It's beginning to get a bit silly, this belief that anything with a Scandinavian setting is automatically going to be a cut above the home-grown product.
Radio Times carried a cover flash this week promising to alert its readers to "6 New Scandi-crime dramas you can't miss", a promise it only managed to keep by including several established Scandi-crime thrillers and at least two series that would be best described as Scandi-flavoured. This nonsense had been prompted by the arrival of The Bridge, a Swedish-Danish co-production so favoured by the current climate that its star got the front cover: "Meet the new Sarah Lund!" read the headline.
"The old Sarah Lund suits me just fine," I thought, provoked into a contrarian mood by the deafening rumble of an oncoming bandwagon. But then, irritatingly, The Bridge turns out to be skilful, fresh and intriguing, beginning with a murder of gruesomely ingenious complexity and introducing a female detective who makes Sarah Lund look positively easygoing. "Odd" is the word Saga Noren's colleagues use of her; "borderline autistic" will be the armchair diagnosis of many viewers, given her obvious bafflement when required to show empathy. When a colleague asks her to go easy when telling a husband that the dismembered corpse of his wife has been found on the Oresund Bridge, she furrows her brows: "In what sense? There aren't many ways to say it."
The body, incidentally, has been found neatly placed across the international borderline, requiring Saga – faintly robotic of affect and utterly logical in procedure – to collaborate with a chalk-and-cheese Danish counterpart called Martin, a big shaggy man with a balls-aching teenage son and an equally painful scrotum (he's just had a vasectomy). And the vasectomy illustrates The Bridge's best quality – a willingness to let loose ends dangle so that you're intrigued about where they might lead. "Does it hurt?" Martin's wife asks as he climbs wearily into bed. "Yes," he replies, with such Nordic gloom that you assume this is some existential wound being talked about. It's only later that the exchange is explained, and the texture of the drama thickens pleasingly.
Saga and Martin find themselves tracking a serial killer, who has decided to bullet-point his philippic against social injustice with dead bodies, an admixture of political anger that complicates your responses. And the contrast between Martin's manner and Saga's also adds a touch of dark comedy to the thing. Though Saga doesn't have a boyfriend she does have sex, picking up a man with a startling bluntness at a local bar. When he wakes he finds her sat up in bed reviewing autopsy pictures of a woman cut in half with a band saw, she can't understand why he won't stay for breakfast. It doesn't dispense with genre familiarity entirely. You can tick off the clichés of the form as they pass, from the coroner who says, "And there's something else..." before introducing a vital clue, to the sinister man who phones a loathsome journalist covering the story and says, "We need each other, Daniel." But there's enough besides the clichés to make it worth coming back. It's one Scandi-drama you might not want to miss.
If Saga lacks human empathy, Vera Stanhope, the central character in ITV's returning drama Vera, has more than she knows what to do with, played by Brenda Blethyn as a succession of motherly, wistful, and shrewdly intuitive looks. At one point, she gets so upset over the death of a colleague that she has to get out of the car to have a little weep. Fine as far as it goes, but even though it's set in Northumberland it may not be quite northerly or westerly enough to satisfy current fashions.
I'll return at greater length to Smash, Sky Atlantic's Spielberg-driven drama about the creation of a new Broadway show. But the interim verdict is that Smash isn't one.
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