The latest British import to PBS, “Vienna Blood,” is not about sausage. Its title is a nod to its setting, its grisly, sanguine concerns and to a waltz and operetta (Wiener Blut) by Johann Strauss the Younger. If you already knew that last part, this show is for you.
The series, based on the “Liebermann Papers” novels by psychologist and crime novelist Frank Tallis, follows Max Liebermann (a subdued Matthew Beard), a young neurologist who attends the lectures of Sigmund Freud at the turn of the century who uses his insights on human behavior to solve murders.
Liebermann and his family are bourgeois emigrés who have come from England to Vienna. His father, Mendel (Conleth Hill — who you might remember, with far less hair, as Varys on “Game of Thrones”), owns a drapery business. They are patrons of the arts and victims of the city’s patrician anti-Semitism.
Early on, a man who turns out to be a member of a proto-Fascist group called the “Brotherhood of Tribal Fire” approaches Mendel and offers to introduce him to Christian society: “We decide who is Jewish and who is not.”
Max’s interest in Freud’s emerging field is spurned by his mentor at the hospital, but Max finds his calling when he teams up with Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt (Jürgen Maurer), a gruff but tragic detective who can’t shake him as a shadow. Max proves to be a useful partner for Rheinhardt, able to analyze Freudian slips in suicide notes, probe the motives of killers and suss the meaning of a well-posed corpse.
The first mystery (spoilers!) come to a head in a showdown on a Ferris wheel a la “The Third Man,” and on that Ferris wheel, the apprehended killer sputters to Max, “You think you are so clever. Slippery, cunning like the rest of your sly race.”
In case you haven’t guessed so far, this show is catnip for those interested in pre-World War Jewish life and lovers of fine art. And that’s fine by me.
Early episodes feature the work of two Gustavs (Klimt and Mahler). Klimt’s painting induces a woman’s panic attack while Mahler, subbing in for the advertised pianist, is received tepidly by a mostly non-Jewish audience. The second installments, “The Queen of the Night” parts one and two, take their name from a character in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and, rest-assured, that operetta will factor into the plot.
These gestures to the highbrow are ornamented with handsome production values and bundled within cleverly-conceived whodunnits. Series creator Stephen Thompson is an alumnus of BBC’s “Sherlock,” and while the plotting and production design here don’t quite match the panache and inventiveness of that show, it nonetheless scratches the prestige sleuthing itch.
It may not, however, fulfill your “Downton Abbey” withdrawal, though it tries its level best. A love triangle between Max, his fiancé, Clara Weiss (Luise von Finckh), and his scientist patient Amelia Lydgate (Jessica De Guow), feels lifeless and perfunctory.
Still, “Vienna Blood” is the optimal guilty pleasure viewing, the televisual equivalent of chocolate-covered fruit — snackable, bad for you, but not without nutritional value. It services a concern with resurgent and historical European anti-Semitism, insights into early criminal profiling and cultured hat tips to the early 1900s, but it’s at its best as half-mindless entertainment.
Whatever your alibi, it’s worth a watch. Meanwhile, we’re still waiting for the young Herr Freud’s own turn solving murders to drop on Netflix later this year.
“Vienna Blood” airs on PBS Sundays at 10 PM ET.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.