How Three Danish Shows Revolutionized Our TV Habits

The genre we call world television didn’t even exist until a decade ago - and we have Denmark (and Netflix) to thank for it

Sofia Helin and Thure Lindhardt in 'The Bridge' (Bron/Broen).
SVT1 / DR1

Hollywood producers like to compare what they do to catching lightning in a bottle: Trying to capture the impossible and then packaging it in such a way that it becomes a global hit, from California to China. That may sound self-aggrandizing, but the fact is that the odds are stacked heavily against creating a hit film or TV show.

Thousands are made every year worldwide but the vast majority will fail, both critically and commercially. Nobody sets out to produce a flop, of course – except perhaps Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom. Oh, and Adam Sandler, whose latest Netflix effort, “The Week Of,” was just recently released and leaves you wondering if the producers misunderstood the brief and instead were trying to catch a turd in a bottle. If they were, mission accomplished.

Netflix may be prolonging the career of Sandler, but it is also doing something far more worthwhile: Introducing viewers to shows from such far-flung places as Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Germany and, yes, Israel.

The streaming service recently announced plans to increase its productions in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, working with local producers to create shows in more than 15 countries. Unlike “The Week Of,” that’s highly laudable. Netflix cited the success of its German thriller “Dark,” which, it says, “generated unexpected fandom in countries such as Chile, Bangladesh and Canada, and, for every hour watched in Germany, nine hours were watched internationally.”

Impressive stuff, although it means the public now has even more viewing choices than ever before. For example, “Dark” itself may be hot in Chile, but it’s just another in the increasingly long list of shows accumulating on my Must Watch list on Netflix. The same goes for the Brazilian show “3%,” which sounds like an interesting riff on “The Hunger Games” and whose second season just dropped – and I know my chances of finding time to see it this year are less than 3 percent. You can add the French thriller “The Chalet” to that list, too.

This genre we call world television didn’t even exist until a decade ago, when a very unlikely source changed the viewing habits of millions. For that, we must say a very big “tak” to Denmark.

It was the Danes who really managed to catch lightning in a bottle – “fange lyn i en flaske,” as they might say in Copenhagen – with three specific shows that led to a mini-revolution in television. Countries like Israel may be used to viewing subtitled entertainment, but not so the English-speaking world. Yet three shows changed that, particularly in Great Britain, where the subtitled show is now a Saturday night staple on one BBC channel.

Unlikely stars

All three shows featured strong female protagonists, all made no apologies for being Danish, and all made unlikely international stars of the women in the memorable central characters. Those shows are “The Killing” (“Forbrydelsen”), “The Bridge” (Broen”) and “Borgen.” While the first two are crime thrillers, the third was perhaps the most remarkable for making us care about the inner workings of Danish politics and the travails of a fictional prime minister (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) trying to survive in the bitter world of government coalition deals.

“The Killing” aired for three seasons between 2007 and 2012, and the first season – all 20 hours of it – remains perhaps the finest show produced this millennium. It spawned an equally grim U.S. remake, starring Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman. But the Scandinavian original, starring Sofie Grabol as the knitted sweater-wearing, tough-as-nails police detective Sarah Lund, is a masterpiece.

But while “The Killing” and “Borgen” are now distant memories, “The Bridge” has just returned for its fourth (and probably final) season.

Like “The Killing,” “The Bridge” has also been remade – successfully in the United Kingdom, where “The Tunnel” has run for three seasons, featuring British and French detectives (Stephen Dillane, Clemence Poesy); and unsuccessfully in the United States, where it featured American and Mexican detectives (Diane Kruger, Demian Bichir). But it’s the original you need to see.

It’s actually a Danish-Swedish co-production, and the first two seasons were especially memorable for putting together wildly unorthodox Swedish detective Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) with dour Danish detective Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia – now in the BBC America show “Killing Eve”). Season three didn’t quite manage to get that lightning into the bottle, with Rohde’s character being replaced by another damaged Dane, Henrik Sabroe (Thure Lindhardt), with his own tragic backstory – because this is Scandinavia, where “tragic backstory” is just par for the course in this sunlight-starved, rain-soaked world.

Season four of “The Bridge” gets off to the most shockingly violent start I’ve seen on screen in a long time (it makes “Westworld” look like Pixar), and subsequent events in the first few episodes suggest the show is going out on a high (artistically speaking, of course; it’s sure to be misery for the characters). It’s always a pleasure to spend time watching Helin, who has become an unlikely star in Britain, where she is accorded a rock star reception at the Nordic Noir festivals staged annually in London. Indeed, Helin recently told of meeting one female fan who turned up at an event wearing not only the same leather trousers and greatcoat as her Saga character, but even driving the same 1970s-era Porsche 911 car. It’s an obsessiveness to which Helin’s own Asperger’s-scale character would surely relate.

The biggest problem facing Danish TV has been trying to replicate the success of its three giants. While actors from the shows now crop up in the most unlikely places (Sidse Babett Knudsen in season one of “Westworld,” for example), there hasn’t been another Danish show to successfully get the “lyn” in the “flaske” – a problem exacerbated by rival nations like Iceland stealing the, er, thunder with brilliant thrillers like “Trapped.”

The only Danish show that’s come close to repeating those earlier successes is “Follow the Money” (“Bedrag,” or “Deception” in Danish), a thriller set in the murky world of finance (think a less glossy version of “Billions”). It’s spawned two very enjoyable seasons, with a third reportedly on the way. There’s also “Below the Surface,” which is basically “The Taking of Pelham 123” set on the Copenhagen subway system. I’ve seen one episode so far, and subtle it ain’t: the plot may be set below the surface, but the characters’ emotions most definitely aren’t.

Finally, Netflix has just released its first-ever Danish production, “The Rain.” It’s set six years after a virus has wiped out most of the population of Scandinavia, and I’ve just added it to my lengthy Netflix watch list. Bleak, sodden landscapes and even bleaker lives? Welcome back, Danish TV, we’ve missed you!