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The Latest Crime Thriller on PBS, 'Vienna Blood,' is Worth Exploring
January 19, 2020  | By David Hinckley

PBS has made a good call to pick up Vienna Blood, a British-Austria police drama that premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings).

Vienna Blood is set in Austria just after the turn of the 20th century, and like the fistful of other recent dramas that focus on police and forensic work in those watershed years, it often shows the newcomers wrestling with the traditionalists over how things ought to be done.

Hint: The newcomers are almost always right.

A nice bonus with Vienna Blood is that it has a distinct if faint echo of Grantchester, a PBS police fave.

Vienna Blood focuses on two characters, Detective Oskar Rheinhardt (Jurgen Maurer, top) and young medical student Max Liebermann (Matthew Beard, top).

Rheinhardt is the crusty veteran, 20 years on the force, full confidence that his way is the best way.

Max is a follower of a controversial psychologist named Sigmund Freud whose radical ideas about the human mind are shaking up all over Europe.

What fascinates Max is Freud's contention that observing the tiny nuances of a person's behavior can tell you who that person is, right down to many of the details about what that person is thinking.

Max started out aiming to become a surgeon, a proper occupation in the minds of his successful, upwardly mobile parents. When he veered off that path into this psychology business, his father in particular became skeptical. That conflict simmers throughout Vienna Blood.

As we join the story, Max wants to test Freudian theories and his own Freudian skills by following a police detective, particularly the part where the detective tries to figure out whodunit.

Max uses his family connections to get assigned to Rheinhardt, who naturally wants nothing to do with this young pest.

But when Rheinhardt hits only dead ends in the murder of a young woman, Max – who does not lack confidence – steps forward with a couple of ideas that, to Rheinhardt's surprise, make sense.

Max is helping define the dawn of what we know today as "profiling," an art so foreign at the time that it becomes the punchline of a running gag among Vienna Blood characters.

More important for the immediate purposes of the show, which is based on the Liebermann books by Frank Tallis, Max's suggestions help create a bond with Rheinhardt that makes them into working partners.

It's not exactly like Geordie and Sidney in Grantchester because they're different characters. They just have the same sense of interplay, like hearing two guitars, and it's a pleasure to watch.

In keeping with many overseas productions, Vienna Blood only runs six episodes, with three separate stories getting two episodes apiece.

The filming, while not expansive, is first-rate, and the acting is consistently fine.

In other matters beyond murder, Vienna Blood touches on the subjects of anti-Semitism and class privilege. Toward that end, one of the most intriguing characters is Max's upper class lady friend Clara (Luise von Finckh).

Throw in references to the burgeoning modern art scene in early 1900s Austria, add a couple of scenes that are rather racy by PBS standards, and Vienna Blood is lively, colorful fun.

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