From shows like The Killing to Borgen to The Bridge, viewers all over the world are eating up Danish TV series. What’s fueling the interest?
Television has gotten radically more democratized in recent years, and that’s a great thing for you and me, the consumers.
But we’re not the only ones it’s good for.
Not only are consumers presented with an ever-expanding menu of shows to choose from — actors, writers, directors and other creatives are reveling in the exponentially increased outlets where they can shop around their work.
The opening up of the entertainment landscape to all the foreign, independent, and low-budget television series and one-off programs that are out there these days means dozens if not hundreds of new series get green-lighted each year. Hulu, Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Disney and scores of other platforms are snapping up series at an unprecedented pace.
But if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that there’s one nation in particular that has been making a massively outsize impact on the landscape of modern television in recent years: that would be the tiny Scandinavian nation of Denmark.
From productions like Borgen to The Bridge to The Killing, along with newer releases like Ride Upon the Storm starring Lars Mikkelson (of The Witcher and House of Cards) Danish TV seems to be an almost non-stop hit machine.
What’s the secret?
What do Danish television producers do differently from other nations’ purveyors of series programming? How do they keep coming up with hits enjoyed by audiences around the world?
For most viewers from outside of Scandinavia, the first shows from Denmark that they are likely to have come into contact with are probably one of two series, the first being 2010’s Borgen.
It’sa story filled with political intrigue centering around the nation’s first fictional female prime minister (reality has since caught up) striving to balance her family life with the complexities of running a modern nation under a coalition government.
As PM Brigitte Nyborg, actor Sidse Babett Knudsen portrayed her navigating the power struggles between right and left, progressives and reactionary parties, and the scheming men and women around her as she rises to power.
At the same time that she is gaining power and seeking to control the sprawling and contentious government, her connections with her family become more and more tenuous, making her a woman pulled in all directions trying to hold it all together for not only a household, but for an entire nation.
The other likely candidate to have begun most non-Scandinavian viewers’ journey into Danish TV series is The Killing. The original, Danish version first appeared in 2007, and was the first of many police dramas set against forbidding, gloomy Danish landscapes.
Shots of the chilly, iron waters of the Øresund and the city of Copenhagen presented in grays and washed-out, blue-tinted hues provide backgrounds for endless close-ups of brooding detectives, most prominently the formidable Sofie Gråbøl. Her character squares off against the equally intimidating Lars Mikkelson, who plays a mayoral candidate with ties to the death in the title of the show.
Gråbøl gets numerous opportunities to gaze out over storm-swept seas in classic “troubled detective who has seen it all” mode, and suffice to say that wardrobe and the show’s costumers relied heavily on grays and blacks for The Killing, as they did for many of these Danish TV shows.
It’s therefore no surprise that when American production companies sat up and took notice, deciding to create their own (not as good, but also not terrible) version of The Killing in 2011, they placed the story of a girl’s body being discovered in the trunk of a submerged car in gloomy Seattle.
The city in the American northwest is perhaps not as chilly as Copenhagen, but it is still evocative of the dismal Denmark gray of winter, and ever-brewing storms that played such a large role in the original Danish TV series.
Such is the popularity of The Killing that it spawned not only the U.S. remake, it also could be said to have helped launch an entirely new genre, commonly called “Nordic noir,” Danish detective shows featuring even more grim-faced cops hunting down brutal murderers in normally staid and orderly Denmark.
Following hot on the heels of The Killing was another mega-hit that struck gold outside of Scandinavia, The Bridge. It too features a brutal crime that lands a body smack dab in the middle of the Øresund Bridge, which connects the Swedish city of Malmö to Copenhagen.
Reporting to investigate the crime comes a pair of detectives, a Swedish investigator and a Danish one, since the body was found exactly on the border between the two countries.
This modern classic of a Danish crime series features Sofia Helin as the lead detective, teaming up with a testy male Danish counterpart Rafael Pettersson as they attempt to make sense of the death of a Malmö city council member.
Ladies first in Danish TV
If you’ve been paying attention thus far, you may have noticed that all of the aforementioned series feature strong women as their leading characters. Commentators and reviewers have also taken notice of this trend, and for many the presence of strong lead characters who happen to be women is not only a hallmark of Danish TV series, but one of many reasons viewers from outside Denmark are fascinated with these Danish TV shows.
It wasn’t so long ago that women cops depicted in Hollywood or U.K. series, while they existed, almost always served as foils or counterbalances for male detectives. Sure, there was a modicum of oestrogen injected into these notoriously testosterone-heavy, often stupidly macho shows.
And sure, it was sometimes true that these women in U.S. and U.K. cop shows weren’t always portrayed in some kind of “weak female” stereotype of old, being rather fully incorporated into the often brutal and crushing world of the police detective.
However, even at their very best, these women were more often than not playing second fiddle to their male counterparts. For viewers from countries where the tradition in television and especially detective storytelling is one of the tough-guy, hard-drinking, “seen it all,” very, very male cop, Danish crime series putting strong women in those types of characters has been revelatory.
It has shown innovative thinking and an open-mindedness we don’t normally see in U.S. and U.K. television, at least not as it was ten years ago when shows like The Killing and The Bridge came out, and demonstrated a willingness to shake up norms and look past assumptions.
You could argue that that kind of thinking is reflected in Danish ways of thinking about architecture, city planning, solving social problems and much more.
Something else the plethora of strong female leading characters in Danish TV series reflects is the simple truth that in Denmark, gender equality is much more robust than in many other Western countries.
The egalitarian nature of Danish society is reflected in Danish TV series, including a more natural balance between men and women in power positions, as well as glimpses of how the state cares for its citizens in a much different, more comprehensive way than we see in the U.K. or the U.S. for instance.
But some Danish scholars view the English-speaking world’s fascination with Danish TV series and the women in them with a bit of a sardonic take. As Aarhus University communications professor Pia Jensen told The Local in a January 2019 article, foreign viewers approach Danish TV series in such a way that they see Denmark as “an exotic society, something to aspire to because of the welfare state and the strong women characters.”
Professor Jensen was quick to note that, although there is truth in the image of a Danish society of more equality than in some western countries, the airbrushed television version of it that we see on Danish series is perhaps a bit overblown. She added that it’s “as if Denmark is the fantasy land of gender equality.”
The exotic and the familiar in Danish TV series
Fair enough. But nevertheless, watching Danish TV series, and especially Danish crime series like The Killing, for viewers unfamiliar with Scandinavia, Denmark in particular and Copenhagen do indeed seem somewhat exotic, but perhaps in an unusual way.
For viewers from the U.K. and the U.S. who have never traveled to Scandinavia, the exoticism of Danish TV series lies in the very fact of them not being all that different from our own experience in Western countries outside of Scandinavia, yet still somehow distinct and clearly not the same.
That is to say, if you watch a TV series or a film set in Bangkok or Hyderabad, the differences in the manner of dress, daily life, and the sounds and sights of the streets in those places are so very different from those lived by most Western viewers that you can’t help but notice. This is a type of “exotic” world that hits you like a bludgeon.
But perhaps it’s the very subtlety of the differences put on display in Danish TV series that makes Danish TV shows so fascinating to those of us from the U.S. and the U.K.: Denmark is a western country, they wear similar clothes to our own, they hear the same pop songs and suffer from the scourge of the same fast-food restaurants that we suffer from. Yet, they are still subtly and not so subtly different.
Just to take one example, in the opening scenes of The Bridge, (minor spoilers ahead) when the female detective forbids a heart transplant patient from proceeding across the Øresund Bridge until the investigation was complete, somewhat coldly potentially dooming a patient to die, it’s her male counterpart who shows unexpected compassion and allows the ambulance to pass through.
Sofia Helin’s character then angrily confronts Rafael Pettersson’s character and berates him, demanding to see his badge before storming off to continue with the investigation of the crime scene.
Thus, in just a few short minutes, in the best tradition of Danish TV series, and especially Danish crime shows, the program’s creators blow up the tired old Hollywood trope of the angry male “bad cop” constantly having his rough edges tempered by the compassionate, softer female “good cop.”
This scene alone sends a powerful signal to viewers—especially American and British viewers—that the ride you’ve just gotten on isn’t going to be your typical, predictable show with paper-thin characters that are more sketch than complete, conflicted human beings.
Staying true in Danish TV
Another major difference we can see in most Danish TV series that distinguishes them from the majority of their American and U.K. counterparts is two-fold related: respect for artistic freedom and risk-taking, and a fidelity to the national character of Denmark combined with a strong sense of place.
The first of these unique qualities, one of which may well have a bearing on the quality of Danish TV series is a respect for the artistic vision of the creators. DR, the Danish state TV broadcaster calls this its “One Vision” policy for program development.
DR, which has given us three of the best Danish TV series in The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge, takes a hands-off approach to letting writers and directors and other creatives attached to their shows do their thing as they see fit with little to no network interference.
This state of affairs would be unheard of in most major networks in the States and the U.K. Writers and creatives in these countries tell horror stories about interminable “network notes” submitted to writers when they are developing shows and even after they have been picked up.
These notes are suggestions to improve the shows that are given to show creators from a small army of network executives—many of whom have never themselves created a single thing in their lives—and often serve to water down or even destroy many a promising show.
Imagine coming up with something compelling and different and unique, having a network offer you a pilot because they too seem enamored of your project, then having to fight tooth and nail to keep it intact and keep them from dumbing down and muddling the very thing they claimed to like, and, after all, what they paid for.
When it comes to Danish TV series, that just isn’t a thing. DR gives writers and creators free reign to develop their work as they see fit, “…so they don’t have to be manipulated by management or by directors,” according to an interview in The Independent with DR’s Cultural Director Morten Hesseldahl.
“I think that is what is going wrong in a lot of places,” Hesseldahl added. “As far as I can understand from some of your creative people, they have recently become frustrated — there are too many people trying to have an opinion about what they are doing.”
Baked in to the expectation that the creative people should be the ones, well, creating Danish TV shows is a respect for and adherence to speaking the truth to what can be termed the Danish national character and a strong sense of Denmark itself as a character in most of these Danish TV series.
While there were surely network executives in the U.S. arguing against picking up some of these shows, especially the Danish crime series that have proven so popular, simply because they are from a tiny country that isn’t really on a lot of people’s radar, it is that very sense of connection with Denmark ,the Danish landscapes and the peculiarities of the people of Denmark that has given these Danish TV series renewed life overseas.
You can see that strong connection to the nation and the national spirit not only in blockbuster Danish TV series like Borgen and The Bridge, but also in the futuristic post-apocalyptic Copenhagen hellscape of The Rain.
As Adam Price, creator and writer of Borgen told The New York Times, “It’s extremely important to write the story that is based on your own locally-based existence. If you aim for too big an audience, you might find yourself with no audience at all.”
And the funny thing is, by focusing like a laser on his own culture and the country he grew up in, Price and other creators of beloved Danish TV series have in fact broadened their audience reach exponentially in a remarkable way — and they did it on their own terms.
All told, you almost can’t go wrong when it comes to Danish TV series. But just to get you started, here are a few of the best Danish TV shows out there, and a couple that are just around the corner.
Now where’s that plane ticket and work permit? I’m heading to Copenhagen!
Popular Danish TV series
1. Borgen:Borgen, the nickname given to Copenhagen’s Christianborg Castle, the seat of Denmark’s Parliament, is also the setting for much of this political drama surrounding Denmark’s fictional first female Prime Minister.
Sidse Babett Knudsen stars as Birgitte Nyborg, who faces dissent in parliament as well is in her own family during her rise to power, and attempts to navigate troubled waters to hang onto power both at home and at work.
2. The Killing: Another of the original Danish TV shows that really helped cement Denmark’s reputation for combining solid character development with complex, intricate, yet ultimately fascinating storylines, The Killing has police detective Sarah Lund partner up with Lennart Brix (Sofie Gråbøl, Morten Suurballe) as they work to solve complex, often brutal cases.
One of the first of the Danish detective series to really create the genre.
3. The Bridge (Bron/Broen): The next major Danish crime series to hammer home the sense of foreboding, grim Copenhagen landscapes, and the seeming contradiction of having a brutal murder take place in such an orderly society.
Sofia Helin and Rafael Pettersson star as a pair of detectives, one from Sweden and one from Denmark, who are tasked with solving the gruesome murder of a Malmö city council member whose mutilated body is found exactly on the border between their two countries, on the Øresund Bridge.
4. 1864: This series marks the biggest and most expensive Danish TV series in the history of Danish television, and it is a visual treat for anyone interested in war, history and the devastation that battle visits not only on the bodies of human beings, but on their psyches as well.
The story examines the bloody war between Denmark and Prussia, the price paid for the pride of Danish nationalism, and the relationship between a pair of brothers as they navigate the battlefields and their uprooted lives.
5. The Rain: A visually arresting, touching journey into a post-apocalyptic future Copenhagen in which a deadly virus has ravaged all of Scandinavia, The Rain is the latest hit to come from the hit-making machine that is Denmark TV series creation.
A pair of siblings, after successfully hiding out during the worst of the plague, emerge from a bunker six years later to discover a world completely changed from the one they left behind. They must make their way across Denmark to Sweden and face deadly challenges along the way.
A great example of how Danish TV series manage to incorporate a grim color palette that nonetheless tells a truth about Denmark all on its own.
6. Ride Upon the Storm: Here is Borgen creator Adam Price again hoping to make magic out of a relatively obscure and, at least globally, little-known subject matter: the Danish Lutheran church. Starring Lars Mikkelson, Emmy winner and one of the stars of The Killing, the show follows a charismatic Lutheran minister and the troubled relationships he has with his two sons.
Creator Price says the show is about “modern masculinity and the weight of expectations,” as well as being about religion and the politics of the church. But mostly it’s about family: “It’s a story about how terribly easy it is to destroy your kids and what that might mean,” Price told The Guardian.
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