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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