Perhaps you’ve noticed the quiet invasion of high-quality detective dramas from mainland Europe onto BBC4. The protagonists are complex, visionary crime fighters who’ve impressed us with their devotion to catching killers and neglecting their private lives. Really, these shows are no better--or less formulaic--than our own best murder mysteries. But watching a series with subtitles makes us feel smart and entertained. It’s win-win.
The Killing was a 20-day investigation with each 24 hours boiled down to an insanely compelling hour-long instalment. It was also Danish and a lesson in suspenseful, intricate plotting and how to wear the same chunky-knit jumper for a nearly a month and still look cool. We met Sarah Lund (Sofie Grabol) as she was about to move to Sweden with her boyfriend and son. But she never quite made it. From the moment Copenhagen police found the body of a 19-year-old woman in a lake, Lund needed to find the killer. It possessed her. By the time she’d solved the case three weeks later, it had wrecked her relationships and career. But, evidently, she will find her way back onto the force because there’s a second series, which BBC4 has snaffled up and promised to air later this year. It's proved so popular the Americans have even given it an English-speaking remake.
Before Lund, there was the Swede. Kurt Wallander (Krister Henriksson) is a near-retirement age, divorced cop whose instincts are never wrong. He wears his regret on his jowls and his most successful relationship is with his dog, Jussi. Wallander is miserable most of the time but any of the following will cheer him up: classical music; booze; a walk on the beach. His cases may be single episode affairs but they’re thorny, multifaceted and almost always include a wise subplot about immigration or racism. They've also been given a remake--a British one.
Finally, there’s Spiral. Last week, the French cop show’s third season began on BBC4 (9pm, Saturdays). It has nothing on the Scando series, but it is pleasantly dark and complicated. The leading lady, Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), is another well-drawn, mould-fitting crime fighter (her job is her life, etc). But by far the most outstanding thing about Spiral is the corpse mutilation makeup. I sometimes wonder if they rent real cadavers then set about slicing them up.
In their home countries these are all top-end mainstream shows. But because Wallander and co' are foreign we’ve classified them as specialist, elite TV suitable only for BBC4. No programmer would come out and say it but there’s little chance that a non-English language series, however accessible, would be bumped to BBC2. Subtitles, it seems, are scarier than serial killers.
Would you/ do you watch a foreign language show?