“Forbrydelsen” er fantastisk – something fresh from the state of Denmark

R & I have been gripped by the Danish crime Drama “Forbrydelsen” or “The Killing” as it’s dubbed on BBC4. We got the DVD boxset over christmas so we could watch season 2 and generally savour what is, in our opinion anyway, one of the best crime drama series in the history of tv. But the question remains, why is it so good? After all, there’s a rash of scandinavian crime fiction out there and some excellent tv series and movies based on Laarson’s Millenium trilogy and Henning Mankell’s ubiquitous Inspector Wallander. It seems we should be tired of the glut of “nordic noir” but the BBC audience figures (800,000 excluding iPlayer) and Bafta win are astonishing for a subtitled show set in a country that the typical English viewer associates with a Shakespearean play and a lager? Is “Forbrydelsen” Denmark’s greatest export? Probably 🙂

Here’s my attempt at analysing what makes it great without giving away the plots for those watching it on iPlayer, DVR or boxsets. In no particular order:

  1. The are no “big name” stars & hence no psychological baggage that we bring into our understanding of the characters. In the non-Danish viewers mind, Sarah Lund and Sophie Grabol are one and the same person with not cognitive dissonance between this and other roles that she may have played.
  2. The show has its own formula, visible over both series, where it mixes large scale themes of political corruption and the imperfection of justice systems with small scale and intimate views of the suffering of a single family. Both are given equal importance and blended deftly. There is a unifying metaphor. The fate of a city or country are decided based on personal agenda and relationships. Grand ideologies eventually crumble at the smallest of challenges, the cough, the wink.
  3. Sarah Lund is one of the great tv detectives. She has a recognisable style with her trademark Farosese sweater and relatively unkempt appearance. There is neither vanity nor drama. Her detection is realistic with wrong turns,  mistaken hunches and frequent derailments of her investigations when she passes the boundaries her superiors have set. She wins out because of her intuitive brilliance and intense determination. She displays aspects of aspergers syndrome in a performance that’s closed, emotionally mute yet fanatically obsessive. Lund is a minimalist & confident character without the comic book super powers and appearance of Larsson’s protagonist, Lisbeth Salander.
  4. The series sets its own pace, without compromise. Some commentators have labelled this as slow but that’s a misunderstanding. The series builds up the pressure. There are many clues for the viewer and we’re privy to all of Lund’s hunches as the writers feed us new revelations. Yet the “formula” dictates that we will not be able to say with any conclusiveness who the killer is until the very end of each series when a few key relevations will lift the curtain and the artistry of the plot is revealed.
  5. The shows formula takes a genre that would appear tired but manages to avoid the cliches of US crime drama. I believe the secret here is relationships. Most of what we find annoying about US crime dramas are the inevitability of various relationship patterns. Romantic entanglements and cop buddy dialogue. By contrast, Lund’s communications are direct and minimal. There is little in the way of banter and the writers refuse to serve us up a classic romantic interest.
  6. The murders are shocking but we are not shown the scenes of torture that US tv and cinema seems to be fixated on these days. The themes are “adult” without being salacious or prurient. HBO would not have been able to make The Killing without more brutality to appeal to US audiences and that’s actually a bad thing. There is certainly menace and threat but the absence of R-rated mutilation means that the show is plot driven rather than a series of gruesome set pieces.
  7. The endings are bitter sweet but oddly triumphant. Any comfort won is comfort hard fought for. An important facet of the endings is that Lund wins some justice by intelligence, hard work and a willingness to sacrifice her career and, indeed, her life. It’s reassuring to think there are those out there willing to sacrifice themselves to make the world a better place even if a) their motivations are unclear b) their victories are rendered small by the corruption of others.
  8. There are many conspiracies, the only question is who are the conspirators. Eventually, there is no place for the just man to run to except into the waiting arms of another conspiracy. Yet the various conspiracies are believable. The writers give us the motivations bit by bit until we’re happy to accept that a conspiracy wasn’t just likely but inevitable. The world of The Killing is a dichotomy of the harsh and the banal. It’s the right environment given our daily exposure to economic, environmental and political horror stories while we go about our lives.
  9. The Danish dialogue is not beautiful and hearing it while reading the subtitles gives scenes realism in a way that dubbing never could.
  10. The production values are high and consistent. The music is especially good. The electronic score is catchy but not over used.
  11. The series is export friendly as there is little in the almost 30 hours of the show I’ve seen that requires special knowledge of Danish culture, politics or history. Once you understand the winters are cold so it’s worth investing in nearly 300 quid sweaters then you’re initiated!
  12. Lastly, the BBC has been intelligent in their scheduling and distribution. The entire series can be watched on iPlayer and they’ve shown both back-to-back and daily episodes to help build excitement. The latter are also DVR friendly as someone can record a series over 2-3 weeks and watch it at their leisure (all in one go :))

To summarise this is the kind of show that many small national TV channels could produce if only they had the wit, talent, writers and production team. Instead RTE serves us up crap like Fair City. It would be nice to think we could aspire to this given our historical success in producing internationally renowned writers, play-writes and actors.

A pre-emptive happy new year to readers who’ve made it this far & I hope I haven’t given any secrets away to those still watching it.