Through ‘Prime Suspect’ to ‘The Bridge’, ‘Department Q’, and countless others, Mary Kate Schilling has toured the world and learned some valuable lessons
Detective chief inspector Jane Tennison was the gateway drug. As played by Helen Mirren on the British series Prime Suspect, she triggered my now-entrenched addiction to international crime dramas.
Tennison — a relentlessly driven, hard-living, sexually indiscriminate female detective (as written by Lynda La Plante) — was exceptional and revolutionary; when the show debuted here in 1992, she had no equivalents on American TV. And Mirren was abetted by an equally riveting co-star: The city of London as I’d never seen it — grubby and bristling with colourful miscreants.
As a tourist you are exposed to a destination’s glittering highlights. People are happy to see you — sometimes even in France. If that reality is like visiting a show home, watching even the most gorgeously photographed crime drama or thriller is akin to peering under the sink, to find the caked dirt and mould and cracks in the pipes. Because these shows are created by and for natives of those countries, you are treated to what they take for granted.
In the same way that an Italian might watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit for a glimpse of the gritty streets of New York City, a New Yorker can watch Gomorrah to tour the slums of Naples, or Fauda for a taste of the occupied territories’ souks and mosques.
Too bad about the Swedish family ritually killed in their living room, but look at the murderer’s prison cell — it’s more tastefully decorated than some of my friends’ apartments!
(Related aside: Perhaps it’s the stark beauty of the Scandinavian landscape, but TV writers in these countries have an impressively ornate imagination when it comes to homicide.)
A lot of what you see on these global options is familiar, particularly the crimes (women and children in peril are sad catnip everywhere); and the Americanisation of the world via pop culture and junk food is disconcertingly apparent. But enough is alien to provide significant diversion, and the allure of these shows, for me, is dropping into the unique emotional worlds of, say, Iceland (Case) or France (Spiral) or Denmark (Department Q). In a time of deflating globalism, it is curious, to say the least, that TV is offering a defence of a fading internationalist vision of the world.
If the reality of tourism is like visiting a show home, watching even the most gorgeously photographed crime drama is akin to peering under the sink, to find the caked dirt and cracks in the pipes.
Certainly, if you’re sick of US politics, you’ll appreciate that, according to the creators of such shows, people in power are universally venal and corrupt; every country is unhappy in its own way. And, as happens with art, fiction can predict fact — sometimes chillingly.
Occupied featured Russia surreptitiously invading Norway; in January, when, as a buffer against Russia, the US deployed Marines to that country (the first time foreign troops had been stationed there since the Second World War), what had been an escapist thriller suddenly seemed oddly documentary in nature.
But, generally speaking, dystopian intrigue is kept to a minimum. Rather, the revelations are small — random and humanising nuances. For example, from Scandinavian shows, I’ve learned that Danes are funnier than Swedes and everyone is looser than Norwegians. Anything most men do with a shirt on, Australian men will do without. And Palestinian and Israeli adversaries will greet each other warmly, with a kiss, even if the intention is to then stab each other in the back — or neck or eye (unclear whether this negates the kiss).
Most pleasing are the actors. If America tends to buff everyone to a shine, shows like Bordertown (Finland) and Braquo (France) showcase imperfection, and the spectrum of desirability is much wider. (There has been no geriatric sex, but I’m not ruling it out.)
You’ll notice, for instance, that actors look at least 10 years older than their counterparts here, thanks to the abundance of at first disconcerting, then refreshing, undereye bags, jowls, splotchy skin, crooked teeth yellowed from nonstop smoking, and a complete disregard for physical fitness. Based on the squat, balding, middle-aged Romeos of The Break (Belgium), The Bridge (Denmark/Sweden), and Nobel (Norway), I would suggest Michael Chiklis move abroad.
More refreshing still, there is no double standard — a bonus, no doubt, of so many more female crime show creators outside of the US. Just like the men, women maintain their sex appeal no matter their age or shape (see the 50-something small-town cop of Britain’s Happy Valley, played brilliantly by Sarah Lancashire); as for hygiene — or, rather, a lack thereof — they sometimes exceed men. Weeks of plot can pass without a change of clothing.
My favourite detective, Saga Noren (The Bridge) — she of TV’s saddest pair of leather trousers — is prone to smelling her armpits before pulling out a “fresh” T-shirt from her desk drawer. In five seasons, Laure Berthaud, the police detective on Spiral, has perhaps washed her hair, perhaps not.
And then there’s the junk-food-scarfing detective sergeant Jackie Stevenson of River (Britain); her disinterest in cleanliness is staggering — though, to be fair, she is actually dead.
Occasionally, US actors will cameo on these shows to jarring effect. Who are these artificially enhanced freaks with such gleaming teeth? Any semblance of reality quickly deflates. In fact, international crime dramas have ruined our slicker network options for me.
Not only do they provide off-the-beaten-track sightseeing opportunities (minus the ever-worsening indignities of flying), but viewers are treated to the attainable beauty of people who don’t look like, well, actors. Why vape when you can still smoke?
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