Scandinavian TV is moving on from murder. ELLEN E JONES finds its new obsessions are go-getting young girls, wartime royals and the origins of Spotify…
Ellen E Jones
Before 2011, it seemed inconceivable that the British could be gripped in their living rooms by subtitled TV drama, night after fraught night. Surely that was the stuff of arthouse cinema, not edge-of-the-seat primetime viewing. Then along came a trilogy of Scandinavian exports – The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge – and what was once niche entertainment became a nationwide obsession.
Soon, a single item of clothing was getting more attention in the British media than most series get in their entire life: Sarah Lund, the detective at the heart of The Killing, was as relentless in her wearing of Faroe Isle jumpers as she was in her pursuit of the murderer at large on the streets of Copenhagen. Scandi noir had arrived in Britain, and the connections it tapped into went much deeper than knitwear.
According to Walter Iuzzolino, of Channel 4’s foreign-language, on-demand strand ‘Walter Presents’, these shows held up “a very interesting, distorted mirror” to the British soul. “Scandinavia has the same level of slightly gloomy, desaturated, rainy, cold, foggy, darkness,” he says. “But it also has beautiful aspirational interiors. This pared-back Scandinavian look triggers something. It’s almost us, but not quite us. It’s a version you like to spend time with because it’s tidy, it’s orderly.”
But are we still spending as much time with our Scandi mirror-selves in 2020? It is true that lifestyle magazines have got over their craze for ‘hygge’, a term meaning anything cosy, cuddly or convivial; and, yes, Ikea recently announced its first major UK store closure. However, Nordic noir still seems to be going from strength to strength. That 2011 invasion has now given way to a steady flow. If it’s harder to name the big breakthrough Scandi shows these days, that is only because there are so many more contenders.
Sweden’s latest export is The Truth Will Out, a gripping detective drama based on the true story of one of the country’s most famous miscarriages of justice. In classic Nordic-noir style, it uses the fraught relationship between demoted murder detective Peter Wendel and his public prosector ex-wife to expose high-level governmental corruption. Already a smash hit in Sweden, The Truth Will Out has just appeared on ‘Walter Presents’.
In terms of architecture, The Truth Will Out fully conforms to genre expectations, from the functional exteriors of looming government buildings to the cool uncluttered premises of flustered suspects. Indeed, architecture is so integral to the Scandinavian TV canon that two of that founding trio were named after spectacular structures: the five-mile Öresund Bridge that connects Copenhagen in Denmark to Malmö in Sweden; and the Danish government’s Christiansborg Palace, known informally as Borgen. What’s more, there is always a blanket of snow on The Truth Will Out’s rural scenes, just as there is on otherwise disparate dramas such as Wisting (the Norwegian serial-killer series on BBC iPlayer), Fortitude (Sky Atlantic’s English-language Arctic homage to the genre) and Iceland’s Trapped (soon to air its third season).
Still, people, not places, continue to define the best Scandi TV. “When it comes to Nordic noir,” says Mattias Bergqvist, chief TV critic of Swedish newspaper Expressen, “I’m convinced it all began with the Beck books by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, a wave of writing that continued with Henning Mankell’s Wallander and reached its peak with Stieg Larsson. That tradition of having well-evolved characters has been important.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that the Danish producer behind the original screen adaptations of all these works, Søren Stærmose, is also the producer of The Truth Will Out, developed with Swedish crime writer Leif GW Persson. Stærmose credits his successes in part to the glimpses he provides of Scandinavia’s utopian – or apparently utopian – welfare society. “International audiences are curious about the cracks,” he says.
Also, in possibly another echo with Britain, Sweden has long enjoyed an influence disproportionate to its size. “It’s a small country economically,” he says, “but internationally, it’s a humanitarian big power. And now you have the Greta Thunberg effect – showing no one is too small to make a difference.”
The UK office of Yellow Bird, Stærmose’s production company, has just produced its first series for Netflix, Young Wallander, and it’s working on another, about the rise of Swedish music streaming giant Spotify. It is a typical example of how Scandinavia’s big public broadcasters – SVT, DR and NRK – are being joined by newer platforms and production houses, among them Swedish streamers Viaplay. And there is no shortage of international buyers, eager to follow a TV trend with proven staying power.
As the Spotify project shows, the results are not all crime series either. State-of-a-generation dramas include Young and Promising (Norway’s answer to Girls) and the web series Skam (its answer to Skins), both of which have been very popular. Netflix cannily combined the two strands in Quicksand, a drama about a high-school shooting in an affluent Stockholm neighbourhood. Curiously, Scandinavian audiences typically like their period dramas British, but shows such as SVT’s Our Time Is Now and DR’s State of Happiness are changing that. The latter has been acquired by BBC Four. Fans of The Bridge’s chief investigator Saga Norén– who lives her life gloriously unaware of social norms, possibly because she has Asperger syndrome – will be pleased to hear that Sofia Helin, who plays the much-loved character, will be appearing as Princess Märtha in Atlantic Crossing, a drama about the Norwegian royals during the second world war with overtones of Netflix hit The Crown.
Even with bigger budgets, though, Scandinavia’s relatively small industry is stretched. “It takes time to get experience,” says Stærmose. “To manage big budgets, complicated long-term shoots, and work with wonderful, great egos.” His great success has lain in utilising this newfound spending power without losing the charm and craftsmanship of a cottage industry. Scandinavian drama has always had that enjoyable repertory theatre feel, with the same faces popping up again and again. Now the likes of Maria Sundbom (The Bridge, Quicksand, The Truth Will Out, Before We Die) and Søren Malling (The Killing, Borgen, Dicte, 1864, The Investigation) will be even busier. And there won’t be many complaints about that. This industry might not be the biggest, or even the best, in Europe – but what they do, they do to perfection, especially where those thrillers are concerned. “Scandi is unique in its ability to deliver a compellingly dark thriller,” says Iuzzolino. “They’ve mastered that art better than anywhere else in the world.”
Even the most successful exponents of Nordic noir, however, do sometimes chafe against the constraints of the genre. “If you think about the original French meaning of the word noir,” says Stærmose, “you associate it with cheerless lightning. But our lighting is not cheerless!” His latest show, Thin Ice, is a climate crisis thriller set among the melting ice caps of east Greenland. “I’m trying to introduce the subgenre Nordic blue, to show the cheerful colours of our snow, ice and the sky above us.
“Of course, corruption, greed, cheating and treachery take place in Scandinavia all the time. But [noir] doesn’t reflect the humanity of our protagonists, or our interest in equality between the sexes, and the welfare state. To have a real democracy you have to constantly attack the cracks in the judicial system and the crime genre is one way to do that, hopefully creating debates.”
The Truth Will Out was the big talking point of 2018. This year, it is undoubtedly Caliphate, a thriller about Swedish Islamic terrorists. “It’s not perfect, but it’s a brave show taking on pressing questions,” says Karolina Fjellborg, TV critic of Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet. She also recommends the dramedy Bonus Family and is not surprised by all of the appreciation of Scandinavian television. “As a Swede who grew up watching all kinds of TV with subtitles, I’ve never understood English-speaking peoples’ aversion to foreign-language shows. It was about time subtitles made a breakthrough.”
Next year, meanwhile, perhaps the big show will be The Investigation, a drama about the real murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall aboard a mini-submarine in Copenhagen harbour. It is written and directed by Borgen’s Tobias Lindholm.
Whether or not any of these shows will grip the UK, the international influence of Scandinavian TV is abundantly clear. In under a decade, these shows have created a global TV grammar, with seemingly every other talked-about show of the last few years boasting a Scandi feel. Black Mirror? Nordic. True Detective? Nordic with a Cajun twist. Succession? So, so Nordic. For a region famed for its tolerance and peaceful neutrality, Scandi TV has managed global domination.
Ellen E Jones is a columnist at The Guardian.
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This article has also been published in The Guardian.