Review Too Late: Nordic Noir

by wjw on March 9, 2018

 Over our long winter months, I’ve been watching TV set in brooding northern climes.  How depressing can it get in northern Europe?

Very, apparently.

Bordertown.  Netflix kept trying to get me to watch this, but I assumed it was set on the US-Mexican border, and I’m all too familiar with that.  But then Netflix played me the trailer, unasked the way they do, and I realized everyone was speaking Finnish.  So hey, that’s more interesting!

Bordertown stars acting stalwart Ville Virtanen as Detective Inspector Kari Sorjonen, one of those TV detectives with an eerie, almost psychic connection to the crimes he’s investigating.  After his wife survives brain cancer, he realizes that the depraved, violent criminal underworld of Helsinki is getting between him and his family, and so he gets transferred to the provincial college town of Lappeenranta, near the Russian border, where he assumes things will be more calm.

But this is series television, right? Lappeenranta proves to be chock-full of even more depraved, violent crime than Finland’s slaughter capital of Helsinki.  Much of the crime is leaking over the border from Russia, possibly with the cooperation of Lappeenranta’s creepy mayor, who would like Russian money for his casino project and seems not to much care where it comes from.  (The mayor is also the ex-boyfriend of Sorjonen’s wife, and he isn’t at all stalking her, not really.)

In the first series, young women are going missing, including the daughter of a violent, half-psychotic ex-FSB strike force cop (Lena Sinisalo), in exile in Finland because she arrested the wrong oligarch or something.  Sorjonen has a daughter the same age, and so of course after the usual confrontations in which he and the demented Russian point pistols at each other, they end up joining forces.

It’s good depressing Scandinavian drama, with a few weaknesses.  The two cops’ teenage daughters are thematically woven into the plot of the first story, which is about missing, abused young women, but afterwards the writers found themselves stuck with these two characters who weren’t cops and didn’t have much to do.  They’re both played by good actresses, and it’s a shame to waste them.  And, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the functional purpose of family in genre is to be kidnaped and held hostage.

So in every series, one or both of the young ladies are threatened, kidnaped, framed, poisoned, stalked, and/or investigated for murder.  Because otherwise the producers are just paying them to sit there.

And also, the plots are hyper-twisty.  I normally find this a good thing, but there was at least one series where I never understood what was going on even after Sorjonen explained it.  I suppose the blizzard of Finnish names may just have contributed to the confusion:  “Rikospaikkakuvaaja was blackmailing Satu-Maria over what happened to Satamamestari, but Kaartinen found out about it and let slip to Laakkonen what was going on, and that brought Eläinlääkäri onto the scene . . . “

Anyway, I had no idea Finland was so violent and depraved.  I also had no idea that when teenagers in Finland have sex, they keep their underwear on.  (I assume there’s some law about that.)

Still, it was good enough so that I’ll watch the next season, when it comes around.

Dark.  This German series has been compared to Stranger Things, as if copying Stranger Things is bad, whereas Stranger Things copying everything Spielberg made in the Seventies is supposed to be good.  In any case, I don’t think the comparison holds.

I’d compare it more to the Belgian series Hotel Beau Sejour, though I don’t think it’s as good.  In both series, missing or dead children reveal rifts and conflicts in small-town families, and in both series, there’s a lot of scenes of people traveling alone through spooky forests while being photographed by hovering drones.

In Dark there’s time travel through a series of tunnels partly built under a nuclear power plant, there are people being displaced who can’t get back, there are apocalyptic cultists who are trying to arrange I’m-not-sure-what, and there is loud, persistent synthesizer music to assure us that everything is dramatic and spooky.

I was having a hard time keeping track of who was who in the contemporary plot line, particularly the young German men who all look alike, and then they started time-traveling and I completely lost track.

Nothing actually resolves, in fact the series ends with a new timeline opening and a big “To Be Continued” sign.  I felt cheated, I felt like I’d signed onto Lost all over again.  Though Dark actually had a lot going for it, I doubt I’ll be watching Series Two.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Nina T. March 10, 2018 at 5:56 am

Netflix is famous in all the Nordic countries for having terrible subtitles, (because they refuse to pay their translators decently) but did they seriously leave Rikospaikkakuvaaja (Crime Scene Photographer), Satamamestari (Harbor Master), and Eläinlääkäri (Vet) untranslated in the English version? O.o.

wjw March 10, 2018 at 8:34 pm

Well, no. I just got those names from the cast list without knowing what they meant.

PhilRM March 12, 2018 at 4:52 pm

My wife and I did enjoy Dark, but the not-really-resolving-anything ending was pretty annoying; I’m not sure we’ll watch Season 2.

Michael Grosberg March 16, 2018 at 3:04 am

“Dark” should have been called “The Town of oblivious Parents”. How many dead/missing kids does it take for parents to buy all their kids cellphones and organize a school run, so they don’t have to walk next to a spooky forest twice a day?
There’s another thing that bothered me about Dark – none of the characters were genre-aware. Whenever a character came face to face with one of the show’s science-fictional concepts, it was a complete surprise, as if it was the first time they even heard of time travel at all, and it had to be explained at length. In the modern world, this is highly improbable.

Kate June 23, 2019 at 9:23 am

How many times can you watch children going missing, getting killed, their eyes burned out, without the perpetrators getting caught? Terrible show. I won’t be watching season two. At some point there has to be some kind of resolution. Apparently the writers and producers of “Dark” don’t care about satisfying the need for us to see the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

Larry May 10, 2020 at 3:30 pm

Considering the dates of past comments and posts here. I don’t know if this, will be read in a timely fashion by anyone, if at all. My first comments have to do with the Finnish series Bordertown. I should first say that I most enjoy police procedurals, mystery series, action series, SciFi, and Fantasy. I enjoy some “adult themes”, nudity and violence, being included in those productions. I am a Anglophile, and I get much of my entertainment from various British productions. Netflix, for better or worse. Has introduced me to dramas from a lot of European countries. Some are excellent, like the German series Babylon Berlin, (I just binged three seasons of that series). The main reasons I’m leaving comments here. Are because after being completely confused, by the Bordertown episodes, “Lady in the lake”. I started to research what I could, about the conclusion of that particular crime/mystery. After checking the few sites that actually discuss the episodes. I found something good, and something bad. The good is that other people seemed to be totally confused as I was. As to what prompted the crimes in the first place. The traditional “drawing room” scene where the ace detective, explains everything. Is totally missing in that particular episode. Viewers, me included, were left saying.. “Wait.. What.. Why?” It was like watching a magician stop in the middle of a trick, and just walk away. Also, as Mr. Williams has pointed out. Families seem to be included in many of the “crime” dramas. In order to use various members, as victims in one way or the other. This writers’ devise, drives me crazy. I don’t care if the detectives have recalcitrant children, wives or cats. I just want there to be a crime committed, and have the detectives try to apprehend whomever is responsible. One of the reasons I think the 1990’s crime drama, Law and Order. Was so good, was because it showed the police catching the criminal(s), and the trials that usually convicted the guilty. The current trend, to blend soap opera elements, into crime dramas. Seems to me, to be an indication of two things. One, is that the writers/producers, are trying to make the series as attractive to the widest possible audience. The second, is more speculative, but is that the mysteries/crimes aren’t that complex, and can be easily solved, not requiring a full hour to complete the episode.
In closing, I will say that I will continue to watch the series Bordertown, with lowered expectations, with occasional “eye rolls”, and with questions unanswered at the end of various episodes. Thank you for reading this.

wjw May 11, 2020 at 1:46 pm

Thank you for contributing, Larry, even though my original post was made two years ago and your fine analysis will probably be read only by me.

Desire May 24, 2020 at 7:08 pm

Just finished lady in the lake episodes. Like everybody else posting: I do not have a f clue what the heck did just happen. Hopefully someone can explain.

Louise June 6, 2020 at 11:56 am

Series 3 of Bordertown is a lot better I thought.

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