Tag Archive for: TV series

We all learned in school that there once was a British empire in which the sun never set. We also know that since losing their empire, the Brits have tried to reclaim it – often in co-production with US partners – by conquering the world market for film and television.

Downton-Abbey-season-2-downton-abbey-29116399-1600-900-1024x576Six seasons since its start in 2010 and 54 episodes (and some season specials) later, Downton Abbey has re-established the empire to such a degree that somebody somewhere is probably watching the series every hour of the day. It is somewhat surprising that this British heritage drama series, a genre developed by BBC in collaboration with the US Masterpiece Theatre (linked to PBS), was actually developed by ITV and Masterpiece Theatre in the US.

ITV managed to get over 10 million viewers in the UK for most of the series, and the last Christmas special on 25 December 2015 was the first to beat all other programme on that particular day. So a huge national and international success, broadcast in over 220 countries and with an estimated global TV audience of 120 million. Add to that the probably very extensive sale of DVD-sets and the fact that the series can be streamed on several digital platforms, including Amazon and Netflix in some countries.

Heritage-soap or heritage-drama?

The long-running soap is a classic in British TV-culture, but most often in the form of contemporary stories set in solid working-class or lower middle-class environments. Eastender (1985- BBC) and Granada/ITV’s Coronation Street (1960-) are running head to head for this kind of audience.

The term soap, originally an American term for the cheap afternoon-series (for women), indicates a low trashy quality, a low production value, and also the condescending view of critics. However, these more or less realistic drama-series have established themselves as a TV institution that engage with contemporary issues and developments, something really many viewers can relate to and mirror themselves in.

They are cousins to the great, British contemporary realism tradition in the single drama or drama-series format. It was actually BBC’s Eastenders Christmas Day episode which Downton Abbey beat.

If Eastenders and Coronation Street are cheaper versions of the great contemporary TV-realist drama, Downton Abbey has often, perhaps especially in the UK, been considered a ‘heritage soap’ of a lower quality than those grand heritage adaptations and series based on classical literature. We might think of Brideshead Revisited (Granada, 1981) as and early classic version Downton Abbey or the many Bronte miniseries by BBC.

But the classic heritage adaptation often doesn’t have the upstairs-downstairs perspective to the same degree as Downton Abbey. In The Guardian’s Richard Vine’s final comment on the series, he claims that at home, the series has always played like a ‘posh pantomime – a fantasy vision of a Britain that never really existed, where everyone from kitchen maid to second footman is happy with their lot, because the people at the top are such bally decent chaps.’ But oddly enough he also calls the last episode ever ‘ very much a kitchen sink affair.’

It is probably not meant in any positive way, but actually the combination of classic heritage and a subdued historical and social realism could be seen as a clue to the success of the series.

The grand historical structures and everyday life

downton-isis_3085676cIt is no coincidence that the first season starts with the Titanic catastrophe. This incident symbolises  the coming modern, technological and social revolution and the decline of the traditional class society with its grand estates – and an economy built for another century.

In the last Christmas special episode in December 2015, both Lord and Lady Grantham discuss the changing times and try to convince themselves that if they adapt to the new times, they will succeed in somehow keeping their life style.

But Lord Grantham’s always more cynical mother, Violet Crawley (played by Dame Maggie Smith), is not so convinced by modernity and progress. In a response to Isobel Crawley, who points out that ‘we are moving forward to the future, not backwards to the past’ she responds ‘ if only we had the choice.’ So there is a nostalgia built into the series, a feeling of grand times disappearing.

For a heritage drama-series spanning a relatively short historical time (1912-1926) the use of real historical events is rather striking. We have the First World war of course, the Spanish Flu that influences life on Downton Abbey heavily, just as the Irish-English conflict. Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923 (season five) also has strong consequences for Lady Edith.

But in general it is not these historical events that are in focus in the series fictional narrative. Here we are more likely to find more general, structural developments, first of all the technological development, secondly the women’s liberation and move towards equality, and third but not least the rise of the lower classes to a more prominent status in society.

The development towards a more modern class society in the series is clear in the breakdown of the traditional inheritance procedures. Mathew Crawley is in the beginning taken in as a somewhat low rank heir. But his marriage with Lady Mary ends with his death (in a car accident!), and in the last season she then marries a racing driver.

But perhaps more important than this narrative use of underdogs, signalling the rise of new classes, is the fact that both Lady Mary and Lady Edith at least partly divert from their expected, traditional position and become more independent and powerful. It is of course also significant that Lady Mary’s new husband (the racing driver) and Tom (the chauffeur and husband to the late Lady Sybil) start a car sales agency together. New times for those married into the aristocracy.

Downstairs: a mirror of upstairs

r-DOWNTON-large570The transformation of patterns of life developments and roles in the upstairs world is clearly mirrored in the downstairs world. On the one hand, we have the master of keeping things as they have always been, the butler Carson; on the other, we have all those among the downstairs staff that move on and change social status.

The most obvious case of this is off course the Tom Branson – the chauffeur marrying lord Grantham’s youngest daughter and also being accepted as part owner and manager. But there is also the case of Daisy taking an education, the maid Gwen becoming a secretary, or the footman Joseph Molesley, being educated as a teacher and in the end having success in this new capacity.

It is interesting that the in-house upstairs scenes are mostly shot at the Highclere castle, the location figuring as Downton Abbey, including of course the upstairs scenes with the downstairs staff. But the downstairs locations had to be recreated at Ealing studios. Highclere facilities were not appropriate for this part of the story.

It speaks to the realism of the series that, according to Krystal Becky in The Washington Post, the production designers visited around 40 country houses to get the right period look of both rooms, furniture and equipment. It also underscores the importance of the downstairs characters for the narrative and the period picture.

In that sense, Downton Abbey, has a clear affinity to the contemporary British soaps. We do not often find servants to such a degree in the classical heritage drama based on adaptation of literary classics, although these may in other ways deal with class conflicts. But in Downton Abbey the upstairs characters and the downstairs characters have their own extended space and narrative development, and they illustrate aspects of the same historical change and move towards a modern society and democracy.

Complex heritage and the world audience

Downton Abbey cannot be described as realist historical drama with a strong critical edge and with focus on all the dark sides of the early parts of 1900. It is a broad family saga with a huge and fascinating cast of characters, where dark sides are very visible both upstairs and downstairs. Historical events and structures of change are clearly woven into the narrative with deep effects, but the family perspective always prevails.

However, Downton Abbey is much more than just a nostalgic look into a past world, gone forever. We do not see things from one perspective, not even just the downstairs and the upstairs, for both upstairs and downstairs many positions, characters and even ideological and social perspective are presented.

So even though the series paint an image of a world of yesterday, it is also a story of transformation and of universal human values and conflicts, which a world audience can identify with. World audiences seem to have a weakness for English heritage and they get plenty of it in cinemas and on TV.

But heritage is not in itself nostalgic, backwards looking. One may quote Andrew Higson’s (Heritage England, 2008: 29) general statement on heritage films: ‘Such films, it seems, are capable of producing a sharp critique of the limits of past and present social and moral formations. On the other hand, and somewhat paradoxically, they also seem to offer decidedly conservative nostalgic and celebratory vision of the English past.

First published November 26, 2015. Kommunikationsforum


Ib Bondebjerg

HBO har gjort det igen – tryllebundet os foran skærmen med en sort og kompliceret fortælling, der vender vrangen ud på den amerikanske sjæl. Første – og måske sidste sæson af True Detective er til ende – den gule konge og sataniske seriemorder er fanget. Men mareridtet fortsætter derude i Louisianas subtropiske sumpe – i virkeligheden. Betjent Cohle, med Mathew McCognaugheys plagede ansigt og fortid, og makkeren Harts knudeægtemand i Woody Harrelsons skikkelse vil også hjemsøge vores indre skærm længe. Måske er denne HBO serie slut, men bare rolig, der kommer flere, og der ligger allerede et helt bibliotek online med fremragende, amerikansk tv-kunst.

Krimiens tre historiske spor

 Der var måske engang vi europæere påberåbte os retten til at bære auteur-kulturens kunstneriske adelsmærke. Vi kunne i hvert fald hurtigt blive enige om, at de der amerikanere, som sad på det hele, sprøjtede forudsigelige mainstream produkter ud. Men det er længe siden, og har måske aldrig været helt sandt. I hvert fald har den amerikanske krimi-tradition præget generationer af også europæere. Nogen af os husker langt tilbage til vores barndoms og ungdoms krimihelte: de bar navne som Columbo, McCloud eller Kojak og de kunne være mere finurlige og intellektuelle eller mere actionprægede i deres måde at angribe samfundets udskud og råddenskab på. Men de fik afsnit efter afsnit gjort jobbet, og de var retlinede figurer og helte. Det var serier, med afsluttede handlingsforløb hver gang.

 I Europa udviklede især engelsk tv tidligt sine egne genrer, præget af den særlige engelske forkærlighed for de mindre byer med råddenskab bag den tilsyneladende idyl. Den elskelige Miss Marble var en af de tidligste engelske figurer, men Lord Peter Wimsey, Inspector Barnaby i Midsommer Murders, Inspector Frost og Inspector Morse tegner et klart britisk krimispor. Man kunne gå videre i det europæiske spor, f.eks. med Maigret i Frankrig eller Der Alte i Tyskland.

 Skandinavien har også sine egne helte på film og i tv, og i dag taler man internationalt om ’nordic noir’ som måske kan siges at udgøre et tredje spor. Wallander har gået sin sejrsgang i flere lande, og den danske Forbrydelsen har også været med til at forme en ny krimitradition, som blander amerikansk og europæisk: komplekse og visuelt stærke fortællinger, hvor tematikken breder sig fra krimiplottet og ind i dybere sociale og psykologiske lag. Det er måske værd at nævne, at True Detectives screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto var med til at lave den amerikanske version af Forbrydelsen. Selvom han i interviews har benægtet en inspiration, så er der et link.

 Det narrative og æstetiske jordskred i den amerikanske tv-serie

 Selvom der også var kvaliteter i den klassiske, amerikanske tv-kultur, var der alligevel noget forudsigeligt over dem. Men det var noget som ændrede sig afgørende da Hill Street Blues løb over skærmen i store dele af verden fra 1981-1987 på NBC. Pludselig blev krimihistorien til en stort udfoldet city-fortælling via en kollektiv plot-struktur, som både tacklede selve politiets arbejde og kriminalitetsbekæmpelse og til en bredt anlagt social fortælling om offentligt og privat liv i en moderne storby. Væk var de korte narrative buer i seriens enkelte afsnit, nu strækker fortællingen sig over flere spor og afsnit. Hill Street Blues ligger før det gennembrud for kabel-tv i USA i slutningen af 90’erne, som indvarsler en helt ny kvalitetsæra i amerikansk tv.

Kvalitetstraditionen er udtryk for mødet mellem en anderledes sammensætning af det amerikanske tv-publikum og et ny kreativ energi i tv-miljøet. Mellem 1960 og 1980 steg andelen af den amerikanske befolkning med high school uddannelse fra omkring 45% til omkring 78%, 60 % af kvinderne fulgte samme uddannelsesmønster og kom ud på arbejdsmarkedet. Samtidig steg indflytningen til de store byer markant. Det publikum som sad foran tv-skærmen i USA omkring 1960 var simpelthen helt forskelligt fra det der sad der i 1980, den traditionelle tv-familie, med sine traditionelle mønstre og kønsroller, var under nedbrydning.

Det er dette historiske møde mellem et forandret tv-publikum og et nyt kreativt talent som skaber serier som Hill Street Blues. Steven Bocho og Michael Kozoll som skabte Hill Street Blues fik store frihedsgrader i det kreative arbejde i forhold til normen i den traditionelle, hierarkiske og stationsstyrede amerikanske tv-kultur. Det store persongalleri, de mange plots og hele den mere pågående realistiske tematik og stil var ny. Da der først var gået hul på bylden begyndte andre netværk at følge efter med mere eksperimentelle og også ofte refleksive serier.

Fra Twin Peaks til True Detective: HBO-faktoren

Men det var David Lynch og David Frosts surrealistiske tv-serie Twin Peaks (1990-91) der for alvor rystede op i de vante forestillinger om amerikansk tv-kultur. At et tv-netværk som ABC overhovedet kunne finde på at spørge en syret filmmand som Lynch om han ville lave en serie til dem, havde været utænkeligt før. Som Mark Frost sagde om samarbejdet med ABC i 1990: ’Vi sagde til dem, at vi ville give dem en 2-timers stemningsfuld, dyster soap opera, en mord- og mystik-historie, der foregik i en fiktiv by i det nordvestlige USA (…) da vi havde afleveret pilotafsnittet, så sagde de, at vi havde givet dem nøjagtig hvad vi havde sagt vi ville, og at det vi havde givet dem var så fremmed for deres tidligere erfaringer, at de slet ikke ville prøve at fortælle dem, hvordan vi kunne gøre det bedre.’

Der går en lige linje fra Twin Peaks surreelle billedsprog og kringlede plot, fra karakter med usædvanlige dybder til HBO’s og Nic Pozzolattos True Detective,. Alene den faste intro er et studie værd: Dali møder Magritte i et visuelt orgie af musik og billeder, hvor karakternes ansigter og hjerne fyldes med steder, som bliver til mentale landskaber. Seriens indledning flyder af signaler på religion, seksualitet, ondskab, vold og smerte. Den tunge sydstatsrock driver af blues og tung rytme, som bæres videre i det fugtige, sumpede univers som fysisk præger serien, men som også fortsætter ind det sociale og psykologiske rum.

Som sine forgængere Frank Furillo, hovedkarakteren i Hill Street Blues, agent Dale Cooper og sherif Harry Truman i Twin Peaks eller for den sags skyld betejentene McNully og Rawls i HBO og David Simons spektakulære serie The Wire (2002-08) er Rust Cohle og Marty Hart sammensatte karakterer i en verden, hvor intet er sort-hvidt. De bliver suget ind i og ned af den kriminelle virkelighed de bevæger sig i, og de påvirkes ind i deres privatliv og langt ind i deres sumpede sjæl af de forbrydelser de er sat til at løse. Vi er langt væk fra den mere renskurede og målrettede betjent eller detektiv som bare løser sager og rydder op. I True Detective, som i mange andre af de nye serier fra HBO, tager karaktererne livtag med eksistensen og sig selv, de løser sager med dybtliggende og forgrenede motiver og sammenhænge. Den moderne detektiv er en Sisyfos, hvis arbejde og eksistens hele tiden rulles tilbage og afdækker en absurd og uoverskuelig virkelighed.

Mudrede vande: Kompleks narrativitet og visuel stil

HBO har været med til at sætte nye standarder for tv-fortællinger, fortællinger med en distinkt, visuel stil og komplekse tematikker og historier. HBO har ikke bare vist deres styrke indenfor krimi-grenren, men i en bred vifte af både historiske serier og samtidsdramaer. True Detective fortsætter hvor f.eks. The Sopranos, The Wire og Six Feet Under slap, alle serier med meget komplekse narrative forløb og karakterer og med en klar, visuel signatur. I True Detective er der en usædvanligt kompliceret tidsstruktur, som imidlertid fungerer godt. Serien har en rammehistorie i 2012, hvor Cohle og Hart på skift forhøres om begivenheder der går tilbage til 1995. Serien springer altså hele tiden i de forskellige tidslag, fordi vi både ser tilbage på opklaringens historie og får den udfoldet i en mere kronologisk udfoldet form.

Samtidig udnytter serien i sit visuelle sprog både de store, panoramiske billeder, de intense dyk ned i meget forskellige miljøer. Der veksles mellem melankolske eksistentielle situationer og stemninger, opklaringens detektiviske spor, privatlivets opgør og trakasserier og de mere brutale scener med mishandling og tegn og mystiske gerninger på gerningsstederne og endelig de i øvrigt relativt få actionscener. Samtidig er sam- og modspillet mellem de to karakterer et af seriens absolutte psykologiske højdepunkter. True Detective er en serie, som har åbnet endnu et kapitel i en central genres kunstneriske udvikling: det handler ikke bare om forbrydelse og opklaring, det er en eksistentiel og surrealistisk fortælling om vor tid.

In our second in a series of special articles on Season 3 of The Bridge (Bron/Broen), Ib Bondebjerg examines the Danish reception of the series and notes that, despite positive reviews, critical voices are emerging.

Warning: this article contains spoilers.

The sharp, observant reader may notice that part of the title of this blog is taken from Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle (2014). Having followed the last three seasons of The Bridge, with its dark tale of crime and psychological and social despair, one might accept Booth’s critical-satirical take on so-called Nordic welfare states.

Viewers of the police drama are confronted with not only the most appalling forms of crime, social disasters and class differences, but also dysfunctional people tormented by their past and present family and history. Breakdowns and death are literally just around the corner – as is often the case with modern crime drama. But here the darkness almost seem to emanate from the screen and iconic shots of urban spaces around the Øresund region.


Figure 1: TV ratings for The Bridge: Season 3 in Denmark. Source: MeCETES

Despite this, ratings in Denmark have increased with each season: the latest had an average audience share of around 38% in the prime-time 8-9pm Sunday slot, the high quality drama slot on DR1. Slightly under a million viewers per episodes is good, though not quite as good as one of DR’s own drama series, where even the controversial 1864 had an average of 1.3 million viewers per episode (figure 1).

Bridging cultures: Scandinavian co-production

The Bridge is a ‘natural co-production’ in the sense that the story takes place in the two main co-producing countries; the cast is from the two countries; the financing partners involve two private production companies from each country; and the two main public service channels in Sweden and Denmark carry a lot of weight. However, as is often the case with Scandinavian drama series, the co-production partners represent a much wider national spectrum and group of funding institutions, which in many ways also makes The Bridge a European co-production.

The core-creative team is clearly Swedish-Danish with the Swedish Hans Rosenfeldt as the main writer, but also the Danish Nicolaj Scherfig as an important creative partner across all three seasons. In season three the Swedish creative dominance became stronger, though the main structure of a natural co-production has remained in place. Hans Rosenfeldt and the Danish co-producer Bo Ehrhardt from Nimbus Films have both stressed that, by using a story, characters and settings that crossed the border between two close but still different neighbours, they hoped to bridge cultures, to create a transnational encounter that could work for both Danes and Swedes in prime-time.

Danish reception of The Bridge has emphasised the theme of ‘Swedishness’ and ‘Danishness’, often in relation to the two main characters of Saga Noren (Sofia Helen) and Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), and forms of behaviour that are seen as characteristic for the culture of the two nations. However, both the creative team and Danish critics have also noted a strong element on transnationality and universality to the series.

In an interview for the first season of The Bridge, for example, the Danish director Charlotte Sieling said: “The team behind The Bridge has worked actively with the differences, which Danes and Swedes imagine exist between them. But we have done so to find the similarities.”

She suggested these differences lie in cultural habits and language – but also that basically as human beings we are alike. She pointed to inclusion-exclusion as the big theme in the series, a theme which may have a special form in a Scandinavian welfare state, but which can also be found in all societies:

“We have deliberately focused on the universal similarities. Therefore national icons are completely absent from the series (…) we have tried to create a visual form that gives the impression of a series that could take place in any urban space (…) in the darkness of the city we are all alike.”

A darker epic

Drama was intense in the third season, even before shooting started. Leading actor Kim Bodnia (who played Martin Rohde) left the series, thereby changing the whole balance established between the two main characters.

As it turned out the screenwriters had to use two new characters to build a new psychological narrative structure. First they shocked viewers with the introduction of a female Danish cop, Kirsten Olesen, who was clearly on the war path against Saga. Yet her character met a violent end early in the series, so in came a drug-addicted Henrik Sabroe (Thure Lindhardt) with a family history almost as tragic as Saga’s.

Henrik and Saga moved closer and closer to each other as the series developed, and their story sometimes seemed to overshadow the crime plot. One might also say that the series manages to combine a more universal theme of child neglect with a double personal history of cops digging more and more into their own troubled family past.

But the crime plot, which most viewers would have solved by episode 9 or before, was at the same time of a different nature than season one and two. Season one seemed to build on a global political agenda, but turned out to be a personal revenge tale, while season two had a real, global political plot linked to climate problems and terrorism, but kept the personal revenge story from part one alive in Martin’s story.

In the third season the crime plot is directly linked to family problems and child neglect, and on top of that the long narrative thread of Saga’s family background and Henrik’s loss of his wife and two daughters turns the series into a sinister, dark tale of family dysfunctionality. The murderer in season three turns out to be a neglected, hurt child who builds miniatures of the bad characters from his childhood and the way he wants to kill them. The dark side of a welfare society not even capable of protecting the most basic social and human rights is thus exposed.

Henrik and Saga’s story – the fact that they almost become a couple, the fact that they are tormented by their own family past, and the fact that Saga is accused of having killed her own mother – seem to create a Greek saga of how we torment and harm each other.

The image of Henrik’s utter despair when the body of his wife, but not his daughters, turn up after six years, and the following images of Saga’s complete breakdown and near suicide in the last episode is as dramatic, if not more, than the crime plot itself. The third season thus confirms the specific quality of the Nordic Noir, which juxtaposes the crime narrative with the social and psychological backgound of the cops investigating crime. Crime and the things that causes it are not just in others, but potentially in us all, seems to be the key message.

Success and critical voices


Figure 2: Danish audience profile for The Bridge: Season 3. Source: MeCETES

While in general Danish audiences stayed with the series across all ages and genders (figure 2), the series has attracted particular interest amongst ‘modern-socials’, a lifestyle group characterized by a critical, cosmopolitan outlook on society (figure 3). The dark, critical dimension of the series and the generally transnational, global and cosmopolitan dimension of the series matches more with the modern-social segment than with the other segments of Danish society.

Figure 2: Viewers of The Bridge Season 3 by lifestyle segments. Source: MeCETES

Figure 3: Danish audience share for The Bridge: Season 3 lifestyle segments. Source: MeCETES

Reviews in the Danish press and some specialist magazines were also more mixed than with the first two seasons. The debate on season three particularly focused on whether the narrative had become a too complicated, fuzzy and confusing. In Politiken, the preferred newspaper of the modern-social segment, head critic Henrik Palle gave the series five hearts out of six, and called it “a stunningly beautiful piece of TV” and “a dark and sublime thriller”. The paper also revealed that the general popularity of the series in Denmark and beyond has caused many tourist to take very dangerous ‘selfies’ on the actual Öresund Bridge, where pedestrians are not allowed and drivers cannot step out of their cars, except in an emergency.

But the very positive review of season three by Henrik Palle caused a colleague from the same newspaper, Marcus Rubin, to challenge his views. According to Rubin the series lost realism and narrative coherence in season three, with too many side stories which did not make sense.

Rubin, for example, found the story with Saga’s mother and death totally unrealistic, and asked why audiences were introduced to a story about a female industrial leader with a young lover. Likewise, the specialist film magazine Ekko only gave season 3 of The Bridge two stars out of six, with the same arguments: an incoherent plot and narrative and two many uninteresting side stories.

The Bridge I-III – and more? – is still a major transnational co-production able to engage a large Noric audience and a growing international one as well. But while overall reviews in Denmark remain positive, critical voices are getting a bit stronger. Even so, at a time when nationalism is beginning to show its dark side in Europe once again, there is no doubt that this transnational series still provides a positive example of European cultural encounters.