by Kate Krosschell
Forbrydelsen. Broen. Borgen. The trifecta of Danish television drama sucked me in from when I first arrived in Copenhagen in August 2011. I was doing a Master’s degree in Film Studies at the University of Copenhagen and while I already knew names like Mads Mikkelsen and Lars von Trier, Sofie Gråbøl and Søren Sveistrup quickly joined the ranks as I sought to better understand Danish language and culture through film and TV.
I’m not the only one. Danish drama has made strides globally entering the Anglophone market. The shows—The Killing, The Bridge, and Borgen as they’re known internationally—are gritty, dark, and complex; they’re definitely not for those looking for escapist entertainment.
I’ve talked to many expats in Copenhagen who first got turned onto the series, especially The Killing, as a way to pick up some Danish, not knowing what they were getting themselves into. Time and time again, I’ve heard of marathon viewing sessions over the weekend with breaks only for food and sleep. We like to justify these marathons because of their utility—they actually are helpful for learning the language. My favorite vocabulary word I’ve learned is gerningsmand: perpetrato. Learning aside, we can’t pull ourselves away.
The same has happened abroad. In the UK, the original Danish series are shown on BBC4, subtitled and to huge viewership. Forbrydelsen’s Sarah Lund sports an Icelandic jumper in the series that Brits are buying in droves. In the United States, cable channels are capitalizing on American remakes of the series, titles translated and stories transposed to an American setting.
Is Danish drama really that good? Here are a few reasons why I believe the shows are so successful, both in Denmark and internationally.
In the first episode of The Bridge, a female politician is found lying dead on the bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden, placed directly on the border. When police try to move the body, it splits in two, intestines unraveling. Who wouldn’t be hooked after that? But it gets even better, morphing from a gripping detective story to a complicated attack. Simply put, the Danes know how to do suspense and how to entwine deeply human stories with intrigue, mystery and crime.
This talent could have to do with the fact that the series’ production is localized at DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) where the writers rule. Showrunners in Denmark really do embody their title. They are given the freedom and encouragement to run with their ideas (thanks to the fact that DR is supported by hefty media license fees that Danes pay).
It’s a well-known that Søren Sveistrup, head writer of The Killing, was still writing episodes days and even hours before they were due to shoot. This past season, Sveistrup wouldn’t even tell his actors who the villian was until the script read-through of the final episode. The result could have been an uneven plot but the twists and suspense work.
TV fanatics often proclaim that HBO’s The Wire is the best television show ever made, or argue that the Sopranos is the one to surpass them all. I’d add the three Danish shows to the betting pool. Why? Because of their realism. Leaning towards film noir, Danish drama does not shy away from showing darkness, uncertainty, and conflict. I would argue that these features are the key to their success. Viewers don’t want simple; they want real.
The Killing features female detective Sarah Lund as a crime-solver whose sharp instincts and uncompromising attitude serve her well on the job but leave her personal life a mess. In the premiere episode, Sarah can’t resist a new murder case even though she’s due to move to Sweden with her boyfriend and son.
The balance between personal and professional life is a constant battle for Lund throughout the three seasons. The series never tries to pretend that this is anything other than realistically difficult. Similarly, Borgen follows Birgitte Nyborg, the first female Prime Minister, in her ascent to power amidst political shadiness and the repercussions for her family.
To further this realism, the cinematography of each series goes for the grit—The Killing is dark, blue, and rainy, Borgen eschews glitzy in favor of washed-out hues, and The Bridge has a harsh, metallic look. For Danish drama, the world and its people are not always benevolent and that’s what makes them interesting.
Compelling Female Characters
One of my favorite things about The Killing, The Bridge, and Borgen is their unapologetic look at the struggles of women in fields traditionally reserved for men. Politics and police – how do headstrong women make names for themselves in these professions, and what are the effects at work and at home? The series don’t eliminate the personal in order to focus purely on work, conceivably because the writers aren’t interested in telling a one-sided story. What Sarah Lund does at work leads to compromises on time with her son. Birgitte Nyborg navigates her husband’s quiet resentment that his career is less important than hers. And most interestingly, The Bridge’s Swedish detective Saga (the series is produced in partnership with Swedish television) has Asperger’s Syndrome, which makes her a focused detective but socially isolated. Are these protagonists problematic women in that they’re somehow incomplete or unfeminine? Or is this just the reality of female characters on television – the exploration of they may not be able to have it all? You’ll have to watch to figure it out for yourself.
The New Yorker’s Laura Collins recently wrote an in-depth story where she toured Copenhagen to find out why Danish TV is so popular. The details of the Danish television industry will enthrall you as much as the stories it produces; seasons are regularly two or three years in the making in order to let a story brew until it’s fully ready.
Finished with all three and feeling desolate? Once you’ve burned through these series, there’s always Rejseholdet (Unit One) , Riget (The Kingdom, of Lars von Trier and Dogma 95 fame) and Matador to keep you occupied.