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Euro TV fans, we’re heading east. To Romania, home of the gritty and gripping HBO Europe crime drama Umbre, which is about to make its US premiere on Acorn TV.

Umbre (HBO Europe) on Acorn TV
Umbre: Serban Pavlu as Relu Oncescu – Photo © HBO Europe, courtesy of Acorn TV

For the British TV-focused Acorn TV, Umbre (Shadows) marks the third foreign-language drama the subscription streaming service will premiere in the US. It follows the debuts of French mystery series Les Petits Meurtres d’Agatha Christie (The Little Murders of Agatha Christie) in 2013, and Finnish crime drama Easy Living (Helppo elämä) last month.

The former has been popular with subscribers since its stateside release, and Acorn TV VP Matt Graham said this about the latter:

“We’ve had a terrific response from our audience for Easy Living. It’s been a top 10 show for us since it launched in October.”

That’s saying something, since Acorn TV currently has more than 160 titles available to its subscribers for on-demand streaming.

And starting next week is the Romanian crime drama Umbre. When I asked Matt about why Acorn TV selected this show for its next Euro TV offering, he responded:

Umbre is really unique in style and tone and it feels very genuine to its Romanian setting. The lead actor, Serban Pavlu, is just dynamite – he plays a really formidable yet likeable character who’s balancing a life of crime with fatherhood. While at times quite dark, the show also has a deep and appealing sense of humor.”

That it does.

Umbre (HBO Europe) on Acorn TV
Umbre – Image © HBO Europe, courtesy of DRG

Set in present-day Bucharest, Umbre centers on Relu Oncescu (Serban Pavlu, The Japanese Dog), a taxi driver and family man with a wife, teen-aged daughter, and preteen son. Sounds rather pedestrian until you factor in his other life as a torpedo, meaning money collector for his other family: the mob.

Talk about your strong, silent type. The muscular and reticent Relu has been living in these two worlds for years, going from picking up fares to picking up money (by whatever means necessary) owed to local mob boss Căpitanu’ (Doru Ana, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu). In all this time, he’s kept the families from finding out about each other by lying to both.

But then Relu’s double life begins to unravel.

A weaselly man refuses to pay up and ends up dying. It was an accident, but so what; Relu is still on the hook for the money the now-dead guy owed to Căpitanu’. His wife Gina (Maria Obretin, Bucharest Non Stop) is becoming increasingly angry that Relu is barely ever home. And Relu is obliged to take on a sidekick, in the form Căpitanu’’s son, whom Relu must take with him on jobs in order to teach the young man the ways of mob business.

Things get worse for Relu, as others of his collection jobs don’t go swimmingly, Nico (Andreea Vasile, Why Me?), Căpitanu’’s right-hand woman, suspects he hasn’t been altogether truthful with her or their boss, and his marriage and family life are crumbling.

Now he really wants out from under Căpitanu’ and the violent criminal world that his longtime friend and neighbor Nea Puiu’ (Stefan Velniciuc, What War May Bring) introduced him to. Puiu’ tries to help Relu, but instead creates a disaster for them both, and Relu is forced to come clean and take drastic measures to save himself and his wife and kids.

Then there’s a twist of fate…

Umbre, a remake of the Australian series Small Time Gangster, is made by HBO Europe, which has been increasing its productions across Eastern Europe to support local talent. The efforts are paying off, as one of its latest series — Pakt (Pact), the 2015 Polish remake of the Norwegian thriller Mammon — was just nominated for the prestigious Golden Frog award in the first-ever TV competition at the Camerimage Festival.

And according to distributor DRG, when Umbre premiered in Romania on 28 December 2014, the series opener attracted more viewers than the Season 4 premiere of Game of Thrones. The debut of Umbre also drew a streaming audience that was nearly ten times the size of that for GoT on HBO Go.

Unlike many of the Nordic noir and other foreign-language crime dramas Euro TV fans have grown fond of (and in some cases, addicted to) watching over the years — from the twenty-years-long-and-counting Beck, to the more recent The Bridge — neither detectives nor police investigations figure in Umbre. Rather, it is focused on the lead character, instead of on the crimes he commits or the solving of them. Similar to Easy Living, the crime elements are part and parcel of what the lead does and to some degree who he is.

Serban Pavlu gives a powerful and dynamic performance as Relu, a man caught between two worlds, torn between the rights and wrongs of his life, and awakened to the truth and consequences of his actions.

It’s riveting stuff.

Sombre as Umbre is, all is not doom and gloom. As touched on by Matt Graham, sprinkled throughout Umbre‘s eight episodes are humorous bits, moments of darkly-comic relief that give viewers a chance to exhale.

With Umbre being added to Acorn TV’s offerings, I asked Matt about what’s next. Will Acorn TV’s expansion into foreign-language dramas continue with character-centric crime dramas, or will traditional Euro TV crime dramas and mysteries, featuring cops and the crime-solving aspects of stories, also be a part of the mix going forward? He replied:

“We feel that both formats can work equally well. Easy Living and Umbre both happen to fall into the former category, but we know our audience loves a traditional detective mystery!”

And as for when we might see more Euro TV dramas on Acorn TV, Matt said:

“We are going to let our audience be our guide – so long as we continue to get positive feedback around our foreign language dramas, we’ll continue to look for more titles.”

So there you have it.

Umbre, shown in Romanian with English subtitles, premieres in the US on Monday, the 9th of November 2015, exclusively on Acorn TV.


Acorn TV

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Umbre: Intense Romanian Crime Drama Set for US Premiere on Acorn TV
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