In 2013, Lauren Collins published a piece in the New Yorker called “Danish Postmodern” about the sudden blooming of British people’s love for Danish television, which then showed how the tendrils of this cultural phenomenon were also reaching into America. After the tremendous success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Collins reported, Denmark’s public-service broadcaster DR produced the now-legendary crime dramas The Killing and The Bridge, and the political thriller Borgen. These first two were remade into inferior American adaptions, and the last was itself based on the West Wing. The early 2010s wave of great Scandinavian crime drama thus had both roots in and an effect upon the television culture of the United States.
Americans are now experiencing the second wave of this big and interesting movement in television; a wave both influenced by and more complex than the first. Netflix has acquired a number of European crime dramas—from Belgium, Iceland, and more—in what appears to be an attempt to broaden the Scandinavian noir (or Scandinoir) fanbase into something more expansive, sophisticated, and future-oriented.
The solid base of this new wave of European crime drama bought for American audiences is not Danish, but British. Right now, on Netflix, you can watch cops solve murders in almost every region of the United Kingdom. Hinterland is set in foggy Wales. Marcella, which was made by the Swedish director of The Bridge, is set in London. Happy Valley takes you to rural Yorkshire, where you may need subtitles. River is again in London, but led by the Swedish-accented megastar Stellan Skarsgård. Paranoid is set in a fictional town called Woodmere, presumably in the South somewhere. Broadchurch is set in Dorset. The Fall is in Belfast. Sadly, the remote Scottish drama Shetland is only available via Netflix UK.
That is already a lot of programming. But once a viewer is caught up in the gloomy snares of British crime TV, it is only a matter of time before they experiment with languages unknown. Consider The Break (original title, La Trêve, meaning “the truce”). The Break is a recent addition to the Netflix stable, licensed from RTBF of Belgium. It’s in French, with some strange Flemish flourishes. Our antihero is, as usual, a cop with problems. Inspector Yoann Peeters’s brow is low and his features immobile. He wears Scandinoir-style woolen sweaters, and has come in from out of town.
Like Peeters’s face, the show saves the big action for the last third of its outstanding first season. Episode 1 is slow like a village bus, with some tantalizing Nazi hints. A popular young football player has died, his body discovered in a river. From the start, Peeters (played by Yoann Blanc) seems sad and pops pills, but he never looks at himself in the mirror with self-conscious eyes or anything clichéd like that. He wears boring clothes and tries to solve the murder. He’s not a great father. Nothing dramatic.
But the show runs on the wheels of a frame narrative. Peeters is recollecting a murder investigation as part of an interview with a forensic psychologist. The action is delivered via flashback. Can we rely on what we are seeing, or are the memories biased? Why is he here at all; what has he done? Through this curiously comprehensive method of storytelling, The Break gives its viewers all the information they need but none of the emotional cues they expect. The plot offers false resolutions rather than red herrings, right up until the very end. Every time the mystery is erroneously solved, the viewer is left with a vague feeling of unease.
In this way The Break is like classic Agatha Christie, but better. The plot’s eventual climax and denouement recalls a particular classical myth, but I won’t give it away. The show is paced perfectly, and it is a joy to hear the French pronunciation of the word “psychopath” over and over again. See-ko-pat.
The “man who stands to lose everything” theme also animates the two Icelandic shows Netflix has recently acquired: Case (Réttur, literally “court”) and Lava Field (Hraunið, “lava”). As with all such dramas, a body is found and all else follows this fact. Case stars an alcoholic womanizing attorney named Logi (Magnús Jónsson). He can’t stop bothering his ex and breaking the law, but boy if he doesn’t know how to solve a murder. As in The Killing, our emotionally deficient hero blends with the rain and the cement. Case does not shy away from dead children or their flawed parents.
The hero of Lava Field, Helgi (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), is similarly hostage to the trauma of his past. Iceland’s vast bleakness (this show is set in a more rural area than Case) echoes the expanse of pain in his face. The dead of Lava Field have big, grotesque wounds. As with The Break, a daughter raises the emotional stakes of Helgi’s involvement in violent crime. The “lava field” of the title is real, and it is a horrible and dead place. This show is in only four parts and therefore more like a long movie than a series.
Especially when seen alongside The Break, it is a shame that both these Icelandic shows feature male leads: The second wave of European crime drama is not so female-led as the first. Case and Lava Field are also a little confusing for another reason: Iceland has an overall intentional homicide rate of 0.3/100,000 inhabitants, hardly enough to foster multiple murder shows. But they have the imagination, and that’s what counts.
These shows, of course, are not exactly new, but rather the latest in an already-established genre. Euro-noir was once groundbreaking; now it is not. But what is interesting is the ways in which this genre is reaching maturity. In her New Yorker article, Lauren Collins compared the British love for Danish TV to Japonisme, the craze for Japanese art that whipped through Victorian England. This is instructive to an extent, but European crime drama is functioning somewhat differently in America.
When an American cozies up to her laptop and plunges into Belgian art about homicide, she is importing this art into a different environment, like the Victorians who wore Japanese silks. But we can also think of this as a kind of ekphrasis, a term for a work of art that is addressed in another artistic medium—think of Proust’s treatment of Vermeer or even Collins’s own evocation of Danish television in a piece of cultural criticism. Watching a foreign show on Netflix is not ekphrasis as it’s usually defined; people usually use “ekphrasis” to talk about vivid descriptions of music or photography or painting in literature. But this idea comes closer to describing what happens when we watch an Icelandic crime drama, better than mercantilist words like import or acquisition.
The viewer approaches her private American screen, and there she witnesses a variety of narratives manufactured in another culture. As she does so, something in her way of seeing things on screen changes. Participating in this second wave means experiencing different types of gender dynamics and the sound of different languages and different discourses around violence. The viewer is trained in a new cultural rhetoric, just as Proust has taught us to see Vermeer properly.
If there is a reason why crime drama particularly is the vehicle for this delicate shift in American cultural rhetoric, it’s probably to do with form. Crime drama combines the venerable genres of detective fiction and cinema noir, bolting these modern fiction styles to a chassis of ancient tragic plot. The truth must be revealed if the dead beloved is to rest easy. These narrative shapes are as old as the word ekphrasis, which is very old indeed.
Lauren Collins dwelt at length on the vogue for Scandinavian food, clothes, and interiors. And these cultural trappings do follow art, when art travels. Black turtlenecks signify the French new wave at least as much as Pierrot le Fou. But new genres show their colors only once they’ve grown a little, and it has been a privilege to watch European cop shows come into their own in the American forum. The Icelandic for La Nouvelle Vague is, I think, nýbylgju.