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.

{ 4 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.

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