Why Must Swedish Crime Drama Be So Bleak?

Since the rise of the Swedish Millennium trilogy, Scandinavian noir, or ‘Nordic Noir’, has captivated audiences around the globe. However, for someone living in Sweden, it can be hard to continue watching these dark, melancholic and dramatic series on television. I’ve been starting to ask myself: why does Swedish television have to be so bleak?

The Bridge, Wallander, Blue Eyes, Johan Falk, Jordskott. These are just some of the many Swedish television series that have screened both in Sweden and abroad over the last few years. Yes, Sweden has produced some well-made crime dramas over the years, and while some may not be known locally, they are huge internationally. The Bridge has both a British and an American remake, and Wallander was also remade in the United Kingdom with Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hiddleston. While we have seen such success with the Nordic Noir collection of works, they are starting to appear to be familiar. Since the genre has become such a moneymaker, we can’t seem to stop making them. Or rather, recycling them.

The Swedish newspaper DN recently brought up the matter as becoming quite the dilemma. Film journalist Johan Croneman commented that instead of creating drama with originality, we are beginning to see the same sort of characters and settings repeatedly. Furthermore, the bleakness of the shows, instead of continuing to be fascinating, they are merely becoming exactly what they are: bleak and depressing.

As many have gathered from watching the series, Sweden is a dark place. Literally. About five months every year are spent huddling in the shadows, greedily watching the weather on the news in hopes of five minutes of sunshine. But in the late afternoon, we plunge into darkness once more. Naturally, escapism is important for our survival and sense of sanity. While some of us opt to travel out of the country during these dark winter months, others turn to the light from the television screen for some solace from the gloom.

But it’s proving harder to find any comfort in what is shown on Swedish television these days, since most of our programming is devoted to British murder mysteries or our own favoured Nordic Noir series, where there’s rarely any light of day shown at all.

If there must be dark, there must be light. While it is the logical way of thinking, it still seems to elude us here in the north when it comes to what we watch on television. All the while, we complain about being tired and stressed about living in the dark, and some of us even seek out places where you can attend ‘light therapy’ sessions to cure our cravings for sunshine. It is strange, then, that this craving for light is not reflected in other places, such as the television programmes we produce.

For instance, unlike the British, who produce several television dramas – Agatha Christie adaptations and Poirot for example – while they usually take place in Britain, they often break away from this setting to place the characters in other settings, usually countries bathed in sunlight with beautiful panoramic views like Italy, France or Jamaica.

But it is not merely the setting or the location that’s the only dilemma. What makes the Nordic Noir genre so bleak is the poor construction of the leading characters and recycling of behaviour and plot points. While they are not bad, I can honestly not recall the last time I watched a Nordic Noir show and noticed any trace of humour in the dialogue or the characters themselves. It was as if the characters merely exist to make themselves feel miserable in the given sixty minutes, without any chance to break away from the tension of the plot. Something the British has always understood about making effective and well-produced drama is the way to blend serious drama with the occasional nod to humour in the dialogue to break tension. Two things happen when you remove this aspect: the audience is not allowed to break away from the never-ending bleakness of the murder mystery, and the characters appear almost inhuman in practice, not requiring normal human action to do their jobs. This results in them feeling unnatural and incapable of feeling.

It also seems, unfortunately, that because of the success Nordic Noir has been experiencing internationally, the formula will likely not change anytime soon. While this is somewhat troublesome, it is more so because of what it means for the average Swedish person who wants to watch something other than melancholic police officers or the constant reminders of how Ingmar Bergman brought out the moody Swede in all of us.

We simply turn to Netflix and watch something else. While this is fine, it is a worrisome thing when it comes to Swedish television. Perhaps there is a way to stop recycling and use a bit more light and colour to balance out the darkness of Nordic Noir. •

CategoriesFeatures Issue 19