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, 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 explicitly interested in 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 7-day introductory free trial period. (And yes, annual 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 tacked on after the main list, which highlights titles from the streamer’s major categories that may not have made our final Top 10, but are still important parts of the Acorn family.
Category: Drama, Acorn Original
Hails from: Ireland
It’s rare in 2020 to come across an across-the-pond drama whose premise feels entirely fresh—rarer still to find one that doesn’t feature even one (1) depraved small-town murder, or the psychologically battered local detective set to investigate it. So imagine our delight when Acorn’s newest original series, the Carrigeen-set South Westerlies, hit the streamer in early November. Not even remotely murder-y, The South Westerlies stars Orla Brady (Into the Badlands, Star Trek: Picard) as Kate Ryan, an environmental consultant for a Norwegian wind energy company who’s been tasked with embedding in her tiny Irish hometown as an undercover lobbyist for a proposed wind farm the community is staunchly resisting. Nevermind the fact that she fled Carrigeen nearly two decades previous, after she got pregnant by her free-spirited ex, Baz (Steve Wall), whose heart was set on starting a pro-surfing career in Hawaii. And nevermind the fact that she cut every friend she had off when she left. As far as NorskVentus is concerned, she’s ideally suited for this extremely sneaky (if environmentally beneficial) role.
Naturally, all the lies Kate has to maintain to pull this job off start unraveling almost immediately, like when her now-grown son, Conor (Sam Barrett), strikes up a friendship with his absentee dad pretty much the minute he meets him. While this familiar, familial drama serves as a solid foundation for the series’ short, six-episode first season, it’s ultimately the ways the town works through their feelings about the proposed wind farm, as a community, that make The South Westerlies so compelling. There’s a strong Gilmore Girls vibe throughout, the town’s residents regularly coming together to lobby for NorskVentus for the installation of universal broadband, or a sponsorship of the local youth camogie team in the same breath as they air their concerns about the wind farm. Where Gilmore Girls really played up the quirkiness of its small-town personalities, though, The South Westerlies leans deeper into the idea that any change in the status quo—even good ones, like a new wind farm, in the middle of a global climate crisis—demands genuine community buy-in, which means talking to people one-on-one, and taking their concerns seriously. This is a lovely take on Acorn’s bent towards hyper-local storytelling, and an even lovelier way to end a year as needful as 2020 is of reminders that community matters. So give yourself a gift—watch The South Westerlies.
Category: Mystery, Only on Acorn TV, Acorn TV Original
Hails from: Australia
Acorn bills Mystery Road as “Australia’s answer to True Detective,” but if anything, the multiple-award-winning series is even closer in spirit to Bosch, both 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. (Unsurprisingly, several of the series’ many awards nominations have come courtesy of cinematographer Mark Wareham.) That said, there’s even greater draw in the dual facts that both Pedersen and Jay Swan (the detective he plays) are Aboriginal, and that the rural crimes he ends up investigating are informed by generations of institutional racism and injustice: The murders in the first season center around the question of who has (or should have) rights to access a cattle station’s lone natural water source—a water source which, not incidentally, is also a sacred site for the local Aboriginal people—while the long-awaited second season, which premieres on October 12 (and will air on a traditional one-a-week episode schedule through the fall), takes the question of colonialism’s brutal legacy to a fishing community up north. As will be obvious to anyone scanning the platform’s library, Acorn TV can be 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 nuance and respect, is important; for it to be a model for similarly diverse and complex shows to come, is even more so.
Category: Acorn Original, Period Drama
Hails from: Britain
Starring Michael Smiley as Brock Blennerhasset, an antisocial memorial photographer in Victorian-era Ireland whose work seems to be key to solving a series of mysterious murders all over Dublin, Dead Still ranks high among Acorn TV’s more tonally surprising Originals. (See also: Queens of Mystery and The Other One, both blurbed below.) With the overarching serial murder plot tying the first season together—complete with a dogged detective that drags Blennerhasset into the investigation despite every protestation he’d rather be doing literally anything else—Dead Still is certainly at home with other mystery procedurals across the platform, but with the little-known Victorian tradition of postmortem portraiture as its framing device, it nevertheless stands apart as something wholly unique. Most impressively, though, is how successful the creative team is at striking a careful balance between comedy, pathos and gothic horror every time they get a new family in Blennerhasset’s portrait room with their deceased loved ones. Setting up a complex murder mystery that can keep an audience’s attention for a whole season is challenging, sure, but Acorn TV could hardly exist if there weren’t stables of writers around the world to rise to the occasion. Postmortem portraits, though? That’s something else entirely. What a ride.
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’d know her from The Lobster)—wherever you know her from, once you’ve watched the first few minutes of any one of Agatha Raisin’s film-length outings, Scottish actress Ashley Jensen will be forever tied in your imagination to M.C. Beaton’s infamous PR guru-turned-Cotswolds sleuth. (Professional PI, she’ll have you know, as of the start of the third season.) Jensen is excellent in this zingy series, which wrapped its third season earlier this year, and not just because she’s mastered the dark art of skipping across cobblestone streets and plush lawns in towering stiletto heels. Jensen 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. The tone of Agatha’s outings can tilt a bit towards the Scooby-Doo (to quote the sleuth herself in Season 3’s haunted house opener), but that’s not a bad thing. In a streaming landscape so full of murder investigations framed only in the grimmest, most visually washed-out ways possible, Agatha Raisin’s goofy pluck 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 early in 2021 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: Acorn Original, Comedy
Hails from: Britain
Odd Couple pairings have so much comedic potential built into their DNA, you hardly need to tweak the formula to end up with something fun. Still, writers Holly Walsh (a frequent panelist on QI) and Pippa Brown reached for “a pair of diametrically opposite twentysomething women with the same name discover they’re secret half-sisters at their shared dad’s funeral” and just ran with it—and thank goodness they did. Starring Ellie White as Cathy, the uptight “legitimate” sister who grew up comfortably middle class (think: private school, rowing team, music lessons, etc.) and has a posh adult job, and Lauren Socha as Cat, the cheerfully chill “secret” sister who grew up lower class, has a “chavvy” accent and delivers Postmates, The Other Ones does a good job avoiding the most obvious traps set by its premise—curdling resentment, both between the two Catherines and between their respective moms—and giving its characters instead plenty of common ground to want to work towards together. Cat and Cathy’s burgeoning friendship is the star of the show, but with the big twist in the last few minutes of the Season 1 finale, it also ends up being much closer to the kinds of mysteries shelved alongside it in Acorn’s digital library than anyone could possibly guess from the trailer alone. With rare half-hour episodes, this is one of the most weekend-bingeable series on this list, so if for whatever reason you’re looking for a way to shut out the real world for a solid day (we have some reasons), this would be a great place to start.
Category: Mystery, Only on Acorn, Acorn Original
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 (recently renewed for a second season), 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 who spent the last several years anxious for Phryne’s return will be happy to know that the long-awaited Season 4 film, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, officially hit Acorn TV earlier this year. While the unfamiliar format ends up forcing Phryne and Jack into some confusingly cartoonish contortions and series regulars Dottie, Hugh, Bert and Cec get woefully little screentime, it is nevertheless a joy to get to spend any more time at all back in Phryne’s world. May we all be half as plucky and justice-oriented in our own lives, globetrotting mysteries beckoning or no.
Category: Comedy, Only on Acorn
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 (a comparison only helped by 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 of 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.
For even more, check out our …
Paste logline: The Good Fight’s Cush Jumbo learns the brutal truth that domestic life in a seemingly perfect Scottish town can be bad, actually.
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.
Paste logline: Torchwood’s Eve Myles goes blonde, practices law, turns Good Girl.
Only on Acorn TV:
Paste logline: Cult-favorite period drama about Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai and Dominic West making news for the BBC in the 1950s. Sorkin whomst?
Slings & Arrows
Paste logline: With the entertainingly heightened, darkly comic goings on of the fictional New Burbage Shakespearean Festival finally available to stream exclusively on Acorn TV, there’s no excuse for you not to catch up on the cult series your theater-loving family and friends are secretly obsessed with.
Paste logline: Handsome Victorian Canadian detective invents forensics.
Line of Duty
Paste logline: What if corrupt cops, but they’re actually held accountable for their crimes?
For Animal Lovers:
Walks with My Dog
Paste logline: Moderately famous British celebrities ramble the countryside with their beloved beagles, bulldogs and black labrador retrievers.
Escape to Wales:
Paste logline: Well, at least SOME countries understand how devastating even a single gun can be to a community. (Bonus points for this one doing so bilingually, in both English and Welsh.)
Down Under Dramas:
My Life is Murder
Paste logline: Lucy Lawless compulsively solves crime, bakes pies.
Paste logline: Anthony Horowitz makes the brazen suggestion that even as World War II raged on, Brits back home just kept doing crimes. (To put words in DCS Foyle’s famously laconic mouth: Rude.)
Raised by Wolves
Paste logline: No, not THAT Raised by Wolves. Think Stuck in the Middle, mixed with a little Raising Hope, mixed with a little Pete and Pete, but blue, blue, blue, blue. (Which, since the series comes from the minds of the Moran sisters, makes perfect sense.)
The Simple Heist
Paste logline: The world ignores a couple of old Swedish ladies; a couple of old Swedish ladies take advantage, do crimes.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
Paste logline: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ARE dead.
Okay, lightning round over. What are you waiting for? The American experiment is already crumbling. Go binge what’s come of Britain’s post-empire culture while you still can.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.