***For readers who may not have seen either of these shows yet but intend to, or are mid-way through watching, don’t worry, there are no spoilers written below***
At the weekend, another superb television import drew to a close, however, as is often the case when someone mentions imports, one usually assumes we are talking about an American show. Now, nothing against US shows (lord knows I watch enough of them) but it’s nice that a trend is beginning to emerge whereby those of us in the UK are starting to experience an influx of high quality television from our nearby neighbours in mainland Europe, mainly due to some canny purchases by the BBC who have decided to air them on its so-called more high-brow channel BBC4.
I must admit I’ve been a little slow to pay attention to BBC4’s often excellent schedule, but I was first drawn in by the recent Danish series “Forbrydelsen” (or “The Killing” as it’s been translated for English audiences), with its darkly gripping synopsis and a cast full of potential culprits adorned with furrowed brows and going about their activities with an air of such shiftiness, that after watching you would often (as the wonderful Grace Dent put it in a review she did for the Guardian) “lie in bed at night worrying that you did it”. On a side note, I must admit it irks me rather that this superb show, rather than being exported to the States in all its Danish glory merely with the minor addition of subtitles, has been bought by an American network who have decided to remake it. Regardless of the network’s reputation for making high-quality shows, it just seems such a shame that the Americans have to fuck about with it at all, when it’s an exceptional piece of television in its own right.
More recently, BBC4 aired the third season of French crime series “Spiral“, entitled “The Butcher of La Villette”, which drew to a close on Saturday night in the same time-slot “The Killing” used to occupy. On the surface, these two shows look like they would be variations on the same theme, which I suppose crudely they are, seen as how they both revolve around the solving of murders and the main protagonist in both shows is a female, still (sadly) a novelty, even in this day and age.
However, I personally would argue this is where much of the similarity ends. While “The Killing” has Sarah Lund: a stoic, highly intellectual, jumper wearing, one-woman crime solving machine, “Spiral” has Laure Berthaud: a shouting, tenacious, bonking-prone, rule-breaking officer who leads a team of fellow policemen and women. While both are superb shows in their own right, my preference would be for “The Killing”, as it offers something a little different.
The focus of the drama is as much about what the characters don’t say as it is about what they do; where facial expressions and silences held are as of much importance as the words spoken. There is seemingly more emphasis too on the reasons for the crime rather than the sheer grimness of it. Indeed, in “Spiral: The Butcher of La Villette”, the grisly nature of the crime is much more explicitly portrayed, be it when the corpses are discovered, the carrying out of the autopsy, or the frequent viewing of crime scene photos, the gore is very much present within “Spiral”.
I recall watching the first episode of “Spiral: The Butcher of La Villette” where the team discover the first body, naked and with its breasts hacked off, depicted in all its “glory”; where’s a sick bag when you need one?! There was no skirting around the issue of the gore; they didn’t go for the family friendly option (or those of a nervous disposition), à la “Quincy“, by keeping the camera fixed on the faces of the investigators while the body remained wholly obscured by a sheet if a long shot was used. No. This show was very much a grown-up crime drama from the get-go.
To be fair, the case in “Spiral” was a much more gruesome one: a set of murders carried out by a serial killer, whereas “The Killing” focused on a single murder, so there was certainly more opportunity in “Spiral” for depicting the reality of the crime; also, since only one season of “The Killing” has aired (in the UK anyway; season three is currently in production in Denmark), who knows what future seasons will show? Additionally, I have only seen this latest series of “Spiral”, so perhaps the first two seasons were more low-key with the gore, however I suspect this is unlikely.
Both protagonists buck the trend of female characterisation too. Rather pleasingly, there’s barely any focus on the “woman trying to have it all” tired cliché; although Lund does have a son she seems more preoccupied with jumpers than him or her partner, who she is supposed to be moving to Sweden with at the start of the series, but gradually becomes solely focused on the case. Although Berthaud doesn’t shy away from shagging people as a means to an end for professional purposes, Lund, as Sofie Gråbøl (the actress who portrays her) said in a recent interview, is “so [confident] in herself that she doesn’t have to use her sex to get what she wants. She’s herself.“, which I think makes her the more intriguing character of the two.
Also in that same interview, Sofie mentions that during the first series the writers hinted Lund may have an affair with one of the other major characters. Quite rightly, Sofie objected on the grounds it would be a cop-out, undermining the character; happily, she does not hook-up with anyone. It’s all too easy for a popular television show with two lead characters to end up pairing them off, whether due to viewer pressure, lazy writing, or a combination of the two.
Regardless, both “Spiral” and “The Killing” are excellent shows. So if crime dramas are your thing and you aren’t averse to reading subtitles, you should definitely check them out.