Long dark evenings are perfect for cozying up with a hot mug in front of a screen, so in winter I went on the lookout for some intelligent mystery and action tales. After trawling through dozens of TV series on half a dozen platforms, I found a few that are a bit more challenging than the typical, tired cop show about a serial killer or one more show about a drug war in a big city. Not surprisingly, most of these series are from overseas, where censorship limitations (requiring less violence) and state funding (script competitions) encourage quality filmmaking. Two of my selections I have recommended before, but they have since then added a third season, and they are both outstanding, especially the blockbuster of the streaming world—Slow Horses. Two action shows—Alex Rider and Percy Jackson—were conceived with teenage audiences in mind, but they are based on high-quality writings and can encourage younger audiences to think about such values as friendship, loyalty, and resourcefulness while still being entertaining for any audience. So, here is a short list of smart action shows for winter screen surfing.
SLOW HORSES (UK, 3 seasons, 2022-)
An adaptation of Mick Herron novels, Slow Horses is now enjoying its third season (the fourth is already in the can) and deservedly garnering critical accolades and industry awards. The title refers to a derogatory name that MI5 operators have given to a small unit of “rejects”—agents who have been parked outside headquarters with no career prospects as a punishment for various transgressions. The irony is that this small band of misfits succeeds quite well in combating external attacks by “bad actors” as well as winning vicious internal-departmental fights. The picture that both Herron and the show’s filmmakers paint of the supposedly infallible British domestic espionage agency is quite merciless. The agents and their bosses spend far more time infighting than conducting any real counter-espionage operations. The show is stacked with unforgettable characters in whom good and bad is equally mixed. The world of Slow Horses is morally very grey yet enormously entertaining for audiences.
BODIES (UK, Limited Series, 2023)
The show looks at first like a Jack the Ripper mystery… until it doesn’t. The story deftly weaves together four timelines—one in the future, one contemporary, one in the 1940s, and one in the 1890s—all revolving around the same mystery body found in an alley of London. Detectives assigned to solving the crime in all these periods do not initially realize what the audience starts suspecting early on—that we are dealing with an intricate concept of time travel. It’s an original and entertaining toggle between various historical times and their vastly different social codes.
C.B. STRIKE (UK, 4 seasons, 2017-)
C.B. stands for Cormoran Strike, the detective hero of the show which is based on novels written (under pseudonym) by JK Rowling. Other than an entertaining intrigue, the show stands out for its insistence on providing the protagonists—Cormoran and his partner Robin—with nuanced but nice characters. The fact that the two are decent people is rare, given that usually a detective show is populated with detectives who are bitter, angry, depressed, or all the three at the same time. Here, the great rapport between the two sleuths is the foundation of the storytelling, and it is achieved through great acting chemistry between the two actors, Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger.
VIENNA BLOOD (Austria and UK, 3 seasons, 2019-)
A new third season has been released for the Austrian-UK co-production of Vienna Blood. The setting is Vienna around 1900—the city of Klimt, Freud, Art Nouveau, Gustav Mahler, and Erwin Schrödinger—at the time when modern art and science were making inroads in the Victorian world of formality and conservationism. A pair of mismatched detectives—an older policeman and a young psychiatrist—solve unusual crimes while battling obstacles from the military and political establishments. The production design and research into costumes, décor, and societal mores of the period are impeccable.
MAGPIE MURDERS (LIMITED SERIES, 2022)
Anthony Horowitz is the writing genius behind such popular shows as Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders that belong to the elite British shows of all time. He has created a murder mystery-within-a-mystery by writing Magpie Murders—an intrigue about an unfinished detective novel that could reveal the name of the person who killed its author. It’s a puzzle within a puzzle that rides on the acting brilliance of Lesley Manville, who plays the central character of the editor. The idea behind this mystery is explained by its writer, Anthony Horowitz, whose comments in this short video are the best calling card for this charming show.
ALEX RIDER (UK, 2 seasons, 2020-)
Another show from the prolific Anthony Horowitz, this time based on his Young Adult books about the adventures of a reluctant teenage spy. The titular Alex Rider is a high-schooler who is drawn into special ops by a team from MI5 after his uncle gets murdered. In the first season, Alex has to infiltrate a boarding school because no grown-up agent can pretend being a schoolboy. In the second season, Alex poses as a super-gamer in order to take on a billionaire planning to hack the Pentagon. The intrigue, as always with Horowitz, is ingenious and, despite the target audience of youngsters, the show can be enjoyable for older audiences as well.
PERCY JACKSON AND THE OLYMPIANS (1 season, 2023-)
The live-action movies from 2010 and 2013, and a series of animated films from about the same time, were all valiant attempts to capitalize on the popular young-adult adventure novels about Percy Jackson. Percy (short from Perseus) is a boy—half human, half god—who learns about his connection to the world of Greek gods and who has to fulfill various quests. Unfortunately, the earlier cinematic adaptations were underwhelming, and the world of Percy Jackson went into hibernation, until now. The new adaptation into a TV series has just premiered with the first few installments, and it looks quite promising. The show, like the books, requires some intellectual investment in Greek mythology—a subject that can benefit from some revived interest by new generations of young people.