Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Just Dræbe Me: Musings on "The Killing"/"Forbrydelsen"
Forbrydelsen is the latest in a long line of serial stories that, I suppose, one could argue, go back at least to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Ancient Greece if not to the stories of the Tanakh. Closer to our own times serial melodramas like those written by Charles Dickens, and, in the crime thriller drama, the short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle centred around the cerebral detective Sherlock Holmes, fall into the serial category.
Serials, not surprisingly, given the influence of serial melodramas, on other media, have not only been a staple of various genres of literature but they have also found their way into film, radio, and television. In film there are Tarzan, Jungle Jim, Thin Man, and James Bond serials. In radio and television, the communication media perhaps best suited to seriality given its episodic nature, the list is long and includes radio soap operas like Guiding Light (radio, 1937, television 1952), various adaptations of literary works that go back to almost the beginnings of British television such as I Claudius (1976), the original series of Upstairs Downstairs (1971-1975), and more recently, Edge of Darkness (1985), Cracker (1993-2006), Prime Suspect (1991-2006), X-Files (1993-2002), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), 24 (2001-2010), and even Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963).
The first series or season of Forbrydelsen is centred on the brutal murder of the 19 year old Nanna Birk Larsen, the 20 day police investigation over 20 episodes into its many twists and turns, the impact of Nanna's brutal rape and murder on the Larsen family, and the impact of the murder and police investigation on the mayoral election in Copenhagen. The first ten episodes of the first series, which were broadcast between January and March of 2007, proved so popular that the last ten episodes, which were intended for broadcast in January of March 2008, were pushed up to September to November 2007, because close to half of the population of Denmark had watched the show and had become obsessed with knowing who killed Nanna Birk Larsen, the tag line for the series. A second series of ten episodes, centred around the death of Danish soldiers who may or may not have witnessed a massacre of civilians by Danish soldiers in Afghanistan which the Danish government is trying to cover up, followed on DR in September 2009 and a third series, the last apparently, is in production as I write.
In 2011 Forbrydelsen was broadcast by BBC Four where it attracted around one million viewers per episode, more viewers than the American television programmes Mad Men, Glee, and Boardwalk Empire, becoming a media and "water cooler" sensation with The Killing blogs of Vicky Frost on the Guardian generating hundreds and thousands of posts, as British viewers and media pundits, like Danes and other Scandinavians before them, became obsessed with figuring out who killed Nanna Birk Larsen. In 2011 American cable network AMC, American Movie Classics, debuted an American adaptation of the show called The Killing. Only American English language remakes need apply in the United States.
There is so much one could say about Forbrydelsen beyond its serial structure, a lot of which has already been said by critics and bloggers before me. There's its stark and moody noir atmosphere, it's hues of black and blue, and it's ensemble cast and their brilliant acting (too many fine actors to single out but let me give a shout to Ann Eleonora Jørgensen and Bjarne Henriksen who play the parents of the murdered Nanna) to name a few. But more than anything else it is the shows main character, Detective Sarah Lund, played by the superb Sofie Gråbøl, that, at least for me, is the hub around which the show revolves.
Lund is not simply a copy of obsessed, intellectual, and aloof detectives of the past. She is a different from her detective forefathers and foremothers. Lund, even more than Holmes, who had his Watson, Tennison, who had her squad, Fitzgerald, who had his Penhaligon, Morse who had his Lewis, and Saga who had her Martin is the ultimate outsider (there's a little bit of Lisbeth Salander of the Dragon Tatoo Trilogy in her here) in a world of insiders or insider wannabes. And that, the fact that Lund isn't a crusader, and its combination with the theme of compromise, ethical compromise, that runs through Forbrydelsen is one of main things that makes Lund different from Wallader and Mikael Bloomkvist (Dragon Tatoo Trilogy) and makes Lund and "Forbrydelsen" so intellectually stimulating and narratively compelling.
Lund, who never compromises in her obsessive search for the truth wherever it leads her makes her a bit like another detective/policeman from the television past, Benton Fraser, the Canadian Mountie hero of Due South. Lund, like Fraser, may be an incredible role model but she, like Fraser, is, in the end, a very lonely and virtually singular role model, and in Lund's case a lonely and virtually singular role model amidst a very dark world of corrupt men and women of compromise almost all of whom are on the make in some way, shape, or form, and some of whom are never brought to justice.
As a result of Forbrydelsen's success on British television, the remake of the show by cable channel AMC in the United States as The Killing, and the success of two other DR shows on BBC 4, Borgen (Government/Castle, DR, 2010-) and Bron/Broen (The Bridge, DR/SVT, 2011-), there has been an explosion, if I can use that term, of interest in Danish TV and Nordic Noir in general in the British press and online as Maggie Brown's "Borgen: Inside Danish TV's Thriller Factory" (14 January 2012, the Guardian) and Emma Jane Kirby's "The Killing" and "Borgen": Danish Drama Wins Global Fanbase" (27 April 2012, BBC News Magazine) make clear. Forbrydelsen has been blogged about extensively in the Guardian and has been extensively written about in the British press and online in general. Some in the press and in cyberspace have been obsessed with Forbrydelsen's heroine Sarah Lund's Faroese jumper some even offering patterns on how to make it to others who want there own. The maker of the now infamous Sarah Lund jumper, the Faroe Island Gudrun og Gudrun, named after its two female founders, has, according to Tim Ecott ("Gripping Yarns: On the Trail of a Killer Jumper", the Telegraph, 5 November 2011), seen a tremendous jump in sales since the debut of Forbrydelsen.
Others have not surprisingly focused on gender issues in Forbrydelsen given that Lund, a female police officer, is the heart and soul of the show. For two interesting articles which maintain that Lund is like no other female detective before her see Emma Kennedy, "The Killing Has Given Us a Heroine to Remember" (5 November 2011, the Telegraph) and Gerald Gilbert, "Nothing Like a Dane: New Thriller Borgen Centres on a Trailblazing Female Politician" (5 January 2012, the Independent). Kennedy notes that "...Sarah Lund...is a woman who is allowed to spend 20 hours of television in nothing more enticing than a pair of old jeans, a cream and navy Faroese jumper that has achieved cult status in its own right, and an anonymous short black coat." As to the jumper/sweater Sofie Gråbøl, in an interview with Vicky Frost in the Guardian, ("The Killing: Sarah Lund's Jumper Explained, 10 March 2011), explains that "We had a costume meeting and I saw that sweater and thought: "That's it!. The reason it's so perfect is because it tells so many stories. It tells of a person who doesn't use her sexuality – that's a big point. Lund's so sure of herself she doesn't have to wear a suit. She's at peace with herself...I wore this sweater and so did my parents. That sweater was a sign of believing in togetherness. There's a nice tension between those soft, human values and Lund being a very tough closed person – because to me it says that she's wanting to sit around a fire with a guitar; it gives a great opposite to her line of work and behaviour."
The American remake of Forbrydelsen, The Killing has prompted some in the American press and in the blogosphere to compare the two. For the Daily Beast's Jace Lacob ,("The Killing": How AMC's Adaptation of "Forbrydelsen" Went Wrong", 14 May 2012) The Killing essentially went off the rails and suffered a massive decline in viewership as a result, after the pilot. The New York Times's Mike Hale blames the artistic failure of The Killing in his "The Danes Do Murder Differently" (28 March 2012) on the shortness, changes in the plot lines, and the less complex narrative and character arcs if The Killing in comparison to Forbrydelsen. Some bloggers have blogged about Forbrydelsen and its American remake and re-imagining The Killing simultaneously. For one example see the Forbrydelsen vs The Killing blog posts at "Opinionless", http://www.opinionless.com/forbrydelsen-vs-the-killing-week-one/. Like Lacob and Hale "Opinionless's" bloggers come down on the side of Forbrydelsen in the which is best debate. The general critical consensus seems to be that Forbrydelsen wins over the American version hands down.
What really interests me more than the fact that the contemporary American television industry remade Forbrydelsen rather than show the original on American small screens as in the UK is the question of why American television is so parochial and xenophobic when it comes to foreign television shows, including British, Australian, and Kiwi television shows, and television shows with subtitles, in the first place. American television as is clear has had a long aversion to subtitled shows appearing on the small screen and has a long tradition of remakes, a tradition that stretches back at least to All in the Family and runs through Three's Company, Big Brother, Survivor, The Office, Dancing With the Stars, Kath and Kim, and Scoundrels among others. Now American television is busy remaking the latest in international television's hits, Danish television. According to Nick Edwards the American over the air network NBC is apparently interested in remaking Borgen ("Liked the Bridge: Get Ready for the Nordic Drama Remake Invasion", 6 August 2012, the Guardian). Apparently American television doesn't think that Americans drugged up on the notion of American exceptionalism can handle television shows from other countries, particularly from those nations whose language is not English, can handle foreign television despite the success of Upstairs Downstairs in the 1970s and Downton Abbey on PBS recently. American exceptionalism as hermetic tautology.
One last point, for some critics like Margaret Lyons and David Bianculli see Forbrydelsen’s American stepchild The Killing, and, by extension, since a significant amount of The Killing is a literal remake of Forbrydelsen, Forbrydelsen itself as the children of Twin Peaks. Forbrydelsen creator Sveistrup has admitted to watching and liking, up to a point, Twin Peaks but he also notes that he liked Steven Bochko’s, Charles H. Eglee’s, and Channing Gibson’s Murder One (ABC, 1995-1997), 24, and Prime Suspect and that Forbrydelsen, unlike Twin Peaks, doesn’t deconstruct the noir genre or have the humour Twin Peaks has. I find the critical perspective that Forbrydelsen is the child of Twin Peaks, to be problematic on a number of levels. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen's—good Danish name, by the way—riposte to Dan Quayle, I know Twin Peaks and Forbrydelsen is thankfully no Twin Peaks. Yes the rain and darkness of Twin Peaks are there in Forbrydelsen and The Killing but that may be because Twin Peaks and The Killing were filmed in the Pacific Northwest, the former in Washington state, the latter in Vancouver, both of which have rainy climates, while Forbrydelsen is filmed in rainy København/Copenhagen. As to the darkness, both physical and metaphorical, that characterises all three shows this may simply be a product of the literary noir, German expressionism, French poetic realism, and their American descendent film noir. What makes Forbrydelsen very different from Twin Peaks is that Forbrydelsen doesn't have any of the supernatural surrealist elements that were a central part of Twin Peaks—something Lyons and Bianculli note—and Forbrydelsen has a much more linear narrative as opposed to the surrealist narrative "structure" that was at the heart of Twin Peaks.
Forbrydelsen is, in my opinion, one of the best television programmes (or films for that matter) I have seen in years. I haven't been this addicted to a TV show since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, the Thick of It, or Outnumbered. I can't recommend this slice of intellectual mind candy enough. Local PBS affiliates should be showing this so more Americans can see what they are missing. By the way, Borgen and Bron/Broen are just as addictive. The Danes, with a little help from the Swedes and Germans, just may be making the best television shows in the world at the moment.