Not so long ago it was almost impossible to find any modern foreign-language European drama on British television. Then in 2008 the Swedish series Wallander established a small but significant beachhead on Saturday evenings on BBC4, and ever since this is has been the source of a welcome weekly trickle of Euro fare that’s delivered Forbrydelsen, Borgen, The Bridge, Salamander, Inspector Montalbano and Cordon to name but a few.
That trickle has now become, if not quite a flood, then certainly a healthy stream. Since the beginning of the new year there have been no less than four brand new European series airing on British television from four different countries (Italy, France, Norway and Germany) that have been deployed across three different UK networks. Now the problem isn’t finding good quality European drama but keeping up with it all, and in that spirit Taking The Short View offers its services with a quick round-up of the current series on offer.
Young Montalbano S2 E1-3 (BBC4)
Taking over the tentpole EuroNoir spot on BBC4 with just a week’s hiatus following the end of the superlative third season of The Bridge is the return of Young Montalbano (Il giovane Montalbano). I’d previously been utterly resistent to the charms of the Italian detective but last year had a breakthrough and was entirely won over by the first 2012 run of the prequel miniseries. I’d assumed there would be no more, but three years after the first series Italian network RAI has finally produced a follow-up and the great news is that it’s every bit as good as the first that so unexpectedly won my heart. If anything, the writing (by Francesco Bruni, based on the stories by Andrea Camilleri) is even sharper than it was before, and certainly the production values have skyrocketed – this is now a very classy, glossy show with some really strong directorial touches. Now that Young Montalbano has grown out of its original purpose as a curiosity for fans of the Montalbano character who wanted to see how he and his team originally came together, we now have a full-fledged drama series in its own right, which means some proper in-depth character work for Michele Riondino to get his teeth into in the title role especially in regards to his relationship with Livia (Sarah Felberbaum). There’s even been some nice new development for loyal sidekick Fazio (Beniamino Marcone), while the production team has now discovered and fully exploited the comedic talents of Alessio Vassallo as Mimì Augello. He spends the first episode high on drugs after being injured in the line of duty, then the second pouting after Montalbano chooses someone else as his best man for his forthcoming wedding, and then unexpectedly comes into his own as the hero of the hour and a genuine supportive good friend to his moody, petulant boss. All of which means that Young Montalbano has blossomed into a true highlight of the new TV season, and the spectacular sights of sun-soaked Sicily just the antidote required for a cold, grey and wet January in the UK.
Young Montalbano continues on BBC4 on Saturdays at 9pm and is available on DVD from February 8.
Spin S1E1-3 (More 4)
Despite the Spooks-style opening credits and the fact that the story begins with an assassination attempt on the French President, Spin (Les hommes de l’ombre) is not a thriller but rather a political drama focussing on the shadowy role and tactics of the ‘spin doctors’, or more formally the directors of communication, employed by the candidates during major elections. The lead character here is Simon Kapita (Bruno Wolkowitch) who is renowned for getting the president into power in the first place, now recalled from New York to try and work the same magic for Anne Visage (Nathalie Baye) as she vies for the presidency against incumbent prime minister Philippe Deleuvre (Philippe Magnan). Meanwhile Deleuvre is being aided by Kapita’s one-time protégé Ludovic Desmeuze (Spiral’s Grégory Fitoussi), while Valentine (Clémentine Poidatz) is trapped in the middle of the two camps as a speechwriter working for Kapita while also being Desmeuze’s lover. In fact everyone seems to be in love with the wrong person in this six-part mini-series – and usually more than one or two lovers at that. Despite some surface similarities this is very definitely not The West Wing or Borgen and it has an overall far more cynical edge than either of those shows: for example, one side sets up a honeytrap to frame a senior politician with an under age prostitute, while even Kapita’s noble principles go out of the window when he needs to use a personal secret about Deleuvre to save Visage’s campaign. It’s all very fast-paced and well made, and given extra levels of interest by its take on how France would react in the event of a high-profile terror attack despite being made three years before the Charlie Hebdo and Paris terror attacks in 2015. And yet for all that, I still find I don’t connect with French dramas in the same instinctive way that I do with similar Nordic shows, ironically perhaps because the sensibility is somewhat closer to the British way of doing things and therefore lacks that all-important appeal of the ‘exotic’ we get from the less familiar Swedish and Danish productions.
Spin continues on More 4 on Fridays at 9pm.
Occupied S1E1 (Sky Arts)
Talking of Nordic dramas, Occupied (Okkupert) is the latest political thriller from Norway. It’s based on an original idea by novelist Jo Nesbø, although to be honest I haven’t read any of his Harry Hole detective books or seen any of the film and television adaptations of his other works. I have to say, the core concept of Occupied is by far the weakest thing about it: having become one of the richest nations on earth thanks to its natural oil, gas and mineral resources, Norway’s new Green government suddenly elects to stop all fossil fuel production in favour of new experimental thorium reactors still being built. The EU goes into a panic about the fuel supplies being cut off and asks Russia(!) to lead an occupation of the country to get the pipelines flowing again; meanwhile the US has gone into isolation mode and withdrawn from NATO, and hence won’t be coming to the rescue anytime soon. After a half-hour abduction by mercenaries, prime minister Jesper Berg (Henrik Mestad) is persuaded to play along with the Russian action in an effort to avoid bloodshed, despite opposition to the appeasement from his own cabinet. Unfortunately pretty much none of this makes any kind of believable political sense in the modern context, even when viewed as a near-future science fiction parable, and the prevailing incredulity rather undermines all that follows. I couldn’t help but feel that the series worked best as a revealing insight into Norway’s national psyche and its political and social insecurities than it did as an actual drama. That said, it’s a ravishing watch: with a reported $11 million budget it’s the most expensive production in Norwegian history and it certainly looks as if every cent is right there up on the screen. The countryside looks absolutely stunning, as does all the dazzling modern architecture on display, so for these reasons alone it is absolutely worth a watch. Maybe once it gets over its bumpy premise set-up it will even become compelling and gripping in its own right as well – it’s certainly worth giving a chance.
Occupied continues on Sky Arts on Wednesdays at 9pm and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on March 21 2016.
Deutschland 83 S1E1-2(Channel 4)
On one level there’s nothing new to see here about Cold War espionage activities. The sort of missions that East German spy Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) goes on while undercover in the assumed role of a young West German army officer have all been seen before in films and TV shows over the decades. However where Deutschland 83 starts to shine is in the humour it adds to this familiar mix: Martin has been thrown into this at short notice and is woefully under-prepared, his missions invariably going terribly wrong along the way. Only his quick-thinking enables him to get out of trouble: on one mission he’s able to blame his own blundering incursion on a competing Chinese spy who has just tried to kill him, and after everything calms down and he realises what he just got away with, Martin can’t help but laugh hysterically at his reflection in the mirror at the absurdity of it all. Added to that are the depictions of Martin’s wonder at some of the commonplace marvels available in the decadent west such as the complimentary bathroom toiletries at a luxury hotel and the inconceivable wonders of the Walkman, all of which is played quite beautifully by Nay whom it’s impossible not to root for even if he is nominally the enemy. The East Germans unequivocally remain the ‘bad guys’ – especially Martin’s aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader) as a hard-line Stasi officer who drugs and abducts Martin into service when he initially refuses the assignment – and stand in stark comparison with their Western counterparts who just seem rather tired and resigned to it all. However the show also makes it clear why the East Germans were right to feel under such mortal threat during the early 80s, with President Reagan’s “evil empire’ rhetoric and aggressive planning for first strike capability showing all too well that the communists had entirely reasonable grounds for their own paranoia and growing aggression in response. Add to this a great soundtrack of early 80s pop-music and Deutschland 83 turns out to be rather infectious fun, its gripping spy thrills intelligently mixed with genuine emotional and dramatic depth.
Deutschland 83 continues on Channel 4 on Sunday evenings at 9pm and will be released on DVD in the UK on February 15 2016.
Shetland S3E1 (BBC One)
And a bonus extra for this post, a mention of series 3 of Shetland. This is not strictly speaking a EuroNoir drama at all being as it is a BBC production, but its setting of the Shetland Isles is almost closer to Norway than it is to the United Kingdom. The first two series of this show were adaptations of Ann Cleeves’ source novels about local Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall), each of them covered in two one-hour episodes. However for its third run the producers have gone for a single original extended story told over six episodes, a format acknowledged to be inspired by Scandinavian successes such as The Bridge. The stark atmosphere of the islands also lends a distinctly Nordic feel to the production, so if you want to see how the British would do Nordic Noir – and at the same time, study a prime example of how the popularity of Nordic Noir is continuing to radically transform British drama – then there is no better port of call than this new run of Shetland.
Shetland continues on BBC One on Friday evenings at 9pm and will be released on DVD in the UK on February 15 2016.