Nordic Noir: An Obsessive’s Guide to the Best Scandinavian Crime Shows
In some parts of Sweden, and Scandinavia at large, the summer sun blazes down from the small hours of the morning until 10 at night. In January, some areas are bathed in perpetual darkness. For a non-native viewer watching a crime show produced and filmed in the Nordic lands, these irregular cycles can distort all sense of time. The self-sacrificing detectives in the Northern countries’ hit procedurals—sometimes termed “Nordic noir” or “Scandi noir”—are usually as wildly off-cycle as the weather. They stay awake and out of their family’s lives for days at a time, tacking up mugshots, gruesome crime scene photos, and scribbled-over maps on giant bulletin boards. Their judgment either weakens and becomes more acute as they lose rest and perspective. They become both their departments’ biggest liability and their only hope. We—the sad binge-viewers who stay awake late into the night with them—are eventually sucked into their rocky orbit.
There are well-established tropes in modern Scandinavian crime writing, and every creator working in the genre is necessarily in conversation with them. A blood-splattered crime scene tells a seemingly simple story of a crime of passion, but the acute, gruesome details illuminate a richer, thornier backstory. Small-time criminals are the local chief’s initial suspects, but only until the appropriately skeptical detectives uncover testimony and burner-phone call records that point to a more high-concept operation. Here’s a sample: A desperate, low-rent business lackey makes a bad investment, which coincides with a group of innocents perishing from a deadly drug cocktail, around the same time as an expensive piece of real estate is scheduled to go up in town. There are larger systems at play: The corporate patriarchs are at war with the disenfranchised classes and in bed with the government, and there’s often a downtrodden loner seeking to punish his or her oppressors.
But the most important part of any Nordic noir worth its graphic morgue scenes is its central, relentless detective or cop duo. It’s obligatory that our heroes spend all their hours thumbing through paperwork or navigating decaying buildings in the pursuit of a psychopath’s hidden lair. No matter how adept 2010s Scandi noir serial killers may be with hacking and internet terrorism, they still buy sketchbooks for their child-like psychosexual drawings and cut out newspaper clippings while following the exploits of the people they want to kill. Their homemade pornography looks like it was developed from a disposable camera at their local pharmacy in 1999. Inevitably, our haggard cop heroes will find sinister murals of this stuff behind hollow-sounding panels in the basement of dilapidated family properties.
These stylistic devices may seem familiar. The Scandinavian sensibility has come to influence crime fiction, television, and film, all over the world thanks to the international popularity of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series (home to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), the hardnosed airport thrillers of Jo Nesbø, and other franchises. In the past ten years, crime procedurals have adopted a bleaker, prestige-ified bent befitting wider trends in dramatic scripted television and tailor-made for desperate, red-eyed consumption.
Take the British, who were once best known for mysteries featuring Emily Post-compliant detectives in the mold of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (resurrected last year in grittier, dumber form) or Miss Marple. Now UK series from Top Of The Lake to Broadchurch to Happy Valley to Shetland to Hinterland channel Swedish and Danish turpitude, teeming with child murder, sexual abuse, sordid local government conspiracies, and ominous aerial shots soundtracked by depth charges of discordant strings. In America, Season 1 of True Detective and remakes of Scandi series like The Killing and The Bridge have also embraced the same doom and gloom quotients.
Though the mark of Nordic noir is now everywhere on TV, the students still have not outstripped the masters. Thankfully the original points of inspiration have not totally been buried in the influx. Many of the finest Scandinavian crime shows are available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, though some (The Killing, most regrettably) will require some web skullduggery or a DVD player to watch. Good ones are still being made, too (Netflix’s Borderliner is a recent respectable addition). Without further ado, here is a list of a few of the essential Scandinavian television crime series, loosely ordered from good to greatest.
Honorable Mention: Acquitted
Where to watch: Channel 4, Walter Presents
Despite being home to Jo Nesbø and his dry-heaving disaster of a gumshoe Harry Hole, Norway is perhaps the least prolific of the Scandinavian nations when it comes to classic procedurals, favoring international political intrigue over small-town sociopaths. Acquitted is a notable exception to the rule. A Norse melodrama now readying its third season, it is not formally a procedural, but it builds tension around a single, unsolved murder mystery. The protagonist and primary suspect is a fascinating subject: Aksel (Nicolai Cleve Broch), a weaselly-handsome businessman who frequently seems as smarmy and spineless as sympathetic. His polished, near-parodic young professional self-presentation—see him walk across rocky bluffs out of an Edvard Munch painting in his glimmering designer suits—is at odds with his defensive, violent emotional bouts. After getting rich and building a family in Singapore, he returns to his hometown, where he escaped a murder conviction 20 years ago, to…well, it’s not quite clear why he returns. Aksel seems simultaneously intent on resurrecting his image and acquiring (and presumably gutting) the struggling solar energy corporation that is holding the economy of the entire town together.
The socioeconomic themes of Acquitted are compelling, even separate from the mystery. It is a show about a small town steeped in doubt and resentment, desperately trying to keep up with a globalizing modern world but remaining two steps behind the curve. Its self-made prodigal son, meanwhile, has seemingly gotten ahead, but where has he really gotten? Can money buy him the town’s forgiveness?
Where to watch: Netflix
Department Q is an expertly-rendered series of Danish movie mysteries produced by Lars Von Trier’s company Zentropa. Central to the movies’ appeal is their X-Files-like framing, involving two guys who are relegated to a basement office and forced to resurrect cobweb-covered cold cases. The series hangs its hat on the charmingly testy relationship between its two main characters—disgraced homicide detective Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and his professionally ambitious, more affable companion Assad (Fares Fares). Carl, lonely at heart and stuck looking after an unruly teenage son who is having more sex than him, lacks most social graces. He is always on the edge of a nervous episode inspired by past work-related trauma, but is plagued by that obsessive “need to work” that only comes off as cool and relatable when it applies to fictional detectives, lawyers, and political aides.
Department Q is the most (darkly) humorous series on this list, and features the most resourceful uses of flashbacks I’ve seen in recent Scandi crime programming. The detectives chase the distant past through case files, attempting to piece seemingly conflicting testimony together into a single scene. At moments, though, the viewer is sucked away from their perspective into the reality of the flashback, seeing the conclusion that Carl and Assad haven’t reached yet.
Where to watch: Netflix
In Case—perhaps the bleakest Nordic series currently available on your Netflix app—the action stems from the death of a teenager, as it so often does in these series. (Shades of Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer, as usual.) The loss elicits drastic reactions from the show’s haggard-looking ensemble cast, populated by corrupt ballet instructors, dead-eyed dandy-thug dealers and sex addicts, junkies, prostitutes, and a few deeply troubled lawyers. Case is often shocking, full of teen sexuality and bouts of verite violence. Disgraced lawyer Logi (Magnús Jónsson) returns to investigative legal work looking like a drug-addicted wraith. A gnawing urge to redeem himself for past transgressions, and at all costs, results in some inevitable backswing. Razor-sharp lead investigator Gabríela (Steinunn Ólína Þorsteinsdóttir) offsets Logi’s stormy and libidinous antics, covering for him with the buttoned-up police bureaucracy. She believes in his abilities, if not in him.
Case is engaging and haunting, with a plot that is perhaps a hair or two more conceptually ridiculous than that of the average Scandi noir. It’s the kind of procedural that makes one wonder how so many illicit affairs, prostitution rings, and sexual abuse cases can be possibly be accommodated within such a modest geographical area.
Watch a (hilarious) trailer here.
Where to watch: Netflix
Bordertown is an unexpected diamond in the rough in the sea of internationally-sourced crime dramas branded as Netflix originals, which usually tend to satisfy but never surprise. Part of the show’s unique pull is endemic to Finland’s harsh language and landscape, but its attention to character building is where its greatest power lies. Kari Sorjonen (Ville Virtanen) is an eccentric dad-sleuth with a photographic memory, always fighting against a natural propensity to psychologically disappear into his cases, or the mind of the killer he is hunting. His instincts are almost mystically ahead of the inclinations of the rest of his smalltown department. The familial friction with his ambitious wife (Matleena Kuusniemi) and rebellious daughter (Olivia Ainali) is interspersed with moments of dry, oddball humor, redeeming Bordertown even when less convincing plot points intercede.
A particular point of interest in Bordertown, and Finnish crime drama more broadly, is the organized crime of Russia, Finland’s neighbor, which haunts the underbelly of the smaller country. The Russian connection is also responsible for Bordertown’s other primary investigator: Lena Jaakkola (Anu Sinisalo), an ex-KBG officer who comes to Finland to find her lost daughter, and seems handily able to beat the shit out of anyone in the entire country.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime
Trapped is the snowiest series in the bunch—an Icelandic show where an avalanche is one of the plot’s central catalysts. People are stranded in little pockets less than a mile away from each other in a small town, leaving everyone vulnerable to attack. On-foot chase scenes take an eternity in the massive drifts. The weather leaves local police chief and heartbroken divorcee-to-be Andri (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) as raw as the exertions of his investigation. The broken blood vessels in his face make the viewer feel the wind chill; they may be the show’s main affective power source.
A misbegotten attempt to resurrect the economy of the town lies behind the murderous domino effect of violence in Trapped, leading to guest spots from a few amoral Danish thugs masquerading as innocent ferrymen. One of the crucial sources of information in this knotty little tale, instigated by a deadly fire that killed a beloved young woman years ago, is a wheelchair-ridden, mildly insane old hermit with a telescope—an underutilized stock character in whodunits that deserves more action.
Where to watch: Hulu
The Danish-Swedish version of The Bridge (like The Killing, it was also made into an inferior show for U.S. cable television) is primarily the tale of a dynamic and improbable police partnership. Personal tribulations affect the police work of both Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) and Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) throughout the show’s first two seasons, but the two complement each other, however hard it may be for Saga to admit it. The relationship is compelling enough to sell an unlikely first-season plotline based around a domestic terrorist who seems to pull from the playbook of the Joker in The Dark Knight.
There is an endearing multi-season trajectory for Saga, whose unremittingly honest approach and obsessive attention to protocol makes her an acquired taste and a liability in her department. Her curt, memeable dialogue, and direct requests for immediate sex from bewildered men, are ramped up in the apparent interest of fan service over subsequent seasons. The Bridge also manages the near-impossible: introducing another co-investigator later in the series that doesn’t prove to be a huge disappointment (Thure Lindhardt).
Where to watch: DVD
Like the ITV hit Broadchurch, Season 1 of the original Danish version of The Killing about families, first and foremost. It’s perhaps the best of the major-league Scandi noir shows at dealing with the subject, thanks to its moving, multidimensional rendering of the grieving Larsen family. The first season of Søren Sveistrup’s legendary series, in particular, traces a skillfully crafted series of circuitous routes to its shocking solution, justifying its staggering 20-hour runtime. It also gives a well-rounded portrait of Copenhagen’s socioeconomic climate, as Sveistrup skewers the city’s political machine and the local press dealing with a national-news-dominating crime scandal.
In the canon of harrowing tales of detectives’ private lives wholly coming apart, there is no trajectory more frustrating and compellingly executed than that of Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund. Lund pivots away from feelings of helplessness and guilt in her personal life toward wee-hours investigations, frequently thwarting the direct orders of higher-ups. In terms of foreign crime shows that feel more like wide-ranging, socially resonant dramas, The Killing is about as good as it gets.
Where to watch: Season 1 and 3 (Hulu), Season 2 (Amazon Video)
The late Henning Mankell was among the most tasteful, inventive, and widely adapted of the Scandinavian crime writers. He was prolific even just with his book series focusing on suburban Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander, but his additional concepts for the ensuing TV series made him one of his field’s most impressive talents. Each episode of the Krister Henriksson-starring Wallander series (one of three different adaptations) lasts an hour and a half; some screened in Swedish cinemas. The trick to Mankell’s consistency and prolificacy is his interest in both murderous criminal machinations on the hometown level and more widespread corporate and political corruption. Some of his intrigue spans multiple nations, from Latvia to Africa, where he sometimes lived and did charitable work.
But the Wallander show’s most important weapon is Henriksson. His Wallander is uncompromising, constantly consternated, and invested with disaffected humor. Unlike Kenneth Branagh’s clumsy portrayal of the detective in the vastly inferior BBC remake, Hendriksson plays Wallander’s erstwhile fits of alcoholism and attempted career suicide with seemingly effortless, captivating subtlety. His blank, harried expression in the midst of excruciating pressure is the animating force of every episode. We feel his sleep lessening, and sympathize as he stoops to fling an inept colleague or smirking, complicit henchman into a cabinet, or grab their tie in the interrogation room.
Wallander also boasts a charming, expertly rendered supporting cast of detectives and police officials, including Wallander’s daughter Linda (the late Johanna Sällström first, then Charlotta Jonsson), with whom he has a dysfunctional but tender relationship that changes movingly over the course of the the first and third seasons. The combination of careful plotting, overall consistency, and overwhelmingly effective character building all contribute to making Wallander the probable crown jewel of the genre.