Cold and Cool: Great European Television Crime Dramas
I’m a huge fan of Nordic Noir and European crime dramas. BBC4 first introduced me to good European TV with The Killing, a crime drama about the death of a young woman and its tragic aftermath, investigated by a cop played by the brilliant Sofie Grabol. The show gained a large British audience despite having subtitles and a complex plot. It picked up that audience because of its complex plot – which twisted and flowed between episodes, delivering shocks and suspense. The characters were fully developed, too – with lives that were altered by their jobs and experiences.
Word of mouth turned The Killing into a big hit with crime drama fans because it was different. Most American and British TV crime shows have a strict formula – often written down in a so-called bible by the show’s producers. That “bible” guarantees a consistency of the scripts, making long-running shows like CSI and Law and Order possible. Each episode is a stand-alone story with a beginning, middle and end, usually watchable in any order because the main characters don’t change much during a season. But The Killing had just one major storyline for the whole first season. (Only a handful of American TV shows have dared to do that – such as Murder One and The Wire.) In The Killing some scenes didn’t make much sense until the end, when everything was resolved. (I won’t spoil it by telling the plot.) The producers also allowed scenes to be considerably longer than the fast-cutting of most American TV. The actors were permitted to stare into the distance, thinking. It was a brave choice to slow things down, giving the audience the potential to become bored. It worked in The Killing because every scene contributed the whole. Nothing was pointless, like a beautiful jigsaw puzzle.
The Killing showed there was an audience for non-English speaking dramas in the UK – resulting in the BBC investing in the purchasing of excellent shows like Spiral (French), The Bridge (Swedish/Danish) and Inspector Montalbano (Italian).
The popularity of Nordic Noir has now spread to UK television in the form of Broadchurch, River and The Fall – to varying degrees of success.
Here are ten of my favourite European TV crime dramas in no particular order.
French police and the judiciary fight crime and corruption.
Cops from two countries – Denmark and Sweden – investigate murders crossing international borders.
A team of law-breaking police battle corrupt authorities and organised crime, often committing serious crimes themselves.
Classy police procedural.
Swedish detective drama at its best. Based on the great books by Henning Mankell.
Historical crime series.
Used real-life cases as the material for the stories, giving it the authenticity of a documentary. It features an unintentionally hilarious title sequence that looks like a corporate video about windmills and motorways. Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) is in it, playing an early role. Gritty police procedural.
A group of bodyguards protect VIPs.
Martin Beck and his team work cases in this series based on the excellent novels.
Politics, murders, moody landscapes … and a strong female cop with a passion for wearing woolly jumpers.