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'Dead Still,' streaming, Acorn


This is a scene from "Dead Still" now streaming on Acorn TV. (CNS photo/Acorn TV)

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NEW YORK (CNS) -- Halfway through its six episodes, the period drama "Dead Still" takes an unfortunately sordid turn from which it never fully recovers. The first three installments of the Acorn original are available to stream now.

Further chapters will be added each Monday through June 15, when the entire miniseries will be available.

Dublin of the 1880s is the setting for this early forensics-themed show, which John Morton created and co-wrote with Imogen Murphy. Murphy and Craig David Wallace directed.

As early as 1839, the daguerreotype, named for its French inventor, Louis Daguerre, made photographic images accessible to those who couldn't afford to have their portraits painted. By the Victorian era, post-mortem photography, memorializing the recently deceased, had become a popular practice, especially in Ireland.

Early on, "Dead Still" introduces us to haughty Brock Blennerhasset (Michael Smiley), one of Dublin's best-known practitioners of this peculiar craft. Hired by the Carew family to snap a group shot with their late mother (Charlotte Bradley), methodical, persnickety Brock is distressed when the resulting plate goes missing.

At Mrs. Carew's burial, Brock nearly falls into her fresh grave. But Conall Molloy (Kerr Logan), the gravedigger, manages to rescue him. An aspiring artist who admires the photographer, Conall asks Brock for a job. In need of help to recover the missing photo, the older man takes the younger one on as his assistant.

Brock's niece, would-be actress Nancy Vickers (Eileen O'Higgins), reenters his life when she moves from the countryside to the big city. She involves herself in her uncle's increasingly dangerous life while pursuing a tentative romance with avant-garde sculptor Percy Cummins (Mark Rendall).

As the nexus between photography and murder becomes more evident, tenacious Dublin police detective Frederick Regan (Aidan O'Hare) -- encouraged by his spirited, earthy wife, Betty (Aoife Duffin) -- investigates a series of suspicious deaths. He becomes convinced that someone adept in the technology has been staging them to look like suicides.

This naturally draws him deeper into Brock's world.

Progress on the case could help Regan rise in the ranks. But his supervisor, William Glendinning (Patrick FitzSymons), admonishes him, "just stick to your corner."

The violence portrayed is fairly graphic. Yet it depicts effects rather than actions. Additionally, characters use vulgar language, though at a sporadic rate, so that some episodes include more of it than others.

The subplot that really sullies "Dead Still," however, represents as much an aesthetic misstep as a moral one. Finding that Conall has apparently absconded with the studio's equipment, Brock and Nancy follow him, only to discover that he has started taking pornographic photos in a brothel.

The sexuality inherent in this aspect of the show is not explicit. But the salacious dialogue it entails will discomfit viewers. The fact that Brock begins to coach the participants in these tableaux, moreover, seems like entirely inconsistent behavior on the part of a character who has previously shown nothing but contempt for the city's demimonde.

All this is, presumably, aimed at making "Dead Still" feel edgy. But it winds up wasting the series' initial appeal.

The show's concept is inventive and refreshing, and it gets the details of late 19th-century Dublin just right. Delightfully offbeat, it's distinguished by some wonderful dark humor.

Yet, not content to trust in their intriguing premise, Murphy and Morton try to take "Dead Still" in a grittier direction, and this turns into a fatal detour. Its originality thus squandered, the series ends up sharing the banality of so many other contemporary TV offerings.

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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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