TV industry expert and author Dennis Broe reports from Series Mania, held last week in France
The new buzz phrase in the television industry is ‘peak TV’. It’s based on the idea that between 2002 and today, the number of TV series has nearly tripled in the United States. This year there are an astonishing 455 original series being pumped out via cable, network and streaming services. And, a lot of it is crime drama.
Europe’s major TV festival, Series Mania, has just wrapped up in Paris and ‘peak TV’ was one of the main topics of debate. Are there too many TV series now? Is the TV series bubble about to burst, just like the dotcom bubble back in the noughties? Journalists and other delegates at the event decided not, as around the globe producers continue to create new crime series to rival the American output.
But, the ‘peak TV’ question lingers, as this look at the top global noir series on show at Series Mania indicates. Scandinavian crime shows have their foundation in a strong tradition of crime fiction books that share an acerbic voice used for socially critical purposes, along with the region’s bleak landscapes, and solitary characters who dominate the scene. Even the best new Nordic noir, Norway’s Monster for example, struggles to escape and make different what are becoming global tropes. In this case those tropes are: the missing child or teen (Broadchurch); the female police detective returned to her home in the desolate countryside for some unfinished personal business (Top of the Lake); and the pairing of two unlikely male female cops (The Killing) in pursuit of a potential serial killer embedded in the community (Red Riding).
In fact Monster distinguishes itself not for its originality but for the way it combines so many of these elements in its mix. The answer is that yes we are at a saturation point where the proliferation of series conceals what is becoming an ordinariness. The commercial popularity and the high bar the founding series have set act to confine and regulate less adventurous new series. Nevertheless, there was much to like at Series Mania and here are five of the bet new crime shows from around the world to watch out for in the coming months.
This French Canadian production is a winning combination of the Julia Roberts vehicle Sleeping With the Enemy and the quirky small town atmosphere of Northern Exposure. But Fatale-Station just does it better than either of those two. The opening sees lead character Sarah terrorised by an unknown attacker in the city, then fleeing to a small, out of the way settlement where the salient feature is the almost deserted train depot which gives the town its name, Fatale-Station. Sarah is hiding out but unwanted in the French-speaking town, controlled by Anglo proprietress Mrs O’Gallagher, whose ruthlessness is revealed early on. The town is also beset by antipathy between its white, nativist stalwarts who face a blockade by Native Canadians protesting the elimination of the tribe’s wildlife. A beguiling mix of local quirkery and a likeable lead which marks the series as more than just killing time while we wait inevitably for that assailant to show up.
South Korea: The K2
The K2 is a Korean policier with a global reach thanks to the opening segment shot in Barcelona. It features a genuinely creepy recounting of a young Korean girl’s discovery of her dead mother and her eventual escape from the convent to which she was consigned. The big budget pilot has three lavish action sequences, the centerpiece of which is the storming of a corporate structure by unrevealed assassins, who come up against the lead character who is an ex-special forces fighter. It’s reminiscent of the Indonesian thriller The Raid, by way of Die Hard. The series really gets going in the second episode when the dramatic and political thriller aspects come to the fore as the Lady Macbeth-like daughter of the country’s leading corporation, masquerading as an unassuming ‘little woman’, reveals herself to be the driving force behind a corrupt plan to install her husband as the country’s leader. The story could just as well have been torn from the pages of a South Korea newspaper, with the country having just ousted a similar female power broker president. The K2 is a series highlighting the country’s corporate conniving while its action hero wins the hearts of ordinary people like the elderly cleaning woman in the giant corporation, the farming family mourning their son and, of course, the distraught daughter who he sets out to protect.
As mentioned above, Monster reflects a host of recognisable crime drama elements, but mixes them together in a new way. Continuous bleak shots of Norway’s deserted far north along with the mournful tones of a Russian roadhouse singer a la Julia Cruz in Twin Peaks, set the stage for a must-watch tale about the disappearance of a 14-year-old girl from a religious community that might remind you of Jo Nesbo’s Midnight Sun. Meanwhile, the methlab matriarch that features might remind you of Megs Bennett in season 2 of Justified. The main character is a female detective, who is dealing with the mysterious disappearance of her mother and her dying father, while her companion from the city battles his own drug demons. What distinguishes the series is its surreal imagery, such as the sight of a snake at a crucial moment during the hunt for the missing girl. The visual style of Monster not only dominates, but also distinguishes it from those that came before.
Czech Republic: Wasteland
This Czech series from HBO Europe, set in a desolate border area, sees a Polish mining company trying to buy up a community’s land. The town’s farsighted female mayor thinks it will be a devastating blow to the countryside, but many local citizens, deprived of income, are ready to accept the offer. The series is well aware of Poland’s place as a leading coal country and European polluter, with a Trump-like defence of these practices. Against this background the mayor’s daughter disappears, but one of the main themes is the brokenness of the townspeople in a landscape already contaminated with the mental disease arising from being a left-for-dead region. This is reflected in the mayor’s hermit ex-husband, and the sex workers who inhabit the local truck stop as the programme delivers a social message within the drama.
Russia: Salaam Moscou!
By far the most unusual series at Series Mania in terms of tone, Salaam Moscou! highlights social concerns while mapping the inner conflicts of contemporary Russia. The story follows a supposedly elite unit charged with patrolling immigrants, and achieves the near impossible by conveying that uniquely Russian form of humour that relishes the absurdity of impossible situations and does it all within a crime drama. The lead detective, Roustam, is a racist, especially where Muslims from former Soviet states are concerned. He must overcome his prejudice in working with his Tadjiki partner Sania, an experienced undercover cop but whom Roustam refers to as an intern. The unit are based in an old run-down convent and their computers barely function. The tone varies wildly, with episode two focusing on Roustam’s fixation with a woman he meets while tracking a fugitive. At one point Sania accepts a dare to wrestle a suspect, loses, and lets him go. The trials, struggles, aspirations and culture of what is a multi-cultural capital – despite itself – make for a series that treats said struggles with resigned humour, countering the constant air of menace that hangs over supposedly more enlightened American series such as Homeland.
Dennis Broe is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost. His current book, out in 2018, is Hyperindustrialism and Television Seriality: the end of leisure and the birth of the binge.
You can check out our favourite crime shows of all time, published in 2014, here. If you love international crime drama, see these seven deadly crime shows on Walter Presents.