After allowing myself to become sucked into the agonizing five-year vortex that was Lost, I vowed I would never again commit to watching an American dramatic television series. Not for me Mad Men, C.S.I. in any of its myriad incarnations or the interminable West Wing. I wasn’t about to become invested in another relationship that would outlast its relevance and end in disappointment. And judging from the state of my Mad Men-watching friends upon discovering that the show won’t be back until 2012, I figure I made the right call there at least.
British series are different because they tend to be conceived with a beginning, middle and end that serve the story and the viewer more than the insatiable ratings beast. I know going in that we have a destination and that we might actually reach it in a reasonable amount of time without the infuriating wrong turns and dead ends that are poor substitutes for plot twists.
Of course, when watching British series on American TV I’m often at the mercy of BBC America whose programmers wield their carrots and sticks on viewers with reckless abandon. I know, for instance, that there is a third and final season of Ashes to Ashes and I’m waiting with growing impatience for it to air in the U.S. of A. In case you don’t know, Ashes to Ashes is the sequel to/girl version of the original British psychological police procedural series Life on Mars (remade into a big-budget American fizzle in 2008). Perhaps now that its star Keeley Hawes is also starring in the remake of Upstairs, Downstairs on PBS, BBCA will realize that we know who she is and we want to see more of her.
Another show I’d like to see: Forbrydelsen (The Crime), a hugely successful Danish crime series. I imagine it’s as dark and moody as November in Copenhagen, filled with dogged characters whose demons lurk just below the surface of their impassive faces. Delectable.
British viewers were permitted to see the subtitled version on BBC 4 this year. “Never, quite possibly, have so many Britons gathered on a Saturday night to watch a subtitled TV drama,” Stuart Jeffries wrote in The Guardian, adding that more people in the U.K. watched Forbrydelsen than watched Mad Men. They love it all; even the bulky, less-than-flattering sweaters worn by Sophie Gråbøl, the series star.
Americans have been offered a compromise—AMC’s The Killing, a retooled version set in the presumably more palatable and certainly soggier confines of Seattle (but filmed in more cost-effective Vancouver, B.C.).
Against my better judgment, I’m on the verge of committing to The Killing. The pilot and first episode, shown back to back in the series debut, were sufficiently tantalizing. Mireille Enos is sufficiently blank as police detective Sarah Linden. The pacing is sufficiently languorous. I can almost believe it’s an import.
Still, I have trepidation. If Billy Campbell’s too-good-to-be-true politician really is; if Joel Kinnaman’s loose-cannon narco-cop fails to reveal the depth of character implied in the first two episodes; if Enos’s Sarah Linden turns out to be yet another tiresome, conflicted single mom in a man’s world, then I’m done with these series for good. (Note: I reserve the right to retract that statement later.)
People magazine called The Killing “well-done but conventional.” That doesn’t bode well, does it? What does give me hope, however, are the various fan sites that report the American version differs from the original in several respects; most significantly in the identity of the killer. So even if the American version disappoints (which in my heart of hearts, I fear it will), if I can procure a copy of the European version I might still be in for a pleasant surprise. Well, maybe not pleasant, but you know what I mean.
But what I really want to know is why I am being prevented from seeing the original Forbrydelsen.
Is it because, as an American, I couldn’t possibly comprehend any TV drama that didn’t feature characters driving their SUVs to McDonald’s? (In Denmark people ride their bikes to work. Egad!) Is it because having to read subtitles would make me feel all nervous inside? I like to read (and presumably so do you, which is why we’re meeting here), it saves me the trouble of wondering what on earth actors are muttering when they’re trying to come across as dark and brooding.
What if AMC acted like Animal Planet and showed us something in its natural habitat?
What if, instead of recreating Forbrydelsen, AMC simply ran the original series subtitles and all?
You want groundbreaking? That would be groundbreaking!
Dear network programmers, hear my plea. Take viewers someplace they’ve never been before and leave the baggage at home. (We don’t need to see Angelina Jolie riding the elephant; the elephant is enough.) Introduce us to people we don’t know and let us decide whether they make us uncomfortable or we find them fascinating, or both. As readers, we’re embracing books from other nations. Truth be told, we always have. Now it’s time to give TV viewers some credit for being able to think beyond borders. We might surprise you.
Leslie Gilbert Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company.