TV has grown up a lot since the first HBO long form drama series The Sopranos, Oz and The Wire changed our expectation about how powerful television can be, and its strengths in telling stories that extend beyond two hours.
Ride Upon The Storm goes one step further and uses family melodrama with the backdrop of the church, to help us make sense out of our rapidly evolving, or devolving, global society. The series uses contemporary TV storytelling devices to discuss some of the oldest questions literature often grapples with: why are we here? Is there a god? What happens when we die?
Elements of the program draw directly from one of these very first instigators of modern television: The Sopranos. Certainly, every TV show wants to be The Sopranos - as a successful cornerstone of not just modern television, but its wider impacts on popular culture are unparalleled. It made us look differently at the way our society was changing then through Tony’s conversations with his psychiatrist, and more pertinently his daughter Meadow - her young liberal counterpoint to many of his long held traditional opinions reflected a general awakening of the younger generation and the widening of the generation gap at the time.
The Sopranos pilot and the first episode of Ride Upon The Storm both see our patriarchal central character at a crossroads in life. Tony Soprano must deal with the some very real signs of mental illness, his power slipping, and the changing relationships of his family - particularly his controlling mother as she begins her descent into madness. In Ride Upon The Storm, Johannes Krogh has to deal with the possibility of losing power of his church, power over his sons, and his increasingly outdated ideas of what Christianity means to modern Denmark.
It’s a more a complicated show then The Sopranos, and draws similarities with some other groundbreaking modern programs either by design or accident. It employs a very interesting technique of character interactions to deliberately take on some religious and theological discussions. It’s done in the context of the story, but often in chapter fragments that use a very conversational style. This style is often employed to spell out some of the themes that it wants to discuss.
This technique is familiar to fans of the series Transparent where it was used effectively to create altogether new conversations around non-binary gender and trans identity. Segments with non-actors often come across more as interviews than general conversation, and while maybe the truth or the definitive way forward is not always reached, the level of discussion is still new ground for television drama, and society in general really.
In the second episode of Ride Upon The Storm, the ‘good’ son August Krogh is drawn into conversation with a Muslim contemporary – not so much about trying to find common ground as that is obvious and definable to them both. What August seeks to understand more is what it is that separates them, a question with striking relevance across the world.
A similar discussion of Islam and Christianity is investigated using public comments made by central character Johannes as he takes on his opponent in debate during the elections for Bishop of Copenhagen. He is drawn on further elaboration of a statement (which he considered banal and of no consequence) referring to Islam and Christianity as monotheistic religions – ie they believe that there is only one true god. His suggestion that by definition all Christians should believe that all Muslims are infidels and vice versa is met with a controversy he doesn’t understand.
These perspectives are rarely seen and analysed in news media let alone dramatic fiction.
Donald Glover used a very different palette of comedy and farce in his program Atlanta, but still got to the same point of using it to draw attention to difficult discussion points around intersectionality and false equivalences of discrimination.
Ride Upon The Storm certainly does not set out to answer all the questions we may have about religion, the afterlife or what we should and shouldn’t believe. What it does do is very subtly step outside the boundaries of what has been considered traditional dramatic storytelling to make us think about these old questions in new and different ways.
Ride Upon The Storm airs Thursday nights on SBS at 10:30pm. You can stream the entire first season now at SBS On Demand.