LOS ANGELES – If super-sleuth Jessica Fletcher decides to come out of retirement, she’ll have to brace herself for stomach-turning crime scenes. Or move to England.
Brainy, bloodless detective shows like “Murder, She Wrote” may be dead on network TV in America, but they’re thriving in the United Kingdom, where viewers can enjoy a jolly good whodunit without nightmares keeping them up until “Good Morning Britain.”
“I think it’s quite nice to escape what’s going on, to be able to sit down and go, ‘Here’s a beginning, middle and end of a wonderful story with a mystery to it, set in a beautiful landscape,’ ” said Kate Bartlett, executive producer for “Vera,” the long-running ITV series in which Brenda Blethyn’s character relies on many of the same quirks and insight once applied by Lt. Columbo. “Sometimes you want that, and sometimes you want something darker.”
Americans craving the “darkness” have a rogues’ gallery of homegrown options to choose from.
Recent episodes of CBS’ “Criminal Minds,” which wraps up its 15-season run this Wednesday, have focused on FBI agents chasing a serial killer who wears the skin of his victims. The lead character in NBC’s “Hannibal” once made an antagonist eat his own nose. In “Interrogation,” which recently started streaming on CBS All Access, viewers are introduced over and over again to a victim with two knives in the back, a cord around her neck and her head bashed in.
“The true story that we did research on contained a certain amount of violence and a certain amount of sex that we had to portray to be able to stick to the truth,” said “Interrogation” co-creator Anders Weidemann during the Television Critics Association press tour. “If your idea demands violence or sex, you should do it. But if it’s just used as a speculative way to create tension, then don’t.”
But a plethora of new viewing options in the United States proves that you can create tension without making viewers feel like they just stumbled into the Spanish Inquisition.
The Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel has been one of cable’s fastest-growing networks since its debut six years ago, thanks to titles like “Crossword Mysteries: A Puzzle to Die For” and “Murder, She Baked: A Chocolate Chip Cookie Mystery.”
Netflix offers classic episodes of “Sherlock” and “Father Brown,” detective series that treat the showing of graphic details as a sin. And then there’s BritBox and Acorn TV, two affordable streaming services that export the best of Britain.
“We’re not going to show you our rubbish,” said Ashley Jensen, star of the “Agatha Raisin” series. In each frothy adventure, including “Agatha Raisin & the Love From Hell,” which drops Monday on Acorn TV, the title character nails the bad guy, but not before flirting with her cohorts and showing off her flamboyant wardrobe.
“It’s a comedy, as well, so we can’t afford to have too many grisly scenes,” Jensen said. “I think Americans like seeing the English as eccentric misfits. Agatha wears high heels, even when she’s climbing into a dustbin and has a dog wee on her leg. I’m always trying to shoehorn some slapstick in.”
While kids may giggle at the physical humor, “Raisin” is primarily aimed at the older set. So is the vast majority of Acorn’s programming.
BritBox’s president, Soumya Sriraman, said the average age of her subscribers is 50.
“American networks are forced to pull in 18-to-49 adults, who probably want more in-your-face action,” said Sriraman, whose deep catalog contains plenty of adaptations of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle favorites. “They’re looking for the shock-and-awe factor. We don’t say we’ll never get them. We just hope that their tastes evolve as they get older.”
Older viewers are more inclined to treat their TV choices as inspirations for their next vacations, which explains why so many of the murders take place in picturesque landscapes or in what Jensen calls “chocolate-box England.” Those backgrounds are particularly inviting for fans in London and Manchester, where the sun makes fewer public appearances than Queen Elizabeth. That’s a sharp contrast to American procedurals, which are almost always set in urban cities.
“You’re sitting in your home in the U.K., it’s winter, and the biggest thing on TV is this thing called ‘Death in Paradise,’ which is set in the Caribbean,” said veteran actor Adrian Dunbar, whose credits include “Blood” and “Line of Duty,” both available on Acorn. “The reason we’re all watching is the sunshine and the beaches. Everybody wants to watch good weather.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between American and British series is how much — or how little — we get to know our protagonists.
The “Law & Order” and “CSI” franchises pride themselves on how little they reveal about their central characters’ private lives, while the personalities of the U.K.’s most storied detectives — Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse, Jane Tennison — are often more intriguing than the cases they’re tackling.
“These are normal people in exceptionally difficult circumstances, and that’s what drives the narrative of each episode,” said executive producer Phil Hunter in reference to the appeal of his series “Vera,” which has new episodes airing on BritBox. “We’re invested, because Vera could be your neighbor. That sort of authenticity of character means we can hold the viewer’s attention without the violence.”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 @nealjustin