Crime and Subtitles — I

Not even this man lives by anarchist history and theory alone, however close a thing it may sometimes be. There are the necessary distractions, useful for resting certain parts of the apparatus and exercising others, like good beer, a bit of cooking and foreign television shows. The growing importance of the last of those to my routine has been something of a surprise, since I went a couple of decades without a television. But I’ve always had an interest in popular genre entertainment, making it the focus of my graduate work for a while in the 90s, and much of the most interesting material there has arguably moved from print to the small screen.

The thought of subtitled television may strike some as a bit too much work for the idle hours, and sometimes it is, but in other instances tracking subtitles is a very small price to pay for superb entertainment. To kick off this new phase of the blog, I wanted to go back through the material I’ve watched in my exploration of subtitled crime series and suggest some that I think are either essential or at least well worth the effort. I’ve come up with a list of 15 shows, the first five of which are, in my opinion, of the must-see variety.

1. Forbrydelsen (The Killing, Danish) — 3 series, 2007-2012: I’m starting with Forbrydelsen because it really marks the beginning of subtitled crime drama and the “Nordic noir” genre as a presence on English-language television stations. There’s no substitute for following Sofie Gråbøl’s Detective Inspector Sarah Lund through all three series, each of which addresses a single crime, if you want to understand where the mold for so much current crime drama was really set. And Forbrydelsen is rich in fine performances and interesting situations. But it is very far from perfectly executed story-telling. Lund is an example of the now-familiar damaged detective type, who struggles in her relations with others in her personal and professional lives. In each of the series she is in a position where her involvement with the case is supposed to be temporary or limited, and her considerable investigative skills are constantly undercut by circumstances. At the same time, she is just one player in a world where virtually everyone involved in the various communities portrayed (police, politicians, victims and their families) has reasons why solving the case may actually be the last thing they are prepared to concentrate on. Everyone tends to be pitted against everyone else at one time or another, when they are not strangely allied. Through it all, we’re left wondering just how different Lund really is from those around her and just exactly what it is about her that keeps her on the case.

Viewers may know much of the story of Forbrydelsen from the American adaptation, The Killing, the first two seasons of which reproduced many of the events of the first series, while changing key elements and adding quite a few more. Critics have naturally been riled by some of the liberties taken in the American series, but my own sense is that it solved many of the problems of pacing and continuity that plagued the original. They are ultimately rather different series, despite the shared elements.

Unfortunately, Forbrydelsen is less accessible than pretty much anything else on my list, but copies of the episodes do surface various places. It’s certainly worth seeking them out

2. Bron/Broen (The Bridge, Swedish/Danish) — 3 series, 2011-present: Bron/Broen is my pick for the absolute must-see series in this group. It has a number of similar elements, including a female lead detective, Saga Norén, who makes Sarah Lund seem positively well-adjusted. But it is also a product of international cooperation in its original form, with Danish and Swedish elements in conflict throughout. The series opens with a corpse discovered at the national boundary on the the Øresund Bridge, connecting Copenhagen and Malmö, and the usual jurisdictional clashes are heightened by the very different personalities of the detectives from the two countries. Everything here is a bit more focused than in Forbrydelsen, although the questions raised are often very similar. In terms of character development, the more extreme character of Saga’s flaws, and the fact that we are given some fairly clear origin for them, place fewer strains on the story. And the stories themselves have been generally well-crafted.

Perhaps the clearest tribute to the strengths of the series is that at least two of the adaptations, The Bridge (US/Mexico) and The Tunnel (UK/France), have managed to be quite entertaining, despite very literal translation of events in some cases.

3. Engrenages (Spiral, French) — 5 series, 2005-present: A NYT review claimed that “‘Spiral’ is ‘Law & Order’ as seen by Stendhal.” And that at least points in some of the right directions. Engrenages is indeed built on a familiar cops-and-lawyers formula, but with each series built around a small number of cases and with considerable focus on the lives of the various characters. It would perhaps not be fair to call this a “procedural,” but primarily because the fine cast primarily portrays characters without a great deal of use for procedure, hemmed in by a system that is not particularly strong on integrity. Predictably, things spiral, and much of the pleasure of the series is watching everyone attempt to deal with the consequences of their actions, whether principled or unprincipled (and most often occupying some gray area in between.)

Under the title “Spiral,” Engrenages is available on a number of streaming services.

4. Flics (Elite Squad, French) — 2 series, 2008-2011: My top five couldn’t be complete without one show from Olivier Marchal, creator of a number of French cop shows likely to remind US viewers of series like The Shield. The choice could just as easily have been Braquo, which follows a quarter of Paris cops who “cross the line” to clear the name of a colleague and commit themselves to lives in which they are constantly under threat from all sides. But Flics captures both the elegance of Marchal’s approach and the ambiguities of the longer series in two four-episode seasons. For some, I’m sure this will be more than enough, while those who find themselves wanting more can track down Braquo and then perhaps follow the various creators involved to other projects, such as Section Zéro and En immersion (aka Deep.)

Flics is currently streaming on Walter Presents under the rather unfortunate title “Elite Squad.”

5. Cromo (Argentine) — 1 series, 2015: My fifth pick is a bit of a dark horse, an Argentine series revolving around murder and environmental catastrophe in the province of Corrientes, based in part on actual events. The fact is that the international success of series like Forbrydelsen have resulted in a proliferation of shows sharing many of the same elements, but transferred to new locations and incorporating local material. It has quite quickly become difficult to choose just a short list of favorites from among the international offerings now available in subtitled versions. But, as with most forms of genre entertainment, there are a variety of ways to stand out in the crowd. There are series that treat the familiar elements from the pioneering “Scandi-noir” shows precisely as elements of a formula, and then deliver satisfying opportunities to enjoy a new version of a familiar experience. And there are others that, despite incorporating many familiar elements and displaying a similar worldview, would almost certainly stand on their own. Cromo stands out for me as an entry in the latter category. I was struck, watching it, by how much the world it presented resembled that of Forbrydelsen, where truth and justice—solving and avenging crime—were simply at odds with the normal flow of interests and events. But it is also just a fine example of the sort of slightly over-stuffed plot that now seems to be the norm in so much crime drama being executed within a bare minimum of moments that seem contrived. And, visually, it is as pretty as almost anything out there.

It seems to me that exposure to these five series provides a sort of basic literacy in what is obviously a diverse and growing genre, including a knowledge of some of the shows most likely to be referenced in the description of new shows, as well as a relatively painless introduction to the experience of subtitled television. But there are certainly lots of important shows, and indeed whole subgenres of shows, that are not represented here. In another post, I want to spread the net a little wider and explore some series not so closely tied to the modern noir genre.