The success of Danish television series

Crime genre has become a very successful brand for Scandinavian scripted drama series in the past decade. Most of the Danish crime dramas became cult hits in the UK and we started to talk about the rise of»Scandicrime« and »Nordic Noir«. »Nordic Noir has become synonymous with well-crafted and electric plots, memorable characters, and a tremendous sense of setting. The female characters in particular warrant closer attention. As a whole, these shows relish the portrayal of its female characters as flawed yet sympathetic, complicated yet engaging, presenting complex and authentic visions of women in positions of power.« (Lacob, 2012)

But the success of political series Borgen points to the possibility of other genres also being able to cross national borders. Considering this, it is rather clear that genre is not the only reason for the popularity of Scandinavian television series. The main reason is in the way those series are made – the outstanding, complex stories they tell, the themes they explore. To quote Lacob again:  »Nordic shows are smart and never talk down to the audience. There’s a tendency in American television to default to likability with your characters. In Borgen and Forbrydelsen, they are not afraid to show the darker side of these people. You’re seeing these people as they truly are.« An important part is also an extraordinary quality that is almost closer to the cinematic experience than to the experience of watching TV series, and a great acting crew that mostly depends on strong female characters. »Danish television dramas are relying on good stories that are easy to identify with and that tell us something about the society we live in.« (Collins, 2013)

The main reason for the popularity of Danish television series actually lies in the major reorganization of the production framework in DR that took place in the mid 90’s. Part of the reorganization has been formulated in so-called Dogmas that were put together as a framework for making scripted fiction. First dogma defines the concept of one vision, stating that the author should be at the center of attention all the way through the production stages. »The great thing about the liberalism of Danish society is that television writers are free to plumb the realities, rather than the desirability, of gender equality and women’s liberation.« (Collins, 2013) Second dogma is about double storytelling that refers to a public service ambition: to always aim for stories that also contain ethical and social connotations. To quote DR’s cultural director: »We have to be just as entertaining as commercial competitors, but at the same time we need to have a social-political dimension in our serials.« (Gilbert, 2012) The third dogma is reffering to a crossover between the world of film and television for a more cinematic feeling of the series. The writers and DR producers also began working in production hotels, after they realized that they need to have people together in the same space if they want ideas to emerge and be discussed outside of formalized meetings.

The fact that the writers have a complete artistic freedom and that they are encouraged to include socio-political dimensions in their serials is probably the main reason for their great success. We could also say that good storytelling transcends all language barriers and cultural differences. But what exactly is so brilliant about the stories of Danish series? As Lacob so brilliantly says (and because I couldn’t put it any better): »These dramas treat us like adults. They don’t just have the ability to follow a long, multistranded and complex story. They’re also quite fearless in playing around with expectations. Major characters are killed off, and there is never any kind of ‘redemptive’ aspect to the story, where characters have to learn lessons or pay the price of their misdeeds. Bad people often get away with bad things. And nice people are killed off. There is an inherent darkness to the Nordic Noir shows, and a sense that the scales are never balanced or endings neatly tied up. That willingness to plunge into the murky recesses of the human psyche and to create compelling, realistically flawed characters places these series among the best examples of the medium, regardless of country of origin.« 

This short essay is a product of an online course on Scandinavian Cinema and Television at Coursera that I participated in.

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Gone Girl (2014)

tumblr_nbe9i2NCnT1sh38wpo1_1280What do you get if you mix Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage with Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and put it in a modern post-recession day and age? The answer is: Fincher’s Gone Girl, superbly adapted for screen by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote a novel by the same name. And, having read the novel, I can easily say that the film works even better than the book – which is not something that happens often (if ever – I haven’t seen an adaptation this good since Haneke’s The Piano Teacher). Like Scenes from a Marriage and Eyes Wide Shut, Gone Girl reveals (to quote Richard Brody from The New Yorker): “the core of unredressed resentment, unfulfilled desire, inescapable duplicity, unrelieved anger, unresolved doubts, unrevealed secrets, and relentless self-abnegation on which the life of a couple depends“. But Gone Girl goes much deeper in exploring the darkest corners of a marriage. Yes, it’s dealing with problems of sexual cooling-off and with the inability to communicate with each other, which results in mutual resentment and finally – in infidelity. But it also explores the problems that arose with recession, with people getting laid off from their jobs, getting their dreams crushed by the economy, having to deal with the unemployment and money issues. What will all the compromises and sacrifices do to a semi-successful couple accustomed to a certain lifestyle that is forced to move from their luxurious New York apartment to a god-forsaken town in Missouri? Nothing good can come of it. Especially if one of the partners is a pathological narcissist and borderline psychopath.

The spouses we’re talking about are Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck’s best role to date) and Amy Elliott Dunne (brilliantly played by Rosamund Pike – a performance you won’t easily forget). The dual narrative introduces us to two (entirely different) perspectives of their marriage: one story, happening in the present time where Amy mysteriously disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, is from Nick’s point of view, and the other, happening in the past, is full of segments from Amy’s diary, that introduces us to how the couple met, how they fell in love and how they were (almost too) happy until the economy screwed them over and they started to blame each other for the boring, mediocre life that their marriage had become. But the stories they’re telling are somehow inconsistent. Who is telling the truth? Is it him? Her? Or are they both lying?

This is one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long time (this is really Fincher at his best – he hasn’t done a film this good for years), which is why you should stop reading to avoid any possible spoilers if you haven’t yet read the book or watched the film!

The answer is: they’re both lying. There’s no good guy/bad guy dichotomy here – there is no one you could root for. They’re both bad people – and they’re surrounded by people who seem to be even worse. He’s a liar and a cheater and she’s a porcelain-looking psychopathic femme fatale, a real bad-ass villain. All that drives her is vengeance towards her cheating husband, if not towards all men that ever hurt her – which makes her kind of a modern-life Medea. I’ve read over and over again about the problematic misogyny in this film – and yes, I agree. This film “depicts a men’s rights activist’s worst nightmare come to vicious, bleeding life“, as Todd VanDerWerff discuses in his article:

Amy Elliott Dunne is a woman who fakes rape to get men who displease her punished, aims to control her husband to the slightest gesture, and reacts to the news that said husband is cheating on her by faking her own death and framing him for the murder. But open up Gone Girl and dig around in its guts, and you find something surprising. This is perhaps the most feminist mainstream movie in years, a forthright depiction of the ways that society controls women and forces them into certain roles, then lets men basically do whatever they want. Amy Dunne might be a monster, but she’s no sui generis psychopath. No, she’s Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together by a husband, parents, and a social order that demanded she be certain things, rather than who she really was. And in destroying her husband’s life, she’s symbolically taking back power for women everywhere.

Amy’s childhood story (that we get to know through her diary flashbacks) somehow explains her crazy reaction to her husband’s infidelity. She’s an only child of famous authors of children’s book series Amazing Amy; series that was inspired by her life. Not just inspired, but (to some extend) copied, with just one (but crucial) difference – Amazing Amy always did everything right, while the Real Amy had flaws and sometimes didn’t manage to exceed in everything she did. It’s clear that her parents wanted a daughter that would be as smart and successful as Amazing Amy. Considering all that, it is actually no surprise that she gradually became a person without her own identity, always acting in a way she thought the other person wanted her to act. Which is why she became a Cool Girl when she met Nick – she became the exact person he wanted her to be. But the act couldn’t last forever – because when you’re married to someone, all the masks we’re wearing eventually come off.

What we’re dealing with here is therefore not so much misogyny as it is misanthropy – Gone Girl is a very pessimistic, cynical portrayal of human relationships. Yes, I know, everything is exaggerated to the point it’s almost satirical, but the message is still clear: we’re all wearing masks and there is no way you can ever really know another person. It doesn’t matter if it’s your spouse, sister, daughter or a neighbour. We’re all playing a role, all the time (sometimes even different roles, depending on the company we’re in), we’re all putting on an act.

The Basics:
Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: Gillian Flynn
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Kim Dickens, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry 
Running Time: 149 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 7

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