European broadcasters seem to have invoked a sort of Article Thrifty, creating a single market for crime dramas. At a time when the continent is riven politically, countries appear ever keener to imagine joint police operations.
Since Denmark and Sweden worked together in The Bridge – and France and the UK in The Tunnel – harder borders have been crossed. Belgium, Denmark and Germany collaborated on The Team, and tonight Sky Atlantic premieres a Swedish-French co-production called Midnight Sun.
It starts with a highly original homicide: a man is killed by being strapped to the rotor blades of a flying helicopter, which is found landed, minus the victim’s head and the pilot, in an Arctic Circle town that has permanent sunshine for six months of the year. When an Air France boarding pass becomes a clue, the Swedish police are joined by a detective who flies in from Paris to help.
As Scandinavia and France have become two of the most successful importers of TV to the UK in recent years, Midnight Sun ought to deliver the best of two worlds. In fact, it brings the worst of each.
Midnight Sun ought to deliver the best of two worlds. In fact, it brings the worst of each. Photograph: Ulrika Malm
The impact of The Killing on UK crime drama has been so notable that it seems hard to believe that the Danish series was first screened only six years ago. Without The Killing, there would have been no Broadchurch, The Missing or River: British shows that learned how to explore a storyline and a landscape in a way that was daringly slow by local standards. The Killing also gave English-language commissioners the courage to buy other subtitled shows, such as The Bridge, Borgen, Wallander and, when Francophone TV became the next popular flavour, Spiral, Braquo, The Returned and Spin.
The power of these programmes, though, was that they explored a foreign culture from the inside. These were shows made for home audiences that also found an audience abroad. Midnight Sun comes from a very different impulse, which is to design a show to sell in foreign markets. (Crossing Lines, a German-French-Italian-American franchise about a multinational police team based in the Hague, is probably the ultimate example of this genre so far.)
Midnight Sun’s opening credits flicker through Swedish, French and English, and the dialogue is triangulated too: the Arctic Circle cops speak to each other in their own language subtitled, while French speakers also have captions. But when they work together, the investigators converse in heavily accented English, which means that, for much of the action, good actors are forced to operate outside their comfort zone.
A further problem is the feeling that there have been far too many of these European team-ups. When a Swedish cop jokes that he previously had a “disaster” in a joint investigation with a British cop, I missed the next bit of the conversation worrying whether we had seen that series somewhere, or yet might.
The Bridge worked because Danish and Swedish language and culture overlap so much. Photograph: REX/c.FXNetwork/Everett
The Bridge worked because Danish and Swedish language and culture overlap so much. But Midnight Sun feels – as The Tunnel, The Team and Crossing Lines did –like a dramatic version of fusion cooking, in which unlikely ingredients are thrown together. But whereas the cross-cultural experiments of chefs aim to merge separate tastes to create a distinctive new one, the fictional fusions risk flattening out the local zests to produce a bland Euro gruel.
On the evidence of the first episode, the police officers in Midnight Sun represent cliches of their respective national crime dramas – Scandinavian grey-bearded male, gamine Parisian female – and the amazed discussions of dusk-less Swedish days (“I don’t know how anyone sleeps here!”) also feel overly familiar from earlier Scandi noirs.
You can tell that money has been spent on Midnight Sun: helicopters are a notoriously expensive filming item and at one point, we even see a shot of one from another. But whereas we watched The Killing, in 2011, with a sense that something exciting was happening, the impression often given by Midnight Sun is of a phenomenon that has been happening for too long. We apprehensively envisage – in commissioners’ in-trays across Europe – the show in which a Norwegian cop investigates a murder in Hungary, or a Pole co-operates in Copenhagen, a Scot in Amsterdam, or any or all permutations of these.
In all industries, increased demand reveals production weaknesses. The first exports we received – The Killing, Borgen, Spiral, Spin – were the Scandi or French equivalents of Happy Valley and State of Play. But the expansion of the market means that our schedules are now being filled with their schedule-fillers: Modus, Dicte, The Protectors, Anna Pihl, Witnesses. And Midnight Sun is, in more than one sense, the Swedish-French Midsomer Murders.
Midnight Sun starts tonight at 10pm on Sky Atlantic.