With the likes of Forbrydelsen, Borgen and The Bridge we got to see the very cream of the Nordic Noir crop, the sort of production that wins international acclaim and awards and enjoys the sort of acclamation around the world that Britain’s Downton Abbey and Doctor Who do for example, or Game of Thrones, The Wire and The West Wing from the US.
To be honest, Beck is not anywhere near that sort of calibre. If anything, this long-running detective series gives us a chance to see the sort of normal fare that Swedes enjoy in their homes at night after a hard day’s work, once they’ve changed into their slippers and are enjoying their TV dinners. It’s the sort of solid ratings performer every network the world over needs, analogous to the likes of Lewis, Vera and Taggart in the UK. By no means bad, then, and consistently enjoyable, but nonetheless more of a well-made shepherds pie than haute cuisine.
The trouble with Beck is that it feels stubbornly generic. The characters especially feel like they could have been drafted in from any police procedural and the title character himself bearing little relation to the Martin Beck of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s series of novels which ran from 1965 to 1975. As portrayed by The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s Peter Haber, this Beck is like Wallander but with the rough edges smoothed off leaving only a slightly dyspeptic sales executive in his place. His sidekick Gunvald Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt) is supposed to be the younger buck, the maverick lone wolf bridling against authority and seeing himself as a Clint Eastwood-esque Dirty Harry or Man With No Name walking the mean streets of the city and setting right wrongs with a fist and a gun. The trouble is that after 14 years in production, Persbrandt is fast ageing out of such a role; the series has lately brought in a new young protagonist in the form of the inexperienced Oskar Bergman (Måns Nathanaelson) but his main purpose is to find walking, talking and opening doors too taxing without stumbling or making a fool of himself for the most part.
For such a socially progressive country as Sweden, it’s strange how backgrounded the woman are in this show. In the first episode to be picked up by BBC Four for a UK airing, there’s a senior female detective who is clearly a good friend of Beck’s but she disappears before the next story. (Strangely, BBC Four starts its run with a single episode from the 2009 season before then showing the whole of the 2015 series meaning there’s all sorts of inconsistencies in the cast, with Persbrandt ageing significantly, the team’s offices changing and a whole new raft of supporting characters being brought in.) Her replacement in the rest of the BBC Four run is much younger but her sole discernible character trait appears to be to have no discernible character at all. Otherwise we’re left with the recurring character of Beck’s daughter Inger (Rebecka Hemse), along with a quirky forensics officer rarely seen without a face mask, and a computer data intelligence officer called Ayda (Elmira Arikan) who comes across as a watered-down, slightly less-weird Lisbeth Salander. The other characters are Beck’s new and irritatingly cutting edge young boss Klas (Jonas Karlsson), and his oddball elderly neighbour Grannen (Ingvar Hirdwall).
Where the original novels were known for injecting a large amount of social commentary into their stories, the TV series largely steers clear of this although there are still nods: “Buried Alive” has the red herring of a criminal motorcycle gang, clearly A Big Thing in Sweden from the number of times this odd trope gets trotted out in Nordic Noir productions such as Wallander; “Room 302” fixes on the problem of the decadence of the rich, pampered youth of Stockholm; and “The Family” touches upon some issues of race and immigration. However these feel very much like afterthoughts or distractions in the way that they never did in the books.
Like the characters, the plots all feel very generic and could be easily transplanted into any other crime series you’ve seen. “Buried Alive” features a standard-issue serial killer seeking retribution by burying his victims in airtight boxes underground; having finally established what his motivation is the episode then simply drops it in favour of the perpetrator deciding to come after the entirely inoffensive Beck himself purely to inject some high stakes personal drama into the final act. “Room 302” centres on an investigation into the murder of a young girl found in a swanky inner-city boutique hotel room, while “The Family” sees a restaurant owner (and successful drug crime lord if the rumours are to be believed) shot dead in his home by a sniper in front of his family.
It’s all fine and the stories are all perfectly watchable, but at the same time they don’t really stand out. However the one thing that Scandinavian television knows how to do that the rest of us still seem to struggle with is how to pace a drama of this type to best allow the stories, locations and characters to breath properly without feeling like a pint of milk messily forced into a quart pot. Based on what happened in the final few series of Taggart, British television would probably try and cram each of these 85-minute stories into a single 45 minute episode of a UK series and miss out the quirky irrelevant bits that are actually always quite the best parts of a true Nordic Noir endeavour.
The other thing that makes Beck worth watching is just how well made these episodes are. The 2015 instalments make good use of the latest HD digital technology and look great – especially the absolutely gorgeous opening title sequence which is a total work of art. But actually best of all is the 2009 story “Buried Alive” which contains some really classy camera moves, editing, direction, lighting and general cinematography (not to mention the inimitable stylish Swedish sense of interior design) which would easily have stood proud as a full feature film release in the cinema – which is what it received in Sweden at the time like the majority of the earlier episodes of Beck. In fact only the most recent run of four has actually premièred on television rather than in the movie theatre.
In fairness I think one of the problems holding Beck back from being at least the equal of, say, Wallander with which it shares many features (a spin-off show from a successful series of novels with all-new stories) is that British audiences are only getting to see the last five stories in a run of 30 episodes in total. A lot of the groundwork in terms of character development would have been done in the earlier seasons and now the major lead roles are in something of a stand-by mode with little need to rehash earlier work that the audience had already seen and is expected to know. If you haven’t seen those episodes – which those of us in the UK haven’t – then we lack that knowledge of and involvement with the characters and with it any sense of deeper connection.
That’s not the show’s fault, it’s just a shame that BBC Four didn’t have the confidence in the series to start it right from the beginning. Those older episodes might have been a little less polished and a bit more dated but it might have helped the series as a whole gain better traction with audiences than just diving in near the end.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Beck continues with two more episodes on BBC Four at 9pm on Saturday October 3 and October 10, while past episodes are still on the BBC iPlayer as of time of posting.