Another great Dane or a bit of a dog's dinner?

Sat, May 5, 2012, 01:00

TV REVIEW:HAVING FOISTED box sets of The Killing (or Forbrydelsen, as I’d like to call it – if I could pronounce it) on friends; considered buying hairy wool and knitting a Sarah Lund jumper; and dissected every aspect of Borgen, from the minutiae of Danish coalition politics to the weird layout of the prime minister’s house – the bedroom off the kitchen? Really? – my love affair with Danish TV imports has been steady and unconditional. But not any more. It’s not that The Bridge (BBC4, Saturday), the latest Nordic noir BBC import, isn’t very good; it’s that it’s a very ordinary police procedural that makes all that subtitle-reading hard to justify.

We’re nearly halfway through a series that’s all about halves. The first body was found at the halfway point on the bridge that connects Denmark and Sweden, so the investigative team is made up of a Swede – a leather-trouser-wearing, Porsche-driving blonde who’s as weird and chilly as she is stylish – and a beardy Dane, an amiable slob, given to scratching his crotch.

I can’t decide whether the unlikely duo are a Scandinavian in-joke about the two countries or an overstretched take on the good-cop, bad-cop cliche – or maybe both. The “body” turned out to be made up of two bodies.

As part of the killer’s mission to highlight social inequality, the top half belonged to a government official; the bottom half belonged to a prostitute whose disappearance went uninvestigated.

The body count is high, at 13 so far, but the script has spent so much time establishing the detectives’ quirks that the crimes are far in the background, breaking the first rule of good crime drama: the viewer has to care about, or at least know something of, the victim.

The Bridge has the melancholia and subdued pace that are such appealing trademarks of Scandinavian crime drama (and fiction), but everything is so grey – the sky, the buildings, the clothes – that it seems to sap the story of the energy it needs to propel it through 10 episodes to catch the killer. I’ll have baled out long before then.

THE FAR SUPERIORduo in Scott Bailey (UTV, Monday) would have solved that woman-on-the-bridge case in a sharply written hour of compelling telly, sorted out their own complicated personal lives – in this week’s series finale Bailey is suspected of assaulting her ex, and Scott’s husband leaves her – and still have time for a swift glass of plonk down the pub. It’s great to see nuanced and realistic roles for women in a crime drama, particularly the spiky police boss Gill (Amelia Bullimore).

THE SECOND SERIESof the US version of The Killing (Channel 4, Wednesday) started this week. It’s made by AMC, home of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, so there was no fear that the dowdy Danish Sarah Lund character would become a prom queen; only her name was tweaked.

It’s a treat for fans of series one, because it picks up the plot where that left off. The US Killing closely follows the Danish original, but series one ended without conclusively revealing who killed Rosie Larson, resulting in many complaints from outraged fans. But the first US series was half the length of the original, so the second series is really just a continuation.

This week’s tense opener saw tenacious detective Sarah Linden learn that the politician isn’t Rosie’s murderer and that the evidence had been falsified by Holder, her police partner. So she’s back at square one.

Police corruption, political intrigue, twisted family dynamics and stellar performances from Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes (she’s Awol in the first episode) as the victim’s parents and Mireille Enos as Linden, and all set in a moody, mostly rainswept Seattle. It’s one to watch.

BIRTHS OF THE NATION(RTÉ1, Monday) had a cute title, and it’s about babies: surely a winning combination. Though maybe it depends where you are in your life. If this was back in the day, and I was beached on the sofa in the afternoon, bag packed for the Rotunda, then I’d have been gripped by the sight of that nice dentist from Tuam on her hunkers in the doorway of her bedroom roaring her head off, giving birth while a midwife peered at her nether regions. As it was I couldn’t quite see the point of the prime-time observational documentary – and I’m not sure it knew what it was trying to be either.

It followed that family and four others in the run-up to a birth, but it didn’t clarify why these families were picked, or whether some bigger point other than recording all that huffing and puffing was trying to be made. Two were home births, for example – surely a significantly higher percentage than the national average. And the attempt to give some sociological heft by flashing up statistics on screen seemed random. We have the highest birth rate in Europe – the hook for the programme – so better to put cameras in an overcrowded maternity hospital to see what that means.

And, anyway, RTÉ has bought Channel 4’s One Born Every Minute (RTÉ2, Wednesday), the astonishingly good maternity programme. For a series about newborns, Births of the Nation didn’t feel fresh and new – more old and seen it all before.

WITHOUT WADING TOO DEEPLYinto the snide and misogynistic “Mary Beard is too unattractive to be on TV” brouhaha, a view expressed by a TV critic in another newspaper when reviewing her series Meet the Romans (BBC2, Tuesday), it’s worth pointing out that Beard, a Cambridge classics professor whose eccentric style has a touch of Margaret Rutherford in full flight, is a brilliant communicator and a passionate expert in her field. These are two things that make her qualified to present a programme. I think the reviewer was freaked out by her long grey hair; a grey-haired woman being a rare sight on TV unless it’s in an afternoon ad for stairlifts.

This week, in her quest to explain that life in ancient Rome wasn’t about lying on daybeds eating grapes, she explored an unusual source: the gravestones of ordinary Romans. They contained details that make our gravestones look coy, from how hairy the deceased were to their alcohol consumption. You can get vacuous telly totty on any number of programmes. A real expert making history come alive is a joy to watch.

Get stuck into . . .

Edna O’Brien: Life, Stories (RTÉ1, Tuesday) is a documentary on the life and colourful times of the doyenne of Irish literature.