Israel is the new Denmark when it comes to scintillating drama
'Hostages' occupies the BBC4 Saturday 9pm slot and is dramatically taut and Pinteresque in intent
‘Dramatically taut and Pinteresque in intent, Hostages has no Scandi-grey skies, no crumpled men staring into lakes and no beautiful lamps. But it is in Hebrew so has subtitles. Triple Chardonnays all round. L’Chaim!Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer stars in the TV show Hostages.’ Photograph: VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images
You could take old episodes of Glenroe, dub them into Danish and sell them to BBC4. The channel could broadcast them in their Saturday night “Scandi-noir” slot. Critics would hail the “pastoral authenticity” of the show and the Wicklow weather would be interpreted as a metaphor. The character of Biddy would be described as a “complex post-feminist amalgamation” and that of Miley as “struggling dialectically with traditional masculine tropes”. Bada bing, bada boom.
What is it that has a whole television generation reaching for the craft beer and the Chardonnay on a Saturday night and gazing approvingly at any old continental European tat that they feel makes them all recherché about their viewing habits? Throwing the word “Noir” at a TV series does not mean it belongs on a higher cultural plane. You’re still drinking wine in the front of the television on a Saturday night.
Pausing to acknowledge the indisputable fact that there is something stupidly thrilling about hearing a Danish actor pronounce the name “Troels” with full phonemic menace, we’re now in McScandi TV land. We’ve already been bored stupid by Monday morning work place wibblings about The Killing (“so gripping!”) Borgen (“so realistic!”) and The Bridge (“so challenging!”)
There have been two Wallanders and an Arne Dahl. We just gorged on the new Danish hit The Legacy (it’s from the producers of The Killing); we’re now deep into the big-budget Nordic Noir Fortitude on Sky Atlantic (starring the thinking man’s police procedural crumpet – Sophie Grabol) and currently there’s another “World Class Scandi Drama”, 30 Degrees in February to keep it stoked.
And don’t think we haven’t noticed the Scandi Drama tribute band that is ITV’s Broadchurch – how anyone can sit through that Scandi-by-numbers rubbish is beyond me.
To be fair, The Legacy is brilliant television and actor Kim Bodnia’s character of Martin Rohde in The Bridge is a work of art. But what the really quite awful Fortitude is currently showing us is that there is can be a televisual conveyor belt aspect to these shows – something you’re not supposed to say out loud in public. Eerie ambient music, foreboding wide screen weather shots, every house featuring a beautiful lamp and characters that frown and stare myopically into the mid-distance as if a migraine is starting up. McScandi – over one million customers served!
It’s all well and good reaching for the Chardonnay and convincing yourself you’re actually engaged with the “dark, morally complex mood” of a Scandi drama but if it’s a dark, morally complex mood you’re after on a Saturday night you could always try standing in the queue to get into Copper Face Jacks.
If the sometimes meretricious appeal of these shows tell us anything, it’s that we connect with Scandinavian TV characters a lot easier than we do with US TV characters. Spend any time in Denmark or Sweden and you’ll quickly notice that they are basically just a less garrulous, more sullen version of Irish people. Right down to the same destructive relationship with alcohol and ill-fitting woollen jumpers.
Throw on any US procedural drama and you’re taunted by orthodontically correct, taut bodied, slim and slender half-human/half-dolls whose idea of acting is widening their eyes and adding in pauses where none are needed.
Broader European dramas such as Spiral and the excellent Inspector Montalbano feature characters with paunches, bad skin, even worse teeth and the sort of stuttering lack of interest/control in their own lives which defines all of us.
So maybe drop the pretence of watching – and telling people you are watching – something subtitled just for some spurious sense of “cultural” one-upmanship. More importantly, we’ve moved on. The televisual phrase to drop now over your Macchiato is “Israel is the new Denmark”.
The best TV drama of the last 10 years was the Israeli Prisoners of War. For people with a subtitle fetish, it’s in Hebrew so you’re okay here. It’s about what happens to two Israeli soldiers after being released from 17 years captivity in a Lebanese prison camp. Radical and very controversial on its release, it is superb television made for buttons but which packs devastating dramatic punches.
The show was remade for a US audience – they removed all its core attributes, gave it a shiny Hollywood makeover and re-titled it as Homeland. The Clare Danes vehicle (back on RTÉ 2 any day now) is like a Walt Disney cartoon version of the Israeli original.
But proof positive that Israel is indeed the new Denmark is that the really magnificent Hostages is currently occupying the BBC 4 Saturday 9pm slot. Dramatically taut and Pinteresque in intent, it has no Scandi-grey skies, no crumpled men staring into lakes and no beautiful lamps. But it is in Hebrew so has subtitles. Triple Chardonnays all round. L’Chaim!