Witnesses is a global crime/mystery series in the now familiar long-form narrative format. It has inevitably been compared to various other examples of what is becoming a global model, derived from the success of The Killing and The Bridge. Like the Scandinavian serials, the second season was broadcast on BBC4 in the UK ending a few weeks ago. (Season 1 was broadcast on Channel 4.) The key common element is a pair of police investigators in which the woman is the lead figure. What makes Witnesses ‘different’, at least in the first two seasons/series/serials, is the setting and the inclusion of some of the tropes of the horror film.
The location is Northern France. The police team is based in Lille and the action seems to range across the whole Nord-Pas de Calais region with an emphasis on the coast in both series. In fact, the action spreads all the way to Mont-Saint-Michel and Granville in Normandy several hundred kilometres away. The distances are so great that they detract from the realism of some of the plot devices, but conversely heighten the fantasy elements. Some of the Scandinavian narratives make use of similar settings but it occurred to me that Witnesses might also share something with the Welsh serial Hinterland. A second possible reference for me was the stories of Fred Vargas whose crime novels have the same mystery elements and sometimes use similar locations (e.g. by the coast or in rural Normandy). Although Vargas has been adapted in France, I’m not aware of any overseas sales.
The two central characters are Sandra Winckler (Marie Dompnier) and Justin (Jan Hammenecker). Sandra is the typical ‘maverick’ cop and Justin is the more stable partner who is generally in the background , but whose personal life is also explored. Each of the two seasons so far features a similar credit sequence with Sandra striding towards the camera along a ‘boardwalk’ past a row of bathing huts. She then reaches a dilapidated hut which blocks her path and she opens its doors to reveal a fantasy figure. In the first season this is a wolf (see below) and in the second three strange children. The music in the title sequence by the UK ‘trip-hop’ artist Tricky with Francesca Belmonte has an ethereal tone which underlines the potential fantasy of the stories. The song’s title is ‘We Don’t Die’ and the lyrics fit the stories so well I’m intrigued to see what the writer-creators Marc Herpoux and Hervé Hadmar (who also directs) will come up with next. The first story begins with the discovery of the corpses of people recently buried but now dug up and arranged in family groups in public places such as a show house on a new estate. As Sandra investigates she uncovers a connection to her former boss in Lille who has become something of a local celebrity.
In Season 2, the story begins with the discovery of a bus parked on a country road. Inside the bus are 15 frozen corpses of men who disappeared some time ago. Eventually the investigation will uncover a complex interweaving of stories which will eventually entrap Sandra herself and in which she will team up with a woman who herself disappeared and is then discovered three years later, unable to remember what happened to her. This is Catherine Keemer, rather confusingly played by the wonderful Audrey Fleurot, the rather tempestuous lawyer from Engrenages (Spiral). My confusion was because Series 6 of Engrenages followed Witnesses a week later on BBC4 and I found myself ‘catching up’ on Witnesses while watching the first episodes of Engrenages. Sandra and Catherine end up sleuthing together in Witnesses and a rather stylish couple they make – two tall, slim, thirty-somethings with flowing tresses and a similar dress sense.
Apart from the characterisation around Sandra and Catherine, there two noticeable aspects of this second narrative which distinguish it from similar series. First are the aesthetics, dominated by occasional uses of aerial shots of the coast and forests of the region, the cinematography in general and the use of music, the overall effect of which is to create a sense of mystery and unease. Ironically, there is a sense of the romantic and the gothic, even when action takes place around a wind farm. The mystery/horror tropes are signified in several ways, all of which take us into the complex plotting around the history of an orphanage located on Mont Saint-Michel. This is a great location (and a world heritage site). The best recent orphanage narrative is arguably El orfanato (Spain 2007) and this one uses some of the same tropes with drawings by children and photographs from some time ago. The children seem to have been fascinated by the story of the Minotaur. The focus on children also draws in both Catherine and Sandra. Catherine is close to her eldest child, a young teenage daughter and Sandra has two younger daughters. I won’t spoil the plot any further but the links seem clear as well as the dangers for the two women. I’m always intrigued by the ways in which these kinds of crime narratives share sometimes quite specific plot ideas and details with others released around the same time. Witnesses reminded me of elements in both Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman (2017) and the UK TV series The Fall (2013- ). Witnesses is a female-centred narrative created, written and directed by men. That’s just an observation, but I’m now intrigued by Engrenages 6 in which Audrey Fleurot is again a leading character in a narrative with Caroline Proust as top-billed – but with a largely male supporting cast. Gender is clearly an issue in the episodes I’ve seen so far and perhaps it’s time to think again about gender and crime fiction?
I enjoyed Witnesses but I think it was too long (8 x 1 hour episodes) and too complicated. By the end I had forgotten elements of the first two episodes and I’m not sure I fully appreciated the narrative resolution. The first season was only six episodes and that seemed right.
Feud is unusual and intriguing. I’m not sure it works, but having started watching it, I found myself hooked and watching all eight episodes over six days. It’s important, I think, that I never usually watch any US TV. The last American TV I watched with any interest was The West Wing ten years ago (and the Anglo-American serial Humans more recently), so I’m approaching Feud from a different position than most audiences. The narrative is set over the ten years from 1962 to 1972, which was a period when I was much more involved with American film and TV.
Feud is described in reviews as an ‘anthology TV series’. I vaguely remember this term from the 1950s, used to describe shows like The Dick Powell Show (1961-3) and, most famously perhaps, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65). These series comprised single dramas of 25 mins or 48 mins performed by the same actors (or a selection from a ‘pool’ of actors) and/or introduced by a host like Powell or Hitchcock each week. The shows were written and directed by both the developing stars of TV and some of the directors who moved between cinema and TV, such as Sam Peckinpah, Blake Edwards or Ralph Nelson. The actors were often well-known Hollywood names.
The new anthology series like Feud seem to me rather different. Feud is produced by Fox TV for the FX cable channel. The same ‘showrunner’, Ryan Murphy, has already set up two anthology series called The American Horror Story (2011- ) and The American Crime Story (2016- ) which are now both into multiple seasons. The first season of Feud, titled ‘Bette and Joan’ ran for eight 45-58 minute episodes in March-April 2017 in the US. It has recently been broadcast on BBC2 in the UK. The eight episodes recount the supposed ‘feud’ between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, centred on the production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 and continued over the events of the next few years. The series is designed to be an anthology in the sense that the next serial will be concerned with the story of the marriage of Charles and Diana and its aftermath. It seems more sensible to me to call it a serial, a long-form narrative or simply a form of televisual biopic. But US TV has its own terminology. More to the point, the BBC decided to follow the Netflix model and release all eight episodes on iPlayer before the end of the broadcast transmission run of two episodes shown as a double bill each week (following the precedent of Scandinavian drama serials on BBC4).
Outline (no spoilers as such – the story is based on real events)
Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) in 1962 were A List Hollywood stars in their fifties struggling to find roles worthy of their talent in Hollywood (Davis had actually returned to the stage). Crawford found the novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and persuaded Jack Warner (whose studio had made successful films with both Crawford and Davis) to agree to distribute a film adaptation. The film was made by director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) using his own production company, The Associates and Aldrich. Warner (Stanley Tucci) believed that Psycho had introduced mainstream audiences to shock/horror films and he gambled on an unusually wide release. The film proved to be a significant hit and was nominated for several Oscars. This caused further problems between Crawford and Davis. A sequel was then suggested . . . Joan Crawford died in May 1971 and was remembered during the 1972 Oscar ceremony. (Davis continued working until her death in 1989, but the serial ends in 1972.)
The narrative is supported by the insertion of a quasi documentary element in the form of a series of interviews which on-screen titles date as conducted in 1978. The interviewees include characters directly involved in the story such as Aldrich’s assistant Pauline (Alison Wright) as well as two other leading actors who knew Crawford and Davis – Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) – and others involved in the events depicted. This re-inforces the sense of a tension in the presentation of the mise en abîme – the ‘making of’ not just the films, but also the Oscar ceremonies. We are familiar in biopics with current well-known actors playing Hollywood figures from the past, but in Feud this becomes overwhelming. At the centre of the narrative, Sarandon and Lange are very good indeed – and like Davis and Crawford, they both have a producer credit on the serial. Sarandon could pass for Davis, although she’s actually about 15 years older than Davis was in 1962. Lange doesn’t have anything like Crawford’s eyes so her performance has to create an illusion of Crawford’s look (she’s also much older than Crawford was in 1962). Lange also has a role in one of Murphy’s other anthology titles – The American Horror Story – and has played two other celebrity figures, Frances Farmer, the 1930s Hollywood actress in Frances (1982) and country singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985). I’m not sure what this means, except that I think I ‘read’ Lange/Crawford differently than Sarandon/Davis. I’m more familiar with Davis’s work than Crawford’s but while I admired and respected both stars, my own preference was always for Barbara Stanwyck – not mentioned in Feud, perhaps because she was still successful after moving into TV in the 1960s.
Feud is very ‘self-enclosed’ and most of the action takes place on set, in the homes and offices of the principals, or in exclusive restaurants. There is little awareness of the world outside Hollywood itself. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? actually opened a few days after the Cuban Missile Crisis in the US, which is not mentioned. I didn’t notice any references to the Civil Rights movement (I don’t actually remember any African-Americans in the whole serial) or Vietnam. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation about the enclosed world. One sequence in which Crawford travels to the UK to make a horror film for Herman Cohen Productions looks very strange. As far as I’m aware this horror film was shot in Berkshire, but the set is by the Thames in East London and there are other strange elements in the presentation of characters. The final episode of Feud includes some hallucinations suffered by a central character.
The focus, as the title emphasises, is on the feud between the two stars, but how much of this was invented to suit the publicity for Baby Jane and how much was ‘real’ isn’t clear. The serial also uses the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) as a device to increase the animosity between the two actors. In reality, Hopper died in 1966 aged 80, so this is possibly a fanciful presentation? Hopper’s rival Louella Parsons doesn’t feature in Feud – she retired in 1965. Overall, I feel that the serial is an odd mixture of ‘feud’ (which is accessible to any audience), a presentation of the dying days of ‘studio Hollywood’ and a rather intimate drama about two ageing stars. I found these two latter narratives more interesting than the feud – but both are frustratingly restricted in the overall mix. Bob Aldrich’s story features quite promisingly in the opening episodes but then disappears – a real shame.
As is usual in American TV, this serial is written and directed by a large group of people. There are five writers and five directors who mix and match across the episodes. Some write on one episode and direct another. Interestingly, in the present climate, four of the episodes are directed by (different) women and one woman was involved in writing three episodes. Despite this large number of creative inputs, I didn’t notice an inconsistency of styles – which is either a tribute to the showrunner’s overall control or a comment on a conventional TV drama approach. I’m not really able to tell which!
What Feud does have is some snappy one liners which recall those ‘women’s pictures’ of the 1940s and some great performances. Catherine Zeta-Jones is especially good.
Here’s the official trailer:
Emily Watson’s performance as the geneticist who becomes involved in an adulterous affair and ultimately a murder trial is one of the best I have seen in TV drama. This TV serial has been the subject of discussion by audiences and critics with some arguing it is a narrative that ‘punishes’ a woman who has desire and others defending a woman of 50 who expresses desire.
I don’t want to get into that argument but it is worth pointing out that this is a serial produced, written and directed by women. What interests me more is that I read the original novel by Louise Doughty but, although I could see the skill and intelligence in the writing, I didn’t really enjoy the book. What’s more, I couldn’t remember what it was that put me off. I wasn’t going to bother with the TV adaptation but I decided to give it a try, partly because of Emily Watson’s casting.
I was surprised at how gripping I found the first episode to be and I stayed with the serial to the end. Why did Emily Watson’s performance carry so much weight? I’m not aware of stardom or performance studies that look at the difference between film and TV. I’m sure that they must exist but also that many scholars and critics now see the boundary between small and large screen as increasingly porous. In UK TV drama there has been a tendency to cast lead roles using TV stars such as Sarah Lancashire or Amanda Redman. An actor like Emily Watson feels like a different kind of presence. Her persona comes from theatre and film. She became known in cinema for appearances in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) and Hilary and Jackie (1997), both of which gained her Oscar nominations. Her subsequent career has involved theatre work and a number of more recent roles in which she has been cast as mother figures. This is partly why Yvonne comes as such a welcome role.
Emily Watson exudes a certain kind of decency and determination with the possibility of vulnerability. Her casting as Yvonne is perfect. By chance I also recently caught her performance in Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (2010) in which she plays a social worker seeking the truth about children in care who were sent to Australia in the 1950s. ‘De-glammed’ in that role she again embodied decency and determination. It is these qualities which are called into question in her role as Yvonne.
As an actor, Watson does a great deal with her eyes and she is well-served by costume and hair style as Yvonne. But she also has that indefinable sense of ‘presence’. It helps too that Ben Chaplin as her lover is also more of a film than TV star. The two together make an odd but compelling couple with Chaplin thoroughly loathsome, but presumably a turn-on for Yvonne. Many women in the TV audience must have identified with Watson’s convincing presentation of Yvonne.
Blue Eyes is a TV serial from SVT, the Swedish public service broadcaster, made as a co-production with the regional film fund Film i Väst and various other Nordic partners including the major player Nordisk and effects house Chimney Pot. Blue Eyes is very much a high-profile property and was broadcast on the UK channel More4 as one of the ‘Walter Presents’ series of European drama productions. It’s a 10 x 58 mins serial. Made in 2014 and broadcast in Sweden in late 2014/early 2015, its UK début came during the long campaign leading up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in April/May 2016. There are certain parallels between Swedish and British political developments over the last few years and this production focuses on the rise of nationalism and a ‘disguised’ far right party – not unlike UKIP in the UK. Watching Blue Eyes on ‘catch-up’, these parallels are even more stark with the senseless and tragic murder of the British MP Jo Cox.
Blue Eyes is the creation of Robert Aschberg of Strix TV, Alex Haridi and a team of writers. Haridi was also a writer on Real Humans, the original Swedish drama remade/adapted as Humans, a UK/US series for Channel 4. The opening titles for Blue Eyes are distinctive and to me suggest a political thriller. Much of this comes from the music, which I find difficult to describe, but which seems very familiar with its incessant urge to sweep through public events. It made me think of House of Cards (the original UK series). The titles include low angle shots of official buildings with clouds racing across the sky. This sequence is cross-cut with similarly low angle views of ordinary Swedes involved in various mundane activities, but again with speeded up clouds hurtling across the screen. Finally, the third element is a montage of blown up TV sequences, seemingly related to political campaigns. The overall effect is very unsettling suggesting a coming ‘storm’ overtaking Swedish society.
(There is some spoiler material in what follows, but only enough to enable a description of the genre mix in the serial.)
The serial narrative offers a large number of characters, some introduced very briefly (and therefore making the links between characters later on quite difficult to follow). There is one clear central character, a young woman, Elin Hammer (Louise Peterhoff). She is invited in mysterious circumstances to return to her old job as ‘Office Manager’ for the Swedish Justice Minister at the start of an eight week election campaign. The Coalition Party is in power but is facing a fight against the growing Security Party – a right-wing populist party. Elin is possibly an ‘investigator’ in two ways. First, she wants to discover what happened to the previous Office Manager who is now officially on ‘sick leave’ but whose disappearance seems odd. Later, Elin will find herself questioning the motives of everyone in the Swedish political system, including herself – an ‘internal’ or ‘self’ investigation perhaps. This narrative alone would make a political thriller, but a second narrative combines politics, crime and family melodrama. Sofia (a striking portrayal by Karin Franz Körlof) is a working-class young woman in a bad relationship with an abusive man whose behaviour threatens the couple’s young child, ‘Love’. Sofia has a teenage brother Simon and her mother Annika has been selected by the Security Party as a local spokesperson. What makes Blue Eyes so powerful – and disturbing – is that this family group becomes the locus for a discourse about working-class life in Sweden. When a tragic incident occurs, Sofia is pushed into joining a violent right-wing group with terrible consequences. But despite her fierce looks and aggressive stance as well as her extreme political views, Sofia remains a figure that many audiences will find sympathy for. In addition, there is at least one Security Party politician who also evokes some sympathy. At the same time, the Coalition Party is not all ‘above board’ and Elin will find various rotten apples in the barrel.
The second narrative involves Sofia and Simon with a neo-Nazi group intent on terror aimed at breaking Swedes’ trust in their democracy. The terror is created by extremely violent actions (a reference to the activities of the Norwegian extreme right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in 2011?) and simply by the two central characters responsible for these actions – one, older and seemingly ‘respectable’, one younger and highly-focused as a killer. There is a connection between the two narratives – involving problems at the heart of the Coalition Party. The key to this is briefly introduced in the first few minutes of Episode 1. Many viewers (me included) will struggle to remember these few minutes when the link becomes more obvious later on. Along with the resolution of the overall narrative (which leaves the possibility for a second series) and the large cast of characters, I think this makes the series a difficult (but still absorbing) watch for viewers outside Scandinavia. Reading subtitles is always a trade-off against missing visual cues and is also subject to the difficulties of translation. I’m not sure that the Swedish secret service organisation Säpo is ever properly explained. Also confusing for overseas viewers is the geography of the action. The Swedish government offices are in Stockholm, but much of the action takes place around Uddevalla, a small coastal town in Västra Götaland County on the other side of the country. This is where Simon, Sofia and their mother live – again a parallel for the run-down industrial towns of North-East England which have suffered from austerity and voted for UKIP and Brexit. Presumably this plot detail was necessary to justify funding from Film i Väst by filming in the region. The genre mix in this serial is unusual and that too might work against it. It was a massive hit in Sweden and perhaps the DVD box set may allow a more leisurely ‘reading’ environment. Kudos to Channel4/More4 for showing this but I do find the long advertising breaks tedious – I wish it had been on BBC4. But if this has crept under your radar, I recommend tracking it down
Phew! I’m a new convert to Engrenages and I’m not sure how those veterans of the previous four seasons have stood the pace. I did watch the first couple of episodes of Season 1 back in 2006 but somehow it didn’t stick then. I’m not sure why – perhaps I’ve slowly acquired the serial habit after The Killing and The Bridge? Or perhaps I first had to get used to European TV crime drama via Wallander on BBC4 in 2009? Since I’ve been reading the literature for a long time this seems unlikely. I think the real answer is that the BBC i-Player and the PVR have allowed me to develop the serial habit. This is important since the BBC4 screenings on a Saturday night have generally been two hours. Engrenages matches The Killing with double episodes (2×52 mins over 6 weeks). I usually watch one hour and save the other until later in the week. I find that there is far too much going on to take the whole two hours at once – and this is arguably the big plus compared to similar UK shows which often seem padded out.
The first thing that struck me about the serial was that unlike the Scandinavian shows, Engrenages exists in a film and TV culture with a long history of popular crime films – the polar. I wondered how much familiarity I would have with the TV serial given my earlier viewings of polars. The obvious point is that I would have had much more difficulty understanding both the French judicial system and the organisation of French police forces. The film 36 (France 2004) is particularly useful in explaining this background. The interesting institutional point is that because the French industry is so much bigger (i.e. than the Scandinavian), like the UK it can produce quality TV actors who don’t necessarily appear in films and vice versa. Engrenages doesn’t offer the same pleasures of ‘spot the actor’ as the Swedish/Danish serials do but it does mean that we don’t ‘read’ the characters through a lens of familiarity. The themes and representations of Parisian streetlife are familiar from the films. The only direct reference to the polar, that I spotted, however, was the appearance of a poster for Un flic, the 1972 film with Alain Delon, the last film by the most celebrated director of polars Jean-Pierre Melville. This is in one of the squad offices and I think that the central character Laure has the image on her phone. This reference alone marks out Engrenages as ‘knowing’.
The central structure of Engrenages features the interconnections between a Parisian crime squad led by Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and her lieutenants ‘Gilou’ and ‘Tintin’ and a trio of independently-minded lawyers – an ‘investigating judge’ Roban and two high-flying (and glamorous) avocats Joséphine Karlsson and Pierre Clément. Berthaud and Roban trust each other – and sometimes bend the rules for the sake of justice. In Serial 5 Berthaud is investigating the murder of a young mother and her small daughter. This in turn will lead to a second investigation into a gang plotting robberies. As the programme’s title suggests (it means something like ‘Gears’), different stories become enmeshed, affecting each other in complicated ways. So Joséphine finds herself defending a wealthy Libyan diplomat accused of assaulting one of his ‘domestic’ workers and Gilou is arrested for using unauthorised equipment – while at the same time becoming personally involved in the private life of an informer. Both of these stories will tie in back to the central investigations. Throughout everything, Berthaud – still recovering from a personal tragedy in Serial 4 – is pregnant and still undecided about keeping the baby.
Thinking about structure, Engrenages covers almost the same ground as The Killing 1: a central crime story involving a form of family melodrama, a ‘personal story’ about the problems of the lead female investigator and a third ‘political’ story which ties into the central crime story in some way. The political angles of Engrenages are more complex and nuanced, involving machinations in the judiciary as well as the French establishment. I’m not claiming that one has copied the other (and I don’t know how Serials 1-4 of Engrenages worked out – perhaps this structure began in France?). It could be argued that most, all, TV crime series have these three elements in different mixes and different proportions – but I don’t think that they are so clearly spelt out or that they are so carefully written into a tripartite structure in those other shows. It is the richness and complexity of the narrative that I enjoyed in Engrenages – and the characters and performances. Copenhagen and Paris do share a metropolitan location which means that police investigations are closer to political centres and international stories. But having said that, Laure Berthaud’s team are simply ‘local cops’ and one of their problems is that they run up against specialist units with questions of who has the authority for investigations. This is also the case with The Killing but the difference is that Laure Berthaud does not have the status of the Sara Lund character (i.e. as the single focus for the narrative) or the freedom to investigate with just one partner. Instead Laure leads a team (and they cock up together!)
Engrenages offers a range of pleasures of story-telling and characterisation as well as heart-pumping emotions and some very brutal scenes. The chase scenes are excellent and it is noticeable that the female roles are crucially important in every aspect of the narrative. I think also that there is some evidence here as well as in one or two recent French films that the range of characters is becoming more diverse and representative of contemporary Parisian society. My only frustration is that the BBC (which is credited with an ‘association‘ with the production) is not very helpful with details of the show’s background. What we do know is that there were major cliff-hangers/and ‘loose ends’ when Serial 5 closed. The next should appear in France later in 2015. It will be keenly anticipated when it comes to the BBC.
So, it’s all over. No more Saturday nights with Birgitte and Katrine and attention has turned to the second outing of The Bridge which started last Saturday. I’ve enjoyed Borgen immensely and apart from the performances of Sidse Babett Knudsen and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as the two central characters throughout, what has been most fascinating has been the way in which the writers have manipulated storylines and shifted between different genres/modes. Occasionally this has led to outrageous plotting and truncated stories but overall the narrative flow has been steady and the structure sound.
(There are some spoilers here if you haven’t watched all ten episodes yet.) The biggest surprise in the third part of the serial was the ‘dropping’ of Kasper Juul from the original trio. I’m guessing that this was partly due to the other acting commitments of Pilou Asbaek, including his leading role in Kapringen (Hijacked, Denmark 2012). Asbaek had to fly out to the Indian Ocean whereas Søren Malling, who was in the same film but only in the Danish scenes, was presumably more available. Whatever the logistics, Malling’s character Torben Friis comes to the fore in Borgen 3 in a new storyline. This mirrors the earlier episodes in creating a personal/work-related set of crises. Torben’s affair with studio director Pia and his domestic marital problems are counterpointed by the arrival of a new executive at TV1 who wants to ‘commercialise’ the news and current affairs output at TV1. We had this before of course with the arrival at TV1 of the ousted populist Labour politician Michael Laugesen who then became the editor of a muck-raking tabloid. What is different this time is that we are treated to a whole narrative strand about the shake-up at TV1 which is given a satirical edge, especially in the finale when the wonderful Hanne is allowed to star, turning on the ‘media studies student’ who is trying to change her presentation style on the flagship Election Night special. This was all very entertaining, although the treatment of poor Pia was very disturbing – being forced to wear those awful 1970s glasses was surely punishment enough without the rest of it.
The other two main stories were Birgitte’s health issues and her rather wet new boyfriend – a liaison that provided a lesson for all of us in the possible pitfalls of global television. I’m not sure how Alastair Mackenzie as ‘Jeremy Welsh’ went down in Denmark but in the UK his main claim to fame was a long stint as the young laird in the popular Sunday night ‘comfort show’ Monarch of the Glen between 2000 and 2003. It is already difficult to cope with Sidse Babett Knudsen’s beautifully enunciated English in their scenes together (it’s perfect, but doesn’t sound ‘right’) without being reminded of the earlier series. They never worked as a couple for me. The other main narrative was, of course, Birgitte’s return to political life with her new party. Setting up the ‘New Democrats’ was fascinating. More problematic was Katrine’s love life and the appearance of Lars Mikkelsen (Troels from The Killing 1) as the economics guru Søren Ravn. Bringing Katrine and Søren together seemed a little desperate – as if the scriptwriters realised how much had been lost by demoting Kasper from his lead role.
Overall, the serial worked for me as an entertainment and I thought it was a skilful production. If I’m slightly unhappy it’s because I wanted more of Katrine and Kasper together and I wanted to see Birgitte back in charge (and what happened to her children, Laura and Magnus – great performances throughout by Freja Riemann and Emil Poulsen). But it’s a wise decision to call a halt at this stage. Over three seasons Borgen has been unmissable and it will stay in the memory for a long time. There are rumours of a BBC/HBO remake. I hope not. Something original please! Meanwhile my attention shifts to Saga and Martin in The Bridge 2.
The second season of Borgen has now reached halfway on BBC4 in the UK (having aired in Denmark in Autumn 2011). I don’t think I’ve waited so eagerly for something on TV for a long time. But what’s it like the second time round? I’m conscious that I might be watching it in a different way – or perhaps reflecting more on what I’m seeing.
Season 1 established that there would be three central characters and this has continued in Season 2. Birgitte as Prime Minister and Kasper as her political adviser are engaged in trying to keep the coalition government in power, but both have issues with their partners/families. Meanwhile Katrine has left her job at the TV company and joined the tabloid edited by the disgraced Labour Party leader. Katrine also has a new partner of sorts with Episode 1 showing her growing professional relationship and friendship with the older journalist Hanne who has a drinking problem. The structure of each episode has remained the same with an ‘external’ issue concerning the government involving each of the three protagonists to a different extent. Each has also got an ongoing personal narrative and at least one of these is advanced in each episode – and sometimes two or all three. My impression is that the central political narrative is beginning to fade into the background at this halfway point. The political stories seem more cut and dried, more neat somehow. Birgitte seems to solve a problem in a skilled but not altogether plausible way. She appears much harder and more pragmatic. In one sense of course this makes sense as she is likely to change with experience – but the writers seem less interested in the political stories and more in how the three central characters are under stress.
I think that this shift – if it exists and isn’t just a function of my own shifts in how I’m reading the narrative – means that the overall narrative is becoming more of a melodrama. The serial structure does allow for reflection over 10 weeks in the Danish case (and over several months between each season). In the UK there are two separate episodes/stories transmitted one after the other which perhaps alters our readings here slightly but I think I am reacting to each episode as if it was just another episode of a well-loved soap opera. That sense was confirmed after episode 5 when we have just seen the return of the PM’s secretary Sanne to her old job. It’s almost that like Birgitte, we’ve missed Sanne’s warmth.
If it is getting more like a soap or perhaps more like a telenovela, I have to say that the tension for me is all about Kasper and Katrine. There seems little mileage in Kasper’s attempt to set up home with his new partner Lotte and Katrine has just gone through a whirlwind change of jobs (four, over six episodes). I want Katrine to be happy and Kasper to get sorted out. Birgitte is clearly going to have more problems with her children. I know that many viewers are fond of Birgitte’s husband Philip but I’ve always found him a bit dispensable. I’d rather Birgitte found someone more interesting. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind if Birgitte got to grips with some more complicated politics and left the shenanigans to Kasper.
On a recent Late Review, there was discussion (à propos of the revamp of Yes Minister on Sky) about how politics are treated in British drama/entertainment. The suggestion was that we are just too cynical in the UK and can only take politics as satire/comedy in shows like The Thick of It or thrillers like House of Cards. I didn’t quite follow this and there didn’t seem to be any suggestions as to why 1 million of us watch Borgen or even more followed West Wing so avidly. Perhaps we need a telenovela that extends beyond the remit of the UK’s community or institution-based soaps? The Danish political world is institutional of course, but it is also exotic – and oddly glamorous. Or at least Kasper and Katrine are glamorous if not the politicians. What does anyone else think?
What do viewers want from a TV serial (as distinct from a series)? Serials demand time and commitment since they rely on narrative continuity. In the modern world of ‘catch-up TV’ it is certainly possible to organise viewing so as to catch each episode – but it is a burden for viewers with busy lives so a serial must deliver on several fronts to make the burden bearable and leave a surfeit of pleasure. It’s remarkable then that I have followed the first season of Borgen (10 x 58 mins, screened in pairs each week in the UK) so avidly. The first reason I stuck with it is because this comes from the production team at Denmark’s PSB (Public Service Broadcasting) TV provider who made the first two series of The Killing – that TV phenomenon that has sold around the world. The Killing II was perhaps not quite as good as the first series but I still hung on to the end. Borgen has several familiar faces from The Killing and in some ways I think it is even better.
So, to directly answer my opening question, a serial needs a firm central narrative structure on which can be strung various narrative strands, some of which will be the focus for one or perhaps two episodes and others that will run throughout. Another three-part structure is the roster of characters – the handful of central characters who are key to the central story, the introduction of lead characters for one-off episodes and a cast of interesting and memorable supporting characters who we can choose to remember or not (some of them are simply ‘colour’, others might become cult favourites). The lead characters need to be likeable enough for us to want to identify with them in some way and rich enough in the detail of their personal characteristics to test our devotion when they behave badly.
That central narrative needs to carry themes with emotional weight but perhaps (and certainly for me) other themes as well which relate to the cultural-political or which pursue larger ideas. If you don’t have HBO’s budgets as a producer you also need to be pretty clever in your choice of locations and constructed sets or your narrative of 580 minutes may run away from you. It’s a tough ask but Borgen scores on every count. I can see that there may be one or two gainsayers, but for me and the wildly enthusiastic UK audience watching BBC4 (and on iPlayer) it’s a winner. Roll on series 2 and 3!
‘Borgen’ is, as I understand it, the popular name for the executive office of the Danish government (i.e. the equivalent of ‘Westminster’/’Whitehall’ in the UK). The word means ‘castle’ or ‘fortress’ in Danish. The series begins a few days before a general election which gets much more interesting when the sitting Prime Minister is exposed for using official funds to help his wife in an emergency. In the fray, a new political figure emerges. Birgitte Nyborg is leader of the small Moderates Party but she does well in the election campaign and her party wins several seats. Denmark, like many North European countries has got used to the idea of coalition governments and with the leaders of the two main parties (Liberals and Labour) both discredited during the campaign, Nyborg emerges as the most credible Prime Minister – if she can stitch together a workable coalition cabinet. [Note for American readers – in some countries the ‘Liberal Party’ is right-wing. In the UK, Liberals are supposedly in the centre. The Liberal Party in Borgen seems like the British Conservative Party.]
Nyborg as potentially Denmark’s first female Prime Minister is clearly the lead character for that central narrative which spans a parliamentary session. She is an attractive woman in her early 40s with two children (a young teenage girl and her much younger brother) and a husband who works as a lecturer in management studies. However, there are two other lead characters. Kasper Juul is Nyborg’s spin doctor, whose job in this coalition scenario is to protect Nyborg at all costs. He has a rather unfair advantage over any competitors in that he has had a long on/off relationship with the rising media star Katrine Fønsmark, lead presenter/interviewer/journalist for TV1. These two are both in their late twenties, both highly intelligent and quick-witted (at least about their jobs) and both hugely physically attractive – but not in that bland way that makes too many of the young stars of British and US TV so unmemorable. Kasper, with his neat beard and flashing eyes seems to me to have stepped out of a Viennese melodrama from 1900 as a dashing cavalry officer. As a spin doctor he can be outrageous in his lack of feelings but somehow he remains an attractive figure.
Although Nyborg’s story supplies the spine of the story, both Katrine and Kasper have their own episodes in which they take the lead and they also figure in Nyborg’s narrative. It could be argued that Kasper is the key figure since he has a professional relationship with both Brigitte Nyborg and Katrine – as well as an emotional relationship with the latter. Three characters means three ‘home’ locations (in fact it more since we also learn something about their parents and their earlier lives). The two work situations are the government offices and the TV station – though we do get out enough to see more of Copenhagen and rural Denmark and even a trip to Greenland.
Aesthetics and Thematics
Compared to The Killing which was claustrophobic and often shot at night, Borgen is ‘open’ most of the time. It also feels much more cinematic. Partly this comes from the use of the RED One camera shooting HD video – which is then broadcast (according to IMDb) at a screen aspect ratio of 2.20:1. This is reminiscent of some of the issues surrounding the Channel 4/Revolution Films trilogy of Red Riding films. The ratio is much wider than the usual 16:9 setting of modern TV sets (which produces a 1.78:1 ratio). That’s fine, but I suspect many TV viewers won’t have their screens set up to display the correct ratio (I’m fanatical about the correct ratio and I still find it difficult to select the correct size on my TV’s settings). I don’t recognise most of the directors listed for the series but at least one, Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, was one of the founders of the Dogme ’95 movement and made the early success Mifune (1999). This shows the ambition of DR Fiktion in attempting to mount a major serial (now shooting its third season). It would have been good to see the serial on a cinema screen.
This cinematic quality takes the series into more direct competition with both US and British series (the UK adaptation of Wallander also used RED camera technology). This has led to the obvious comparison with The West Wing (1999-2006). However, I think that there are several important differences. In terms of its look, Borgen is much less ostentatious. One of the key features of The West Wing was the endless tracking shots as the principals swept through the White House constantly delivering brilliant lines of dialogue at high speed. Borgen is less glamorous and generally more composed. Although keeping the ‘leader’ in power is the key narrative line in both series, Borgen is much more about the relationships between the characters than it is about political ideas or indeed the political system. This is partly because practical politics in Denmark appears to be very different to that in the US. Birgitte becomes Prime Minister but her position is much less secure than President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen). She could lose a key vote at any time and the coalition could dissolve. She doesn’t have a great party machine behind her. She survives on her wits – and the wisdom of her choice of adviser and what to do with the advice she receives. Also the decisions she makes, though important, do not have the same ramifications as those of the US President – these comparisons become most interesting in the two episodes where Birgitte first visits Greenland, the former Danish colony that now has a form of autonomy and when she receives a visit from another foreign leader which involves questions of human rights balanced against Danish trading concerns. Versions of both these episodes have (as I remember) appeared on The West Wing – and been treated rather differently.
In truth there isn’t much politics in terms of ideological differences as expressed in Borgen. Birgitte Nyborg is a centrist. There isn’t much she can do to fundamentally change Danish society but her position enables the scriptwriters to effectively critique both Liberal and Labour policies. What’s important about Birgitte is that she is Denmark’s first female PM (in the real world, Helle Thorning-Schmidt became ‘Statsminister’ – leading a Left Coalition – in October 2011 during the airing of the second season of Borgen). The narrative questions are more concerned with whether she can continue to be a good mother and partner and an effective leader – and whether she can remain ‘squeaky clean’ in her political dealings and not be corrupted by the power that her position affords her in the Danish system.
The questions which face Birgitte also face Katrine in slightly different ways. She is just as committed to her fascination with politics and the political system and it runs up against both her work life and her relationships. Fans of The Killing have been amused to discover that Katrine’s boss at the TV station, Torben, and Birgitte’s husband Philip are played by the two actors who played the partners of detective Sara Lund in Killing I and II. Personally, I think that Torben’s role could be expanded and Philip is a rather irritating character – but according to the blog comments I’ve read on the Guardian site, part of the female audience is most interested in whether he will remove his vest/singlet. This reference to The Killing also reminds us that Katrine to some extent fulfils a similar role in the narrative to Sara Lund and to Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium trilogy. She is the fearless young woman who takes on a male establishment. This is particularly the case in Episode 9 when Katrine sets out to investigate the Danish military who are backing a particular defence contractor. During an interview with the Defence Minister (‘Theis’ from The Killing) Katrine takes severe umbrage at his paternalistic attitude and it is no surprise that she goes into the investigation with steely determination. Birgitte is of course also fighting within a patriarchy but she has a certain amount of power and her position is more complex as it is other women who often put her in difficult situations – and it is to two men, Bent and Kasper, that she often turns to for advice. Given the importance of family, however, we also see Birgitte having to deal with her widowed father – another strong patriarchal figure.
Borgen is for me a melodrama rather than a political drama. Series 1 ends at a point where Birgitte comes full circle (melodrama narratives tend to become circular rather than linear) and again faces the real politik of revising her cabinet for a new political term. Unlike The West Wing where, as somebody once said, a fantasy liberal Democrat President solves all problems, Birgitte’s ‘success’ is much more circumspect and several other questions about the relationships between characters are left dangling. The last two episodes were excellent – and it looks like in the UK we’ll have to wait another year to see series 2. I suspect we might be back discussing it before then.