Acorn TV's 'Dead Still' is a Breath of Fresh Air in the Mystery Landscape

(Photo: Acorn TV)

You've probably never even heard much about the practice of Victorian-era memorial portraiture until this exact moment, let alone watched an entire TV series based on the (obviously, very dated) practice - but that was legitimately a real thing that people used to do way back when, and someone has, in fact, made a show about it. And that show is perhaps one of 2020's best hidden gems.

Dead Still is, in fact, the weirdo dark comedy period mystery about death photography you honestly didn't know you needed and probably haven't seen yet. But you should correct that as soon as possible. 

Set in Ireland in the 1880s, the series centers around the practice of mortuary photography, something that seems morbid and more than a little gross to our modern sensibilities. This trend, which involved people commissioning photos of their dead relations to commemorate their lives, generally featured disturbingly elegant posed photos of the recently deceased, often also involving their living family members. This was meant to help blunt the pain of grief, by giving loved ones something to remember the dead by, which could also serve as a sort of Memento mori for the rest of the family. (Victorian culture was obsessed with death - driven by the nation's high infant mortality rate, constant epidemics of diseases like typhoid and diphtheria, and a queen who spent half of her adult life in mourning for her dead husband.)

It follows the story of Brock Blennerhasset (Michael Smiley) a celebrated pioneer in the field of postmortem photography, who supposedly takes the "liveliest" photos of the dead. (Um. Yay?) He works with his fiesty niece Nancy (Eileen O'Higgins) and the soulful Conall Molloy (Kerr Logan), a grave digger turned photographer's assistant. The three main characters make a lovely trio, and I'd honestly very happily watch a show that involved them just doing their jobs and meeting with various bereaved families while Nancy tries to become an actress in her spare time. Some of the episodes hew very close to that model, including one that involves the tragic drowning of a young boy at a country estate which forces Brock and Conall to stay in what may or may not be a haunted house.  

But, because this 2020 and it's virtually impossible to have a show like this without also trying to make it about solving crimes, well, there are also murders and a serial killer to catch. 

(Photo: Acorn TV)
(Photo: Acorn TV)

It's not as bad as it could be, however. Rather than weekly mysteries to solve, which let's all admit would be real weird, there's a larger arc going on involving an increasing series of elaborately staged deaths around the city, in which bodies are posed as though they're sitting for one of Brock's photographs. One, more mystery series should embrace longer arcs like this rather than weekly stories; and two, this is honestly creepy as all heck. 

Detective Frederick Regan (Aidan O’Hare) is the police officer in charge of investigating these murders and he's keen on the idea that our faves can help him track down those responsible, as well as help tamp down on the emerging black market for obscene photography - whether it's snuff photos or pornography. All of this dark and often grim subject matter is leavened by Dead Still's occasionally irreverent attitude, which pokes fun at some of the stranger period conventions of the time. Its self-awareness feels refreshing, yet the show takes both loss and the process of grieving seriously enough that no aspect of it ever feels mocking. 

For those of you who listen to our podcast, you already know that procedural mystery series are not normally my cup of tea. But this ongoing murder investigation is only a small part of Dead Still's story, and never dominates the show's plot. Plus, the show's wonderful at using its main trio - it never feels like Smiley's Brock never overwhelms his co-stars and the group has wonderful chemistry together.

Also, I 100% ship Nancy and Conall Molloy and am willing to fight about it. 

(Photo: Acorn TV)

The mystery at the show's center is honestly nothing to write home about - and should be fairly easy to solve for those who spend any amount of time watching shows like this - but it doesn't matter. The way the story unravels is entertaining on its own, but the reason you will - and should - stick with this show, is its characters. Smiley's Brock is something of a snob, but as the show continues it's clear that he's also a man who's known tremendous loss himself, and who has endured disdain from his family for chasing his weirdo photography dream. (The show also somewhat implies that Brock is gay, and I hope this is something we learn more about in any Season 2, and how that would have impacted his life in this time period.) Logan's Connoll is the scruffy heart of the show, but it's O'Higgins' Nancy who is - unsurprisingly - my favorite, an independent spitfire who knows how remarkable she is and refuses to live her life by the restrictive rules her society has tried to impose on women. She is - as you'll see - distinctly not a very good actress, but it's hard not to want her to chase that dream anyway. 

Dead Still is one of Acorn TV's first original productions and it's about what you'd expect from this streamer known for its catalog of obscure British programs - it's quirky, dark, and downright weird at times. But it's also one of the most original things I've watched this year and I'm pleasantly surprised by how much I like it. It's mix of morbid humor, grim subject matter and honest self-awareness mix into something that's unlike anything else that's currently on-air, and it tells stories that are going to be wholly unfamiliar to American audiences. (This is a very good thing, by the way.) 

New episodes of Dead Still are available every Monday on Acorn TV, through June 15. Have you given it a look? Let's discuss in the comments. 

Lacy Baugher

Lacy's love of British TV is embarrassingly extensive, but primarily centers around evangelizing all things Doctor Who, and watching as many period dramas as possible.

Digital media type by day, she also has a fairly useless degree in British medieval literature, and dearly loves to talk about dream poetry, liminality, and the medieval religious vision. (Sadly, that opportunity presents itself very infrequently.) York apologist, Ninth Doctor enthusiast, and unabashed Ravenclaw. Say hi on Threads or Blue Sky at @LacyMB. 

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