Police dramas are endemic on television – in terms of sheer popularity, only medical dramas offer the cop procedural any real competition for total-number viewers’ eyeballs. With that in mind, you might think the well is running a little dry in terms of innovation – after all, how many variations on a theme can there be? As if in answer, here comes the new Swedish language drama Thin Blue Line, a day-in-the-life drama focussing on the uniformed cops who patrol the mean streets of Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city.
Thin Blue Line follows the daily drama encountered by six Swedish police officers: devout, driven to help Sara (Amanda Jansson, seen in Midnight Sun); her straight-edged partner, Magnus (Oscar Töringe), third-generation Turkish–Swede Leah (Gizem Erdogan); her street-weary partner Jesse (Per Lasson, The Bridge); Danijela (Sandra Stojiljkovic) and Faye (Anna Sise). We see them struggle to deal with missing children, racial tensions, human trafficking, addiction issues, and all the varied dramas and traumas a big, multicultural, industrial city can foist upon its public servants.
In this respect the 10-part series is not a million miles away from the strong legacy of “realistic” American police dramas such as Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue or Homicide: Life on the Streets – series that sought to step away from the purely heroic image of police presented by earlier shows and depict more human, often flawed small-screen cops.
What’s interesting is that the series comes to us at a time when policing as an institution is under unprecedented global scrutiny as the Black Lives Matter movement highlights the use of excessive force on minority groups. Thin Blue Line doesn’t shy away from such issues, even in a nominally progressive Nordic nation; in the very first episode, Sara and Magnus execute a harsh takedown of two MENA (Middle Eastern/North African) youths suspected of a robbery, only to be told the actual culprits have already been arrested – little comfort to the teenager who has just been slammed up against a wall and searched.
However, thanks to creator and lead writer Cilla Jackert, the focus is on the personal rather than the systemic. Jackert began to develop the series back in 2014 after she found a Twitter account detailing the workaday grind of two Swedish police officers, and the result is a psychological drama rather than a procedural one, digging into how these officers as individuals cope with the pressures of the job. To that end, the private lives of our protagonists get as much dramatic weight as their time on the beat.
Sara sings in a choir and tries to act with Christian charity, offering a homeless addict a couch for the night (it doesn’t go well). Leah struggles to maintain a good relationship with her Turkish grandfather Jurek (Jurek Sawka), even as the old man points out that Malmö’s well-meaning social and community programs are not actually giving his predominantly immigrant neighbourhood the support it really needs.
Stoic fitness fanatic Magnus tries to present the image of the perfect policeman but admits that his girlfriend doesn’t give him the emotional support he needs to deal with the worst aspects of the job. All of them struggle to maintain some kind of semblance of a normal life while dealing with the worst the city has to throw at them each and every day.
Fittingly, Thin Blue Line walks a thin line itself, acknowledging the systemic issues affecting policing while still acknowledging the humanity of the people trying to do their best in a flawed system. Far from copaganda, it’s a nuanced take on the police procedural, eschewing pat answers and neat conclusions to instead offer a portrait of people in a profession facing daily challenges.
Thin Blue Line premieres on SBS with a double episode at 11.30pm, Tuesday 5 April. The 10-part series is now streaming at SBS On Demand.