Critic's Notebook: On the Wonders of Little-Known Streaming Service Acorn TV

Detectorists -BBC-Screen shot-H 2016
Courtesy of BBC

This is a story about finding — and loving — a series about two British guys using metal detectors to find things, via a streaming service which, in itself, is a little like using such a device to find television gems.

And all it took was for someone to drop a bigger chunk of metal — an anvil — on my head.

It has always surprised me that Acorn TV, the glorious streaming service specializing in all things British television (and now beyond), isn't infinitely more well known. Well, technically "always surprised" isn't true, because before publicist Chad Campbell kept politely tugging at my ear about it, I wasn't using it. As a TV critic, I interact with publicists all the time and I have to give Campbell credit for being patient but diligent in making the case, for ages, about Acorn TV until I finally woke up to it (and then wanted to punk him by saying why in the hell hadn't he said anything earlier?).

You don't have to be an Anglophile to love Acorn, though that helps. All you have to do is be game for well-written, beautifully acted and surprisingly compelling scripted television from various generations. Every time I tell people about it in person they can't believe that it exists, which Acorn should probably think of as an amazing opportunity rather than a sad situation — and that's really the right path. One person was trying to get her head around the concept of the streaming service and I said, "It's like someone curated the BBC and beyond." It didn't register. So I said, "It's like PBS on steroids."

That didn't really work, either — but it generated excitement.

In truth, I was struggling to encapsulate the service not only because its breadth of offerings are hard to pigeonhole but also because I'm a latecomer to Acorn TV myself.

While there are loads of older shows on the service that I knew about from the BBC or PBS or elsewhere (Acorn, which has been in the business of finding the best international TV for a few decades prior to its streaming emergence, is independent and works at cultivating shows from around the world), there were plenty of newer offerings I was completely in the dark about.

In late 2016, for instance, I discovered the lovely British gem Detectorists, which made my year-end list of the best TV of 2016 for The Hollywood Reporter. In fact, Detectorists is precisely the kind of show that illustrates the allure of Acorn TV — it's an unrushed treasure I'd barely heard about and then sat down with late in the year, falling for it utterly, binging episodes.

The fact that I was already using Acorn and hadn't found it I'll credit to the wealth of other shows available and less my own cluelessness, which is a deft little spin. Missing Detectorists makes almost no sense because I was already periodically doing something I enjoyed immensely and will now tout here — turning on Acorn without any purpose and then just seeing where the mood took me. Not every night, mind you, but about once or twice a week, depending.

I would find myself just randomly clicking on a series and thinking, from the description, "What the hell is this — it looks great" and then finding out that my simple assessment was, in fact, accurate. Roaming through the offerings, blind to what they were or where they came from or even what year they were made, has been a pleasurable detour from normal viewing habits. The sense of discovery was addicting. Stumbling on Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones looking for things in the ground in Detectorists made me a true believer.

Which brings me back to this whole idea that Acorn TV would be a much bigger player if more people knew about it. In our new world of cord-cutters (and the dreaded term "cord-nevers" for younger viewers), people are trying to find out how to cobble together great television without being saddled with a hefty cable bill. As more people are turning toward "skinny bundles" and collecting streaming services, I'd argue that Acorn TV, for a lot of people, would be an essential must-have along with Netflix and Hulu. (I'm also an Amazon subscriber, but that might be a tougher sell for people trying to keep the prices manageable — and if you keep adding choices, eventually you match the cable bill you're trying to dump.)

Anyway, Acorn TV costs $4.99 a month (there's a seven-day free trial) or $49.99 a year. It's available on Roku, Apple TV, iOS devices (iPhone, iPad), Amazon Fire TV (and Amazon Prime as an add-on service) plus Android. It's also coming to Chromecast soon.

The other night I was on it and was calculating how long it would take me to binge the Ruth Rendell Mysteries (which I'd never heard of) because a young Colin Firth was in it (the series is leaving Acorn at the beginning of February but I got that sudden urge to rush through it). Over the Christmas break, Acorn TV had capitalized on the British love of "Christmas specials" for their shows and sorted them into bunches — and I chose a particularly funny one from the comedy series Very British Problems that absolutely delighted me. Not long after that, I had (yet another) of those "What the hell is this?" moments as I stumbled on, of all things, a New Zealand-based unscripted series called How to Look at a Painting... and loved it.

There are lots of what Acorn TV lists as their most popular offerings, including A Place to Call Home, The Brokenwood Mysteries, Vera, Jack Irish, Doc Martin (you'll find that Martin Clunes has a lot of shows on the streamer), The Code, Foyle's War, Midsomer Murders, etc. Fans in better touch with Britain and the world than I am will know about welcome finds like Thorne with David Morrissey, Suspects, Prisoners Wives, Touching Evil, Accused, etc, plus comedies Cradle to Grave, Raised by Wolves, London Irish and older jewels like Father Ted, Cold Feet, Kath & Kim and Peep Show.

I'm slowly making it over to international series I've never heard of but caught my eye, like Hooked (Finland), The Disappearance (France), Umbre (Romania), Easy Living (Finland), Black Widows (Finland — and there's also a Swedish version being made of this), etc.

Toss in documentaries and movies and it's like going around the world and stumbling on local productions, some of them shockingly good. Yes, Netflix has this kind of discovery mechanism built in as well and there are no end to excellent series from around the world (again, some of those made my year-end list), but Acorn TV is smaller and has a user interface that makes it pretty easy to fall down these viewing holes if you so desire (and that's my preferred way to check out the streamer).

Just looking at these titles you'll understand that Acorn TV has curated the last several eras of quality TV worldwide (so if you're not into looking back at older TV, you're missing out) and continues to add modern series (I'll be reviewing the acclaimed Agatha Christie's The Witness for the Prosecution separately next week).

Acorn TV has been growing a lot in the last year (more than 430,000 subscribers, which more than doubled 2015) and received top marks from Consumer Reports in a comparison of streaming services, but for me touting it has been on my to-do list for a long time, derailed (not surprisingly) by the Peak TV onslaught in particular and the Platinum Age of TV movement in general.

In that time, Acorn TV has become, along with HBO Go and Netflix (and most everything on FX), one of my most coveted outlets for entertainment. You may have already discovered it but, at least anecdotally in my connection with people talking about television, most have not. Time to rectify that. Consider this your anvil.