The setting is Swiss. The language is French. And the iconography is overwhelmingly American. Welcome to the world of Station Horizon, a seven-episode series now screening on SBS On Demand that offers up an intriguing and engaging mix of the familiar and the foreign.
While the series, which combines drama, droll comedy and small-town soapie in ways reminiscent of Northern Exposure, takes place in Horizonville, a fictional town in the actual Swiss region of Valais, co-creators Pierre-Adrian Irlé and Romain Graf have clearly drawn a lot of inspiration from the red, white and blue.
“It’s a fantasy America,” Graf told Swiss newspaper Le Temps, while Irlé added that the series aimed to evoke “the American dream – ideas of freedom and space”.
Horizonville has space to spare, it appears – the early scenes of Station Horizon’s first episode lovingly take in the wide-open spaces surrounding the tiny town and the majestic mountain ranges surrounding it – but freedom may be in shorter supply.
Money’s too tight to mention for the town’s various business operators, it seems, with only car-dealership owner and would-be land baron Raymond (Roland Vouilloz) appearing to thrive, mainly by snapping up everyone else’s property in anticipation of a forthcoming freeway running through the region.
So Horizonville could be on the verge of a boom or a bust, and all it needs is a new player to tip the balance one way or another.
Enter Joris (Bernard Yerles), a hometown boy who’s been absent for 25 years, the last five of those spent behind bars. Imprisoned for the types of offences that scream ‘tough and troublesome but not completely irredeemable’, his first stop after his release is Horizonville.
Not everyone is pleased to see him, which suits Joris fine – he doesn’t plan on sticking around too long anyway.
But the more time he spends with his brother Charly (Gaspard Boesch), who has taken over the family service station and motel (the ‘Station Horizon’ of the title), and his adorable niece Axelle (Melissa Aymon), the more his claim “I’m not a family man” starts to ring false.
Still, not everyone is keen for him to make himself at home. Joris and Raymond have history from years earlier, as do Joris and Raymond’s wife Nicole (Alexandra Vandernoot).
And as for Raymond and Nicole’s hot-tempered son Bernard (Baptiste Gillieron) …well, is there a reason Nicole is so eager for Bernard to steer clear of Joris?
As in any small-town saga worth its salt, there are personal and professional clashes galore, whether it’s romantic rivalries or dirty deals. And Station Horizon does a terrific job of smoothly dovetailing the various storylines into an involving whole.
What’s more, the all-American trappings of this Swiss village – from the Stars and Stripes flying alongside the Valais flag over the service station to the Native American war bonnet worn by the exotic dancer at the local nightspot – give it a slightly disorienting tone that adds to the appeal.
It’s usually the characters that keep one hooked on a series such as this, and the writing and performances deftly sketch the residents of Horizonville.
Yerles has a rough, rumpled charm that makes Joris easy to like, although there’s enough mystery in this lead character’s past to keep the audience a little guarded about what lies ahead.
Similarly, it would all too easy to write off Vouilloz’s Raymond as a straight-up villain – if his land-grabbing tactics didn’t give it away, his piss-poor excuse for a moustache would definitely seal the deal – but it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for someone who asks his wife “Do you love me?” and gets only silence as an answer.
It’s not spoiling anything to reveal that Station Horizon’s first episode concludes with ramblin’ man Joris, who was on the verge of leaving Horizonville for good, returns to town to confront his past and hopefully build a future.
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” he tells his brother. If you’re looking for a captivating story with a dash of melodrama and mystery, give Station Horizon a chance.
Station Horizon is streaming now on SBS On Demand: