You’ve heard of them. All your cool friends and your coolest aunt watches them – but what the heck are these blonde dramas with subtitles? Sam Brooks is here to school you on the ubiquitous Scandi-drama.
Lock the doors, lower the blinds, fire up the smoke machine and put on your heels, because I know exactly what you need. You need a Scandi-(drama), we’re gonna have a Scandi-(drama).
What makes a Scandi-drama a Scandi-drama?
Literally, it’s a drama that is made and set in the loosely defined subcontinent of Scandinavia. For our purposes, imagine anywhere west of Russia, east of England, north of France, northwest of Germany. Scandi-dramas are set there. Sweden, Finland, Norway – those vibes.
Less literally, they’re moody dramas filmed in chilly environments that do a lot with the interplay of sleepy locales and not-so-sleepy dark souls. They largely revolve around crime, although some branch out into the adjacent worlds of law and politics, and they invariably star incredibly attractive, tall, Nordic people who are unreasonably talented at acting.
Why are they so huge?
The first reason is that they’re very, very good.
Sweden in particular puts a huge amount of investment into its film and television industry, and it’s paid dividends both critically and commercially. These are shows that have a tremendous amount of time, thought and work put into them. There’s a good reason why so many of the best arthouse directors (Lars Von Trier, Susanne Bier, Thomas Vinterberg, Lone Scherfig) come out of that part of the world.
If you think of a show that your best friends watch and is in a foreign language, chances are it’s a Scandi-drama. They’re the kind of show that makes you feel cool for watching them, not only because they tend to be filmed in a very chilly colour palette, but because it often feels like you’re watching something that’s never been on TV before. Street Legal, this ain’t.
But the question you’re really asking is…
Why are they so good?
For whatever reason – potentially something to do with the sun staying out until late in the night during the summer, highlighting all the darkness hiding within people’s souls – Scandinavia has a history of doing drama really, really well. Have you heard of Henrik Ibsen? The guy who founded modernism and set the foundation for basically every non-Shakespeare, non-musical piece of theatre you’ve ever seen? Yeah, he came from Norway.
How about Ingmar Bergman? The guy who did that black-and-white film with the two scary men playing chess? Yeah, Sweden!
How about Lars Von Trier? The guy who did lots of problematic films about women and is maybe not the best example to pull into this breakdown? Denmark.
Anyway, there are two things that break through language and cultural barriers better than anything: Good music (lest we forget the reign of Our Lord Gangnam Style in 2012) and good drama.
To get more technical, the reason why these Scandi-dramas are so good is because of that incredibly rich and well-established history of drama; any new work is often in conversation with the shows that came before it. It riffs on tropes that are now familiar to us, and building the new foundations of what is current and happening in television, film and theatre. Scandi-drama uses the pulpy tropes of crime fiction (the loose cannon cop, the lone ranger cop, the cop-who-used-to-be-a-cop) to comment on wider societal issues (gender, society, race, class, you name it!) in a way that is super digestible and makes you feel very smart.
Basically, it makes for work that is both familiar and groundbreaking. It takes what we know (say, the trope of the protagonist returing to their hometown in Jordskott) and, in the style of Missy Elliot, flips it and reverses it (that very hometown is actually a hotbed of mystical goings on).
Do they have subtitles?
Yes! Subtitles are good, though. If you’re like me, who is mildly hard of hearing due to blasting Tori Amos too much in your youth, or tends to watch TV while keeping one eye on your UberEats notifications, subtitles are actually a way to make sure you’re one hundred percent invested in the screen and not paying attention to anything else.
Also, you can use this as your chance to learn a very base and niche level of Swedish, should you wish to parlay your couch-based sleuthing endeavours into a more professional detective-type situation in the snowy North. The stars in the harsh night sky of Sweden are your limits, friends.
I’m an intelligent, free-thinking person who wants to watch good television, so where do I start?
If you want to be on the hottest, newest, Scandi-noir vibe, you can check out an entire season of Rebecka Martinsson on Lightbox right now. It follows the titular Rebecka, who returns to her sleepy hometown after the death of her childhood friend. Come for the intrigue, stay for Ida Engvoll’s committed, star-making performance as a woman who has to pull out all the stops on her own history in order to get to the truth.
If you want to go a bit back further in the catalogue, I’d really recommend Aber Bergen or Jordskott. Aber Bergen is less doom and gloom, and more sparkling dialogue between exes who just might still be holding a candle for each other, while Jordskott is one of the more unique shows I’ve ever seen – the perfect blend of Law and Order: SVU and The Brothers Grimm, and the right blend of ‘this is making me feel smart’ and ‘actually smart’.
If your vibe is less ‘fun and breezy’ and more ‘I want to think about dark things and not sleep for a weekend’, skip on over to the brilliant and misleadingly-named Spring Tide, which follows the unsolved murder of a pregnant woman 25 years earlier, and has some cracking chemistry between a rookie and a grizzled older cop.
The world (or in this case, Scandinavia) is your oyster, friends.