Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Crime dramas with subtitles are the best

I am two days (and two hours of television) away from the end of The Killing. I’m talking about the proper, Danish Forbrydelsen (which literally translates as The Crime) rather than the American remake. The Killing follows the investigation into the horrible murder of teenager Nanna Birk Larsen by detective Sarah Lund and Jan Meyer. For the last few weeks I have been obsessed - and not just because it’s fun to say “It’s nearly time for The Killing” - because it is AMAZING. The main reason it’s amazing is because it’s Danish. There’s something about crime dramas in a foreign language that just makes them a million times better.

There is no doubt that watching things with subtitles makes you feel cleverer, you can pretend that it’s a deeply important foreign film but best of all, you can pretend you speak the language. When you watch something with subtitles you forget you’re even listening to a foreign language: I keep popping to the kitchen, thinking I won’t miss anything because I can still hear it. So far I have learned very little Danish but I have learned “tak” (thanks) and how to pronounce “theis” (tyce).

The whole structure of The Killing is better than any programme we have. For one, the pace is more like that of a novel than a conventional detective/crime show. Usually you get a case per episode/every two episodes, and so the stories are very formulaic and unfold perfectly, with very little in the way of confusion and dead ends. The Killing is just one murder (the “The” gives that away...) and the story is told through 20 one hour episodes which each take place over 1 day of the investigation. With only two episodes left (so 10% of the whole story) I’m not sure what will happen. There are so many twists and mistakes made the police that episodes were spent on suspects who turned out to have no connection with the murder. Rather than finding it frustrating and irritating, it just feels like we’ve been properly part of the investigation. There’s no feeling that Sarah Lund has more information than us – so many detective shows pull the solution out of the bag because of some “hunch” they had that we never knew about.

Another element is the characters. In the usual crime drama, there is no character development, the characters are just clichés. This is understandable given how much has to be fitted into an hour or two. In The Killing, no characters are cliché, characters are allowed to be a bit weird, or dark, just plain evil, without them automatically being a murderer or even a suspect.  Nanna Birk Larsen’s parents’ marriage hasn’t broken down completely, men are able to be tough and domestic, and Sarah Lund herself is able to be a workaholic detective without being mannish. Sarah is assertive and always in control, but without seeming masculine, and senior officers tend to talk to her rather than her partner. Sarah doesn’t have a tragic “she’s a brilliant policewoman, but her home life is so tragic” thing. Her partner, in contrast, is a family man and objects to Sarah’s long working hours because he wants to see his family.

It’s not just The Killing, at the moment BBC is showing the first series of the French drama Spiral. Which follows a team of detectives, two lawyers, and a judge and their cases which sometimes weave together and are a million times more interesting than any British series.
So then, the real question is: WHY ARE OUR CRIME DRAMAS SO POOR?

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