Acorn TV’s Dead Still starring the trio of Michael Smiley(Brock Blennerhasset) Eileen O’Higgins(Nancy Vickers), and Kerr Logan(Conall Molloy) is the funniest thing you will watch this week.
Dead Still focuses(pun intended) on Blennerhasset, a memorial photographer for the recently deceased, his assistant a former grave digger Molloy, and his cheeky niece Nancy who wants desperately to be an actress. A grisly set of murders that involves the staging of crimes similar to mortuary photography sucks the group in. Set in the 1880’s Dublin, the six-episode first season balances perfectly between gallows humor and neatly comprised puzzles.
Reminiscent of TNT’s The Alienist only a billion times funnier this series shows a time and place defined by abject poverty and extravagant wealth. Similar to the gilded age in America. Stuck between overly prissy and wildly raucous Victorian Dublin was a divergent mess of polarity. Most of the best beats come from this variance—a wink here, an indulged eye-roll there. In one episode, an unflinching look inside a burgeoning porn trade provides context and levity. It all works harmoniously to create an atmosphere that is both compelling and fun. Now more than ever, we need something clever and entertaining, keeping the ghosts at bay. Incredibly there is one of those too in a creepy haunted house episode.
Smiley is in rare form as the finicky Blennerhasset who is part Adrian Monk and Felix from the Odd Couple. Instantly sympathetic and irritating he is only one part of the pitch-perfect comedic timing. O’Higgins is adorably overconfident and clueless and Logan is the earnest endeavoring heart of the group. Rounding out the series regulars are obsessed Detective Regan(Aidan O’Hare), a policeman way ahead of his time and carriage drive Cecil Carruthers(Jimmy Smallhorne). Smallhorne is especially adept at exposing Blennerhassett’s inherent arrogance.
The series succeeds because of these actors. So achingly determined, Logan exudes sincerity. O’Higgins gives just enough innocence to Nancy that even when she is insufferable, you still like her, and Smiley is a revelation. Secondary characters like Detective Regan’s wise wife allow the show to appeal to a modern audience. Nancy and Betty Regan feel like independent women. They aren’t just window dressing. Alongside the almost cartoonish bit players like Nancy’s family and Minnie Mulgrew, these women find their agency and our respect.
Blennerhasset resists joining the investigation. He is content to remain in his upper-crust world. As uncomfortable in the slums of Dublin as he is at a party for the rich, he avoids both when at all possible. Events force him into both circumstances. Detective Regan gives him no choice but to join forces with him. His assistants, who are either eager to escape their gilded cage or familiar with the lower levels of society, provide Blennerhassett with the tools he needs to investigate.
This is not your typical period piece. In large part due to the chemistry between the leads and willingness to take otherwise taboo subjects and make them funny. The funniest bits come from the most unexpected places. Laughter from the darkest moments, Dead Still succeeds showing class inequity and grief all while making you belly laugh. One particularly hilarious bit features Nancy channeling her inner Sophie from Leverage as a painfully horrible prostitute to elicit information. The actual working people of the district see right through her ruse but not before getting some chuckles. Somehow Nancy’s ignorance is not off-putting but rather endearing.
That is the genius of the series. The characters are all flawed but likable in some cases, lovable. Heartfelt Conall wants nothing more than to raise his family’s station in life. He is more than a low gravedigger. Logan manages to convey Conall’s intelligence and grit behind affable high jinks and modesty. Blennerhasset is an aloof snob, but an understandable one. He is a product of both his upbringing and a painful past event. You will probably guess the murderer early on, but you will keep watching for the fantastic characters. These are people you grow to care about and love to watch in one absurd circumstance after another. A wild seance like nothing you have ever seen before comes to mind.
Ireland is front and center as opposed to being a cast-off sidekick character. Traditionally, Irish characters are played for comic relief or spoken about in low tones as if they are the second class members of the UK. Not so in Dead Still, which shows the myriad layers to the vibrant country and its inhabitants.
For those fans of period pieces, the meticulous set design by Eleanor Wood and Costume Design by Kathy Strachan are sublime. Those more concerned with a stodgy Victorian piece need not worry. The pacing of the show is modern and brisk, allowing for the period to act as a backbone for the plot beats and humor. Just like the era itself, it is defined by the juxtaposition of stuffy privilege and raunchiness. A concern about technology, however, outdated to us now, still rings true when snuff films and any fetish could be indulged with the click of a mouse. Bright bits of writing like this keep the episodes grounded in things any viewer could relate too.
Since the series is about death, Blennerhasset’s chosen profession makes for a flawless springboard. Death rituals in the Victorian era were an elaborate and bizarre thing. Jewelry and art were created from the deceased hair, and fingernails and photographs were taken as a way to commemorate the dead. In some cases, that single photo was all that existed for the families to remember. Dead Still shows the oddity and reverence of the act in all its glory. To our modern sensibilities, it is weird. The idea of posing and primping a dead person so the family can gather around them for a picture was expected then. Since the series revolves around death, Blennerhasset’s career is an ideal backdrop.
I don’t know if Dead Still will get a second season, although there seems to be plenty of room for one. There is still much to explore in this world and its colorful characters. Blennerhasset has deep wells to mine in particular with questions about his sexuality hinted at.
Premiering Monday, this hybrid of interwoven procedural mystery and dark comedy is the series that will likely take audiences by surprise. It is laugh out loud funny and meticulously crafted. Dead Still is a must-watch. Acorn TV is a streaming service for British, international content, mainly British, Irish, Canadian, and Australian fare. You can sign up for a free 30-day trial here using code FREE30. It is easily my new favorite streamer.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.