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06.20.12

‘Forbrydelsen,’ ‘Borgen,’ ‘The Bridge’: The Rise of Nordic Noir TV

The Duchess of Cornwall is just one obsessive viewer. Nordic Noir—embodied in Scandinavian dramas like The Killing, The Bridge, and Borgen—have become cult hits in the U.K., and are about to become the go-to formats for American TV pilots. Jace Lacob on the genre’s appeal, its breakout female characters, and why audiences in the U.S. are unlikely to see many of them in their original form (but it is possible to see them!).

While AMC’s The Killing has been dumped in a trunk to die like Rosie Larsen, its progenitor, Denmark’s Forbrydelsen, continues to slay viewers around the globe on the strength of its moody wit and strong-willed protagonist.

Forbrydelsen (in English, The Crime) became a cult hit in the United Kingdom when it aired on BBC Four last year, quickly embedding itself within the cultural zeitgeist. Like The Killing, it revolves around the search for the killer of a teenage girl, tightly drawing together political, familial, and personal concerns within its web. Sales of the chunky Faroese sweater worn by the show’s lead detective, Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl), skyrocketed, with the jumper’s maker, design firm Gundrun & Gundrun, reportedly unable to keep up with the insane demand. Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, was such an obsessive fan of the series—it’s the only show that she and Prince Charles watch together!—that she visited the set of Forbrydelsen’s third season earlier this year, and was delighted to be presented by Gråbøl with a Faroese cardigan in the style of Lund’s. Gråbøl herself turned up in Absolutely Fabulous’s Christmas special, reprising her role as Lund in a dream sequence. She was, of course, wearing The Jumper.

“Even people who haven’t watched [Forbrydelsen] know about The Jumper,” said Radio Times TV editor Alison Graham. “Now, whenever a new Nordic Noir show is about to arrive, I’m always asked by viewers—wryly, of course—about ‘the knitwear.’”

Sweaters aside, Forbrydelsen and its fellow Scandinavian imports—The Bridge, Wallander, and 2012 BAFTA International Programme Award winner Borgen, which have been loosely dubbed “Nordic Noir” by its adherents—have become bona fide hits in the United Kingdom. And Hollywood has responded in turn. The trail originally blazed by Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and BBC/PBS’s English-language Wallander has resulted in a hunger for more Scandie drama, with viewers on both sides of the Atlantic gobbling up original-language versions, a trend that has continued on the television side. (Scandinavia could be close to usurping the appeal of white-hot Israel, one of the largest exporters of scripted formats to the U.S., with shows like Homeland and In Treatment. A&E is developing an adaptation of Danish crime thriller Those Who Kill, while The Bridge is a likely contender to score a remake as well.)

As a whole, these shows relish the portrayal of its female characters as flawed yet sympathetic, complicated yet engaging, presenting complex and authentic visions of women in positions of power.

Borgen (frequently translated as Government, it actually means The Castle, a nickname for Christiansborg Palace, which houses the Danish Supreme Court, its Parliament, and the prime minister's office) revolves around the unexpected rise to power of Denmark’s fictional first female prime minister, and the interplay among cabinet ministers, spin doctors, and the media, as well as the obstacles a woman in power must overcome. While not a crime drama like The Bridge or Forbrydelsen, it, too, has inspired devotion in its viewers. “It had the same elements—well-drawn characters and a multilayered story—but no murders,” said Graham. “Like Nordic Noir, it transcended its origins—it was about the pursuit of power and about compromise. We can all see that in our governments, wherever we are.”

Borgen is one of the only members of the Nordic Noir genre to air on U.S. television, where it is shown on cable/satellite network LinkTV. “Borgen's outstanding storytelling speaks for itself, and great storytelling transcends cultural boundaries and language, particularly in today's entertainment marketplace,” LinkTV President/CEO Paul Mason said. “Like anything, there's always a few firsts, and perhaps Borgen will usher in even more interest from U.S. viewers in foreign-language programming. The story is king, though.”

And that’s what sets Scandinavian drama apart from the crowd, though its transformation wasn’t achieved overnight. “The Scandinavians spent 10 years reconsidering how they did drama, improving them and getting them really right,” BBC Four controller Richard Klein told The Daily Beast. That persistence has paid off, particularly when it comes to the ratings (which hover just under 1 million viewers), which, while niche by U.S. standards, reflects a huge audience for a Danish or Swedish drama.

Borgen
Borgen (The Castle or Government): Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg Christensen and John Philip Asbæk as Kasper Juul. (BBC / DR1)

In fact, its devoted base audience appears to have an insatiable appetite for more, and Nordic Noir has become synonymous with well-crafted and electric plots, memorable characters, and a tremendous sense of setting. The female characters in particular warrant closer attention. Forbrydelsen’s dogged detective Sarah Lund, the forerunner of the group, has been joined by a troika of breakout women: Borgen’s resilient PM Birgitte Nyborg Christensen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and calculating news anchor Katrine Fønsmark (Birgitte Hjort Sørensen) and The Bridge’s Saga Norén (Sofia Helin).

Helin’s Saga, perhaps the Nordic genre’s breakout character, is a socially awkward Porsche-driving Swedish detective with a penchant for wearing leather pants and making brusque statements, but more interesting, she’s portrayed as being on the Autism spectrum, though the show never diagnoses her outright. (There is perhaps some overlap with Lisbeth Salander, but Saga, despite her inability to read social cues, is less outwardly antagonistic or as sharp-edged as Larsson’s character.) The Bridge—about the cross-cultural conflict between the Danish and Swedish police forces who must work together to stop a maniacal killer who poses a woman’s body on a bridge between the two countries—becomes not just a murder mystery, but rather an exploration about connections both literal and figurative. Just as Saga tries to forge an emotional connection with her partner, Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), the show itself parses connections between a personal guilt and societal complicity, between the past and the present, the bridges between countries, cultures, and individuals.

As a whole, these shows relish the portrayal of its female characters as flawed yet sympathetic, complicated yet engaging, presenting complex and authentic visions of women in positions of power. While The West Wing focused almost exclusively on the White House–centric plots, Borgen follows its protagonists home, finding Birgitte struggling to balance the demands of the country with those of her family—her character’s marriage perhaps one of the most nuanced and realistic of any on television. Sørensen’s Katrine, meanwhile, becomes enmeshed in a potential scandal and winds up pregnant with a dead politico’s child; she undergoes an abortion early on in the series run and Borgen doesn’t get preachy, instead showing the personal ramifications of Katrine’s decision. For writer-producer David Hudgins, who developed Borgen’s U.S. remake, The Independent, with Friday Night Lights’s Jason Katims, the Nordic shows are “smart and sexy at the same time,” and never talk down to the audience.

“There’s a tendency in American television to default to likability with your characters,” he said. “In Borgen and [Forbrydelsen], they are not afraid to show the darker side of these people… It happens more on cable [than broadcast] network. Authenticity ties into that. You’re seeing these people as they truly are, and even when they are fucked up, you end up having empathy for them.” (NBC passed on picking up the project, though Hudgins said there is a “possibility of it getting made later” and that the network “had some reservations about programming a political show during an election year.”)

Graham agreed. “The phrase I hear a lot is ‘These dramas treat us like adults,’” she said. “Not just the ability to follow a long, multistranded, and complex story, but because they are quite fearless in playing around with expectations. Major characters are killed off, and there is never any kind of ‘redemptive’ aspect to the story. The latter is pretty much a requirement of British TV drama and, I would suggest, American dramas too; characters always have to learn lessons or pay the price of their misdeeds. Not in Nordic Noir. Bad people often get away with bad things. And nice people are killed off.”

There is an inherent darkness to the Nordic Noir shows, and a sense that the scales are never balanced or endings neatly tied up. Ironically, Denmark was named the country with the highest levels of happiness by the United Nations's first World Happiness Report earlier this year. For a country that would seem to be so well adjusted, it’s intriguing that they would be producing some of the most disturbing, challenging, and dark fare on global television.

That willingness to plunge into the murky recesses of the human psyche and to create compelling, realistically flawed characters places these series among the best examples of the medium, regardless of country of origin. Graham said that in the U.K., viewers discussed Homeland and The Bridge in the same breath and with the same level of passion. “There was a crossover in audiences for the two; fans of both were equally excited about the series’ endings. They were quite similar examples of TV storytelling—very bold, with characters you had to take time to get to know, people you might not actually love, but you ended up caring about. Neither had a happy, or neat ending.”

Where the U.S. version of The Killing became simply a watered-down version of the original, rather than going on its own path, Showtime’s Homeland succeeded by using the original Israeli series Hatufim (Prisoners of War) as an inspirational springboard for its own narrative. If the inevitable remakes of the Nordic Noir series are to reach the same level of success, they’ll also have to stay true to the spirit of the originals without resorting to just translating.

But, rather sadly, there will be few opportunities for audiences to see these groundbreaking dramas in their original languages, save for a few enterprising outlets like LinkTV. There continues to be a perceived resistance on the part of American viewers towards foreign-language fare and subtitles.

There’s also the sense that, because these shows demand rapt attention, something that’s become increasingly impossible in many households, viewers can’t multitask while watching and may have to put down their iPads in order to follow the plots of Borgen, The Bridge, and their Nordic kin.

“Unless you speak fluent Danish or Swedish, you have to pay attention to the subtitles,” said Graham. “You can’t do the ironing or read. You have to look at the screen and pay attention.”

However, these shows are well worth turning off the phone and silencing all distractions. LinkTV, which airs Borgen, is available on Dish and DirecTV, and also streams the episodes online. As for the others, if you want to see them in their native tongues, there are few (legal) alternatives, the best of which is to invest in a region-free DVD player and order the discs through Amazon.co.uk. Despite the hassle, The Bridge and its Nordic Noir brethren are provocative and unforgettable, sinking their teeth into the viewer’s imagination. Ultimately, these shows’ highly addictive nature needs no translation.