Dennis Broe reviews some recent European TV series.
The EU itself may be breaking apart over the question of refugees as the 28 – now 27 – try to hammer out an immigration policy essentially driven by the far right, which is making hay on exaggerating this issue, since Europe has already clamped down on the migratory flow which is significantly reduced since 2015.
Meanwhile, however, European television is alive and well with co-productions and cross-border collaboration increasing. All this is being led by the Scandinavian countries, who are shedding their particular brand in the world market, which is Scandi Noir, or series about a tough male or female cop returning to a rural or northern bleak setting often where they grew up to pursue a murderer or the kidnapper of a child.
The form is tried and true – see The Killing, Midnight Sun, Jordskott – but Scandi makers of serial series are now retaining the mystery or thriller aspect, but branching out to deal explicitly with key social and economic problems in their societies. This deepens the mystery and strengthens the conspiratorial aspect of the work in a way that might – but probably won’t – serve as a model for U.S. series.
These observations are drawn from the just completed Serie Series conclave outside Paris in the chateau city of Fontainebleau. The conference was presided over by the erstwhile and dedicated curator of what is becoming a very popular website in Europe and elsewhere, “Walter Presents.”
The site originates from Channel 4 in Britain which is, along with Arte in France, probably the public station that is the most progressive commissioner of film and television series in the world. The site is a free listing of its master Walter Iuzzolino’s choices of the most interesting European series in a variety of genres. He is sort of a one-person Netflix algorithm who chooses series based on fascinating but popular concepts and not – as in Netflix – on what will attract the most new subscribers. It’s a great place to watch new series.
Walter pointed out that European series had gotten somewhat straightjacketed into the quirky, local police detective genre and hoped they would soon escape that bind. Scandi TV makers then illustrated that this was indeed happening. Conspiracy of Silence for example uses a Count of Monte Cristo tale of revenge about a Swedish arms runner now trying to make up for his past transgressions who goes back to Sweden to find his former co-arms runner is more engaged than ever in the trade.
Sweden, which is generally associated with pacifist endeavours like the Nobel Peace Prize, is the 11th leading manufacturer and global pedlar of weapons. Perhaps, though, this is less surprising when you recall that Alfred Nobel’s money came from gunpowder. The series details how imbricated the society is in an industry that attempts to muzzle the press and that, as in the U.S., spreads its wealth into every electoral district and in that way corrupts legislators.
Elsewhere a Swedish-Finnish series, now in production, The White Wall, inspired by the documentary Into Eternity, takes up the subject of the storage of nuclear waste, since the refuse of atomic plants is said to contaminate the environment for 100,000 years. This is a major issue especially in Finland where the sites are often located. The series, set in Sweden by a Finnish showrunner, has a kind of Lost aspect to it as miners discover a mysterious locked vault that seems to radiate mystery and catastrophe. The series is being shot in the deepest open pit mine in Europe where the actors themselves with have a taste of the experiences of the characters.
Finally, there is State of Happiness which is the second Norwegian series to take up the subject of Norway’s oil fields in the North Sea, which had brought prosperity to the country, with the oil fund invested in only environmentally sound enterprises and with the contradiction growing sharper every day between where the money comes from and the progressive purposes to which it is being put. This is also the subject of a Norwegian sitcom titled The Oil Fund.
State of Happiness at first takes a positive view of oil drilling returning to 1960 when Phillips Petroleum like all the Anglo-British oil companies declares the area dry and is retiring. The show in its first seasons details how oil is actually discovered and how it comes under public control, pointing out that the U.S., one of the least efficient drillers of oil, is one of the few countries that considers the natural resource to be private. Later seasons though will deal with the environmentally devastating effects of a fund that has enriched all Norwegians.
Also now starting to circulate around the globe is Home Ground, a kind of female Friday Night Lights about a woman soccer coach in a men’s premier league in Norway. The series doesn’t skimp on the soccer, but its subject is mainly the multiple layers of prejudice the coach experiences at all levels of society as she attempts to infiltrate a male enclave.
On the psychological front – while retaining a deep involvement in the social – is the Icelandic series, now in production, The Minister, about a manic-depressive leader of the country. At the presentation in their pitch the series creators asked “What would it be like to have a crazy person as your ruler?” Everyone in the U.S. now knows the answer to that, and the writers revealed that in season one the prime minister would be manic and in season two depressive, which may be an accurate description of Trump’s first and coming second term in office. Iceland has it on TV: the US is living it.
The conference also featured Danish scholar Ib Bondebjerg talking about European televisual cooperation and co-productions, which most often involve public television, the biggest player in European TV. The most fascinating aspect of his study showed Germany in the centre of European production, as a country that mediated on the one side between the Scandi countries of Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the Dutch territories of Holland and the Northern or Flemish Part of Belgium and, on the other side, France, Spain and Italy.
Language is also a factor in Germany’s centrality, since there is a linguistic relationship between Scandinavia, the Dutch area, parts of Switzerland, Austria and Germany. The other similarity in the Northern hub of television is that all of these countries use English as a second language, a factor that binds them but that also opens them up to penetration by the American streaming and television services.
A transnational series which garnered a good deal of attention were Clash of Futures – or Ken Burns meets the apocalypse. The series, with six countries producing, details through dramatic recreations, diary readings and found footage, the disintegration of Europe in the years between the two world wars, 1918 to 1939. It’s a smaller budget series on a big topic with the found footage often substituting for what in U.S. TV or films would be fictional recreation, a sort of ingenious use of existing footage to present the sheen of a much more expensive series.
In general the better funded, more dominant British series were disappointing. A Very British Scandal with Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw is a comedy of errors set in the 1970s, where a minister attempts to assassinate his gay lover to silence him. Grant looks like an anaemic Patrick McGoohan and Whishaw, who is always interesting, is served much better in the far more substantial London Spy, a series with actual political teeth to it, now on Netflix. Likewise, the coming World on Fire recounting World War II from the German and English perspectives sounds in comparison like a paler version of Clash of Futures.
On the brighter side were two series now starting to circulate that both boasted excellent first episodes. Banking District is a Flemish-Swiss co-production set in a pristine, gleaming and dangerous Geneva about a private banking family feeling the heat from the Obama Administration, which after its giveaway to U.S. bankers then went after the secrecy of the Swiss banking industry to recoup its funds.
The pilot, extremely well-written, details the downfall of the lead banker, the family’s connection to the mob, the backbiting within the family for power and how its outsider members, – the black sheep sister who had refused to work in the industry and her whistleblower journalist ex-husband – begin to unearth the family’s secrets. The pilot focuses on the change in the sister and brings her sharply into focus in a way that bodes well for the rest of the series.
Fenix is a Dutch-Belgium co-production that manages to expertly put a new wrinkle in a cop/drug wars series. The pilot episode focuses on a kidnapping with a special prosecutor and a drug lord trying to have the drug lord’s stepdaughter returned. The series is filled with gritty, tough locales, and in its look and seediness recalls Flemish film noirs such as The Ardennes, about the hollowed-out lives of what looks like Belgium’s Appalachia, and Dark Inclusion, Hamlet in the Antwerp diamond district.
The series manages a turn at the end of the pilot which utterly shocks and makes us realize that Fenix is indeed the Dutch word for Phoenix, as in rising from the ashes. I won’t add more except to say that it is the most startling and one of the best constructed pilots of the year which at its end utterly throws the series in a new and unexpected direction.
You can watch more coverage of Euro and global television on my show TV on TV available at the Art District Television website, http://artdistrict-radio.com/page/tv-on-tv-on-art-district-tv-30.
Dennis Broe's latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is also the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His TV series blog is Bro on The Global Television Beat. His radio commentary can be heard on his show Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S. He is the author of two novels: Left of Eden, about the Hollywood blacklist and A Hello to Arms, about the postwar buildup of the weapons industry. He is currently teaching in the Masters' Program at the Ecole Superieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an Associate Editor.
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