline and Fall
Paste logline: Jack Whitehall and Eva Longoria do a period satire miniseries.
A Simple Heist
Paste logline: Two old Swedish friends take revenge on a society that forgets older women by doing crimes.
Walks with My Dog
Paste logline: Moderately famous British celebrities ramble the countryside with their beloved beagles, bulldogs and black labrador retrievers.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
Paste logline: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ARE dead.
Okay, lightning round over. On to our official (unranked) list of the Top 10 series currently available on Acorn TV:
Category: Mystery, Only on Acorn TV, Acorn TV Original
Hails from: Australia
The trailer above calls Mystery Road “Australia’s answer to True Detective,” but if anything, it’s much closer in spirit to Bosch, featuring as it does a sharp, stoic detective (Aaron Pedersen) so driven by a sense of moral righteousness that he ends up a lone wolf in a sea of institutional and cultural corruption, and shot as it is with a cinematically breathtaking sense of sun-baked noir. We would recommend Mystery Road regardless—just on a visual level, it has some of the most overwhelmingly gorgeous shots we’ve ever seen on the small screen—but there’s a significant draw in the dual facts that both Pedersen and the character he plays are Aboriginal, and that the crimes that character is investigating are informed by generations of institutional racism and injustice. (The series’ first season takes place on and around an enormous cattle station that’s both been owned by a white family for more than a century, and is home to the only natural water source for miles—a water source which, not incidentally, is also a sacred site for the local Aboriginal people.) As will be obvious to anyone scanning the queue, Acorn TV is a pretty white place; for a show like Mystery Road to be made available, and for it to treat the Aboriginal people of Australia with the nuance and respect, is important; for it to be a model for more, similarly diverse and complex shows to come, is even more so.
Category: Comedy, Only on Acorn TV
Hails from: Britain
Raised by Wolves, a family comedy created by sisters Caitlin and Caroline Moran (the former of How to Be a Girl YA fame), is its own beast more than anything, but if you were looking for American analogues to compare it to, the best you could probably manage is some kind of cross between Stuck in the Middle, Raising Hope and Pete and Pete, but blue, blue, blue, blue. Starring Spy’s Rebekah Staton as Wolverhampton single mum Della, raising her six kids (three teen girls and three “babbies” too young to have meaningful plot arcs) on a mix of brassiness, secondhand smoke and fuck-the-man self-sufficiency, Raised by Wolves is doing SO MUCH, and I am SO HERE for it. One possible analogue from that side of the pond might be Chris O’Dowd’s Moone Boy (available on Hulu), but that series has an inherent sweetness that Raised by Wolves completely eschews. Just watch Raised by Wolves. You will love it.
Category: Mystery, Comedy, Only on Acorn TV, Acorn TV Original
Hails from: Britain
Maybe you know her from Ugly Betty, maybe you know her from Catastrophe, maybe you know her from The Lobster (we can’t imagine you know her from The Lobster)—wherever you know her from, once you’ve watched the first ten minutes of Agatha Raisin, Scottish actress Ashley Jensen will be forever tied in your imagination to M.C. Beaton’s infamous PR guru-turned-amateur-Cotswolds-sleuth. Jensen is excellent in this zingy series, which is set to return for a third season on February 10, 2020, and not just because she has mastered the dark art of skipping across cobblestone streets and plush lawns in towering stiletto heels. She is excellent because she is so deeply believable as a sharp business woman whose PR acumen has masked her debilitating inability to fit in with everyday people, a genius/outsider combination that is killer for any young retiree looking to take up unmasking, well, killers. In a streaming landscape so full of murder investigations framed only in the grimmest, most visually washed-out ways possible, Agatha Raisin is a breath of fresh Cotswolds air.
Category: Cozy Mystery, Mystery
Hails from: Britain
Created by Paul Abbott (Shameless) and featuring a clutch of fierce but very different women—Joanna Scanlan (The Thick of It), Elaine Cassidy (The Paradise), Alexandra Roach (Utopia), Claire Rushbrook (Whitechapel), Sarah Solemani (The Wrong Mans), Saira Choudhry (Hollyoaks)—at the head of the tightly bonded work-family pack at Manchester’s Friday Street police station, No Offence is the funny, no-holds-barred police procedural you didn’t know you’ve long been looking for. Think Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s good-cop humor, but with Bosch’s darker, more serialized storytelling. Or Rizzoli and Isles, if Rizzoli and Isles moved to Broadchurch, but Broadchurch was Manchester, and also one of them watched a stag-do bus viciously [spoiler] a suspect they were chasing down in their stocking feet at the end of a long night out.
You know what? Scratch the comparisons. No Offence is exceptional for what it is, in and of itself. Yes, the mysteries that frame each season (the third of which starts with a truly shocking bang) are nuanced, topical and compelling, and yes, the excellence of the performances, across the board, is only matched by the sharpness of the direction and cinematography. At the end of the day, though, it’s the intense, loving bonds forged under the watch of Scanlan’s brash DI Deering, Cassidy’s tenacious DC Kowalska and Roach’s clever DS Freers—a bond fortified by unwavering support and respect from the department’s funny, fierce men, PCs and detectives, alike—that will make you want to slam the “keep watching” button at the end of each episode.
Category: Comedy, Only on Acorn TV, Acorn TV Original
Hails from: Ireland
Don’t be fooled by the eerily familiar details that open this awkwardly excellent Irish single-cam sitcom from comedian Amy Huberman—despite being about a single woman with a talking (well, “talking”) dog who finds herself stumbling into a professional renaissance just as she’s reeling from a recent breakup, Finding Joy is not an Irish version of the late, great Downward Dog. It is, rather, an investigation of Joy (Huberman) undergoing significant growing pains both as an adult, and as an anxious person who feels trapped by her brain’s inability to let her be in the world in the same way as other “normal” people are. It is a deep, funny show that you’ll eat up before you’ve realized it, and while a second season (thank Joy!) is is set to premiere sometime in summer 2020, it’s more than likely that you’ll still find yourself scrambling for more Amy Huberman content the moment the final episode ends. Luckily, Acorn TV has plenty of that ready for you.
Category: Cozy Mystery, Only on Acorn TV
Hails from: New Zealand
Often billed as “New Zealand’s Midsomer Murders” (a series whose own twenty+ seasons are also, not incidentally, available on Acorn), The Brokenwood Mysteries is a fun, almost zippy take on the rural cozy procedural. Set in the fictional small town of Brokenwood and featuring murders that are often more quirky than they are vicious, The Brokenwood Mysteries stars Neill Rea as the almost Columbo-like DI Mike Shepherd, Fern Sutherland as his younger, laser-focused partner, DC Kristin Sims, Nic Sampson as DC Breen, Cristina Ionda as Dr. Gina Kadinsky, medical examiner, and Pana Hema Taylor as Jared Morehu, Shepherd’s Maori neighbour with connections and friendships all over town who often just sort of…shows up in the middle of investigations. With the Season 6 premiere kicking off Acorn’s 2020 programming (the steampunk-themed “The Power of Steam” dropping Monday, January 6, with the rest of the season’s episodes rolling out on a weekly basis), there’s no better time to catch up with DI Shepherd and the eclectic denizens of Brokenwood than right now.
Category: Comedy, Only on Acorn TV
Hails from: Canada
The early-2000s Canadian comedy Slings & Arrows is one of those shows that, when it comes up in certain (namely, theater nerd) circles, spurs exclamations like “Legend!” and “Must-watch!” and “What?? How have you never seen it?” To that last, at least for American audiences, the answer has long been because, even in this golden age of streaming abundance, it was difficult to track down. Well, no longer. As of earlier this fall, Slings & Arrows, which was created and written by Mark McKinney (The Kids in the Hall), playwright Susan Coyne and comedian Bob Martin and stars Paul Gross, Stephen Ouimette, Martha Burns, and a very young Rachel McAdams, is available to stream exclusively on Acorn TV, meaning there’s no longer any excuse for you not to catch up on the entertainingly heightened, darkly comic goings on of the fictional New Burbage Shakespearean Festival. Go ahead and dive in feet-first—as was proven by the tidal wave of Twitter excitement the day the series’ appearance on Acorn was announced, your theater-loving family and friends will welcome you to the Slings & Arrows fold with jazz hands and open arms.
Hails from: Australia
(Yes, this one is a bit of a cheat, but with such a close connection between the two generations of Ms. Fisher, we couldn’t not include them both.)
Premiering in Australia in early 2012 and reaching the American market via Acorn TV and PBS the following year, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries was the first of a particular subset of plucky lady detective procedurals to hit the small screen. Set in Melbourne in the late 1920s and featuring Essie Davis as Miss Phryne Fisher, international woman of intrigue, adventure and investigative nerve, the series immediately proved how whizbang successful such a specifically feminine take on the private detective business could be, and quickly became a cult hit. Ms. Fisher’s Modern Mysteries, Acorn TV’s zippy Original spin-off series, takes that cult hit energy and runs with it, kicking its wild “what if Phryne, but modern?” premise off with Phryne’s long-lost niece, Peregrine (Geraldine Hakewill), inheriting her aunt’s estate after Phryne has gone missing in a plane accident in the mountains of Papua New Guinea. (No word, alas, of Nathan Page’s devastatingly taciturn Detective Robinson.) This change of literal affairs established, Peregrine, otherwise alone in the world, finds herself free not only to move into Phryne’s house and drive Phryne’s sports car, but also to step into Phryne’s dangerous shoes as Melbourne’s chief amateur P.I., butting heads, when she does, with her own handsome local detective James Steed (Joel Jackson, stepping charmingly into Page’s more serious shoes). Peregrine’s adventures have a slightly different flavor than Phryne’s, of course, but one that’s more than charming enough to turn to Acorn to catch. (That said, all you Miss Fisher diehards anxious for Phryne’s return will be happy to know that the long-awaited Season 4 film, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, will be coming (exclusively) to Acorn TV in March of 2020.)
Hails from: Britain
One of the gentlest series on television, the wry and warm Detectorists follows two regular blokes (Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones, wonderfully atypical leading men) who find joy and meaning in their sleepy English village by metal detecting. It’s a cutthroat business, turns out, and Crook does a magnificent job of making the smallest details and triumphs and skirmishes feel extraordinary. Detectorists is an unhurried series, one that revels in the rolling hills the men traverse in the hope of finding ancient treasure (before giving up and heading to the pub). Not much happens over the course of three seasons objectively speaking, and yet, the show is wildly compelling and devastatingly lovely. Perhaps Johnny Flynn’s haunting theme song says it best: “Will you search through the lonely earth for me? Climb through the briar and bramble. I will be your treasure … I’m waiting for you.” With only 19 episodes over three seasons, it’s a gem well worth seeking out. —Allison Keene
Category: Cozy Mystery, Acorn Original
Hails from: UK
Narrated with arch charm by Juliet Stevenson and featuring idiosyncratic, almost Pushing Daisies-like aesthetics (not to mention the occasional break from reality), Queens of Mystery is one of Acorn’s most tonally specific Originals to date. As much a family mystery as it is a “case of the week” procedural, Queens stars Olivia Vinall as Matilda Stone, a taciturn young detective sergeant who has recently taken a job back in her picturebook hometown, where, it just so happens, Cat, Jane and Beth Stone (Julie Graham, Siobhan Redmond, and Sarah Woodward, respectively), the three sharp-as-a-stiletto crime writer aunts who raised Olivia after her mother’s mysterious disappearance when she was young, still live. While Queens’ first season is tragically brief (just three 2-part mysteries long), what time it has it uses well, each mystery giving space, while Matilda and her constabulary colleagues go about their investigations, for the backstories of Matilda’s aunts to be teased out one at a time. We want you to watch the whole season, of course, but if you only have time for one, make it “Death by Vinyl,” which uses the reunion album of a fictional all-girl rock band, Volcanic Youth, to better get to know ex-rocker, bisexual graphic novelist Aunt Cat (Graham). Bonus? “Death by Vinyl” features a couple killer original songs (“Strangled” and “Death by Vinyl”) commissioned especially for the episode. Double bonus? The recording studio the band gets terrorized in is set in Britain’s coolest piece of hidden architecture. We mean, nothing is perfect, but in terms of modern takes on the cozy British mystery? Queens of Mystery comes pretty dang close.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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