The recent Danish crime drama “Forbrydelsen”/”The Killing“ and the political drama “Borgen” were both greeted with critical and popular success (1), winning awards and scoring good audience appreciation figures (2). Their appeal to a broader, international audience rests, of course, primarily on the quality of writing, depicting real human drama, real people with whom everybody can identify. But, in this author’s opinion, there might be also another reason why they are so popular.
They look and feel like a British or American TV series with a “Nordic twist” (a feel that “Wallander” also had). Like something people were kind of used to, that wasn’t something completely new or too “artsy” (e.g. “Forestillinger“/”Performances,” or “Äkta människor”/”Real Humans“). This made it easier for them to be successful internationally. They were (are) successful because there was a demand for this type of series – they’re not massively original, but they use certain tropes that we’ve seen before in a creative way.
In regards to “Forbrydelsen“/”The Killing” (which premiered in January 2007 on Danish television, and ran for three seasons), there have been other strong female detective characters depicted in film and television, some of the most famous ones being Clarice Starling (“The Silence of the Lambs,” 1991; “Hannibal,” 2001), Marge Gunderson (“Fargo,” 1996), and Jane Tennison (from the British “Prime Suspect” TV series). Sofie Gråbøl’s Sarah Lund joins this great roster of characters, not bringing necessarily something new to the table (playing a more or less generic troubled/antisocial detective, whose professional life is destroying her personal life), but being entertaining enough to make “The Killing” a good (and successful) show. Personally, I’ve found it to be a little annoying with the twists – it seemed like in every other episode there was a new suspect that they arrested and then let go – it got a little repetitive and annoying by the end (at least in the first season).
“Borgen” (premiered in September 2010, currently still running), on the other hand, comes to join the tradition of political dramas such as “House of Cards” (the original British TV series), “The West Wing,” or “In the Loop”.
Both TV shows have a strong female character as protagonist, who is, nevertheless, very relatable. Borgen‘s Birgitte Nyborg could have been very unlikable as the Prime Minister in the hands of lesser writers. But the great scripts and Sidse Babett Knudsen’s great acting make her a very sympathetic figure, a woman who starts off as idealistic, but learns to be tough and to make some decisions that she would never have thought she would be forced to make. And yet, she never loses her femininity, she never becomes “masculine” as we see in other, lesser movies or TV shows. That’s not to say she can be toyed with. But she’s not a “feminine” version of a leader; she is a real woman, with real problems, who happens to have the most important job in Denmark.
To conclude, one could say that the reasons why these two Danish television series have been successful could be boiled down to three things: good writing, good acting, good directing. And one wouldn’t be wrong. However, it was also important that they drew on a previously existing tradition, with situations and characters that were not totally new, but they were not clichés either. The secret of their success lies in the fact that the writers used familiar ideas and made them their own, making the audience wonder how this particular problem will be solved by these particular characters.
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(2) Emma Jane Kirby, BBC News – The Killing and Borgen: Danish drama wins global fanbase