Nordic Noir is Europe’s greatest home-grown TV form. Slower, darker and more realistic than American crime shows. It’s caught on with an audience that enjoys being engaged and challenged.
Now comes Midnight Sun, the most expensive Nordic Noir show of all. Set in the Arctic Circle and bathed in perpetual sunlight, the series takes key ingredients from Scandinavia’s greatest programmes but also flips the idea of Nordic Noir on its head.
But how did we get here? Here’s six procedural steps that helped revolutionise TV and led us straight to Midnight Sun.
The Killing (2007-2012)
Despite the success of Scandinavian crime shows like The Eagle and Unit One, The Killing wasthe series where Nordic Noir found its voice with its emphasis on police procedure, fascinatingly flawed characters and the bleak Scando scenery. The Danish series paved the way for subtitled crime shows to be enjoyed internationally on a wide scale and it characterised the tone for all the Scandinavian titles that followed. In its main character – surly Detective Sarah Lund (played by Sofie Gråbøl) – it set the trend for strong female characters. Her relentless pursuit of an endless stream of suspects and false hopes alienated everyone in her life bar the audience. Its storyline, with the murder’s political ramifications, helped the hunt for the killer take on epic consequences. Meanwhile, Copenhagen was cast as a tense, uneasy city full of deserted warehouses and shadowy dangers.
If The Killing defined Nordic Noir’s attitude, Wallander successfully dialled the bleakness to saturation point. Based on Henning Mankell’s book series, Kurt Wallander was best portrayed with crumpled quietness by Krister Henriksson. As a character, Wallander is a troubled loner dealing with diabetes and the onset of Alzheimer’s. While murder was the constant through-line, Wallander’s complicated relationship with his daughter, Linda, is the heart of the show.
The Millenium series
For many, author Stieg Larsson’s mega-successful Millennium series were thefirst point of entry into the murky world of Nordic Noir. In 2010, came the Emmy Award-winning mini-series that compiled three Swedish film adaptations – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. It follows the story of an emotionally scarred computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), as she exacts her revenge.
From Scandinavia with crime: it’s possible to go on Nordic Noir tourist tours and one of the most popular destinations are the arches of Christiansborg utilised in the Danish series, Borgen. Whilst not traditionally recognised as Nordic Noir, this Scandi political drama shares similar chromosomes with its criminal counterparts and its influence on Midnight Sun is very evident. Borgen follows the travails of the first female Prime Minister of Denmark, Birgitte Nyborg (as played by Westworld’s Sidse Babett Knudsen), and when it comes to strong female characters and political intrigue, Borgen ramped it up several notches.
The Bridge (2011 - )
The creative team behind Midnight Sun – Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein – are also the duo that brought us The Bridge, the Nordic Noir series shown in more than 160 countries and re-imagined in both the U.S. and the U.K.
The Bridge followed in a similar vein to The Killing with a strong female protagonist. Swedish police investigator Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) is strong, taciturn and on the autistic spectrum. The events of the show kick into gear when a body cut in half is found on the bridge that connects Sweden and Denmark. To her dismay, Noren has to share authority over the case with gruff Danish inspector Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia). Talk about a meet cute.
The Guardian recently screamed: “He's huge, he's hairy – and he's the hottest man in Iceland”. As the heavily bearded police chief with a penchant for sniffing stiffs, the forty-something Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is now both Iceland’s biggest star and its most unlikely sex symbol. Trapped also added Iceland’s epic isolation to the Nordic Noir landscape – something that Midnight Sun also achieves with its use of the stunning Lapland locations.
Midnight Sun (2016)
Now that Nordic Noir has its own fabulous history and traditions, it’s time for a shake-up. A French-Swedish collaboration, Midnight Sun promises to energise a genre at its peak. The show takes its premise from The Bridge and teams multi-national officers to investigate a murder case. This time ’round it’s a French policewoman Kahina Zadi (Leïla Bekhti) of Algerian Berber origin paired with a local Swedish cop, Anders Harnesk (Gustaf Hammarsten), from the indigenous Sami community.
Together they probe a brutal killing of a French citizen in Kiruna, a small Swedish mining community in the Arctic Circle where the sun never sets. The location is just one of the exciting ways this conceptual thriller flips Nordic Noir on its head. The relentless 24-hour sunshine successfully stripping the noir from Nordic Noir.
The series also goes hard on the idea of language. Once the bane of selling European TV to an international audience, Midnight Sun makes clever use of multiple tongues. The two police officers use English as a universal language to communicate but there’s also swathes of Swedish, French, Arabic and Sami. With overt political, environmental and indigenous concerns woven into the plot, Midnight Sun asks important questions about cultural sensitivities, tolerance and discrimination in contemporary Europe.
If you like your stories bleak and beautiful, you’ll love Midnight Sun. But prepare yourself for a drastic change in the way you view the best of Nordic Noir.
Midnight Sun is streaming now at SBS On Demand.