Last year, more people in Britain were tuning into BBC4 to watch the Danish crime series Forbrydelsen than were watching the new season of Mad Men. You heard me: they were watching a crime series from Denmark, with subtitles as opposed to a much heralded American drama..
Having seen Forbrydelsen, I understand why. It’s utterly addictive viewing. Its genius is in showing a murder investigation from every possible angle: the police investigators, the grieving families, the politicians avoiding fallout. It made the crime procedural into a soap but it was written, directed and performed by people at the top of their game. Every episode came with another corkscrew twist, and the lead character, detective Sarah Lund is probably the most fascinating compulsive on television. It totally caught the same dark but human vibe that makes The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its ilk so utterly gripping.
Forbrydelsen was easily the best thing I saw on television last year. Or it would have been, had I actually watched it on television.
I only got to see Forbrydelsen thanks to the British DVD of the series (and my region-free DVD player). It hasn’t, to my knowledge, made it to North American television—well, not counting the vastly inferior American remake, The Killing (which I gave up on after four episodes; my wife, who never saw the Danish version, stuck it out for the first season and liked it).
One remake I did get into (though I’m half a season behind, so don’t spoil it) is Homeland, which is based on an Israeli drama called Hatufim. I’d really like to see Hatufim, and I’ve looked high and low for it. The closest I came was a version from Israel with subtitles in…Hebrew. A bit unfortunate, really.
Meanwhile, a Quebecoise friend was raving about a series she watches on Radio-Canada called Mirador, about a PR agency thrown into extreme situations. My French is still lousy but I faltered through an episode to determine that it’s a show I’d love to get on DVD if there are English subtitles.
Often they do. I avidly combed French Canadian booksellers a few years ago, looking for the DVD of the crime series Fortier, about a highly neurotic psychologist who worked with a Montreal police task force to track down sociopaths and serial killers. Its writer, Fabienne Larouche, is the Lynda LaPlante of Quebec, and Fortier has the lurid, moody quality that made Trial and Retribution so compelling. Fortier’s cast, made up of some amazing Quebecois character actors and headlined by the stunning Sophie Lorain (sidelined in movies of the week in English but stellar in anything she does in French). In the early 2000s, I watched Fortier avidly in the CBC Late Night slot (they also showed the French Canadian mob drama Omerta, albeit terribly dubbed) and had to switch to DVDs after it became clear CBC was never going to show past the third season.
Forbrydelsen, Fortier, Mirador, Hatufim and Borgen (another Danish series which I’m told is excellent) have zero presence in the universe of English North American TV and more’s the pity. I’m at a loss to understand why this is. OK, it’s foreign, but so are so many movies. We have an audience for art house cinema, why don’t we have an audience for Art House television?
When they were founded 15 years ago, two of our lower tier cable stations, Showcase and Bravo, were supposed to show television from around dthe world and TV with an artistic bent, but the CRTC let them file off those mandates to the point where Bravo rebroadcasts CTV stuff and Showcase rebroadcasts Corus stuff. (Similar drift exists in the US: I remember when A&E used to show British dramas and the opera on weekends). Even so, there’s still IFC, Sundance Channel, all sorts of other stations in this digicable universe. You would think there might be some interest somewhere for showing foreign television drama not in English.
And what about public television? I don’t mind PBS and TVOntario showing New Tricks and Downton Abbey (for one thing my parents-in-law enjoy those shows) but what about TVO giving the province next door a look and showing Mirador as well as UK imports? Why can’t PBS show Forbrydelsen as part of Masterpiece Mystery? Since when does “international broadcasting” begin and end with stuff from the UK?
But then I’m at a loss why two of the best American series of the past two years, Terriers and Men of a Certain Age never made it to Canada, or why BBC Canada is only now showing the vastly superior UK version of Dragons’ Den 8 years later, or why half the stuff on British television never winds up on BBC America.
The experience of Forbrydelsen on BBC4 in Britain shows, though, that there is an interest in not just remakes of foreign dramas but in seeing the actual series themselves in all their subtitled glory. And the Internet may well democratize this. (I know many who found these series and more through BitTorrent). I just wish broadcasters could see trend now.