Valkyrien (C4, Sunday) is the hot new Scandi-noir series, which is being billed as Norway’s answer to Breaking Bad. In this case, the anti-hero having his mid-life crisis is a brilliant surgeon called Ravn (Sven Nordin). He has become disenchanted with The System because the fancy hospital where he works won’t let him use the potentially life-saving treatment he has devised on his dying wife. (It might kill her, they say — which Ravn, quite understandably, considers a ridiculous, faux-ethical excuse.) So off he goes to sulk in his Batcave — a disused nuclear bomb shelter, accessible via an underground station — for what will no doubt be a series of clandestine medical adventures, using equipment he has nicked from his old lab.
Ravn’s Jesse-style sidekick Leif (Pal Sverre Hagen) works for Norway’s civil defence unit — risk-assessing all the things that might bring the world to an end. It’s the perfect job because he’s really a ‘prepper’ — or ‘doomsday nerd’ as this series calls them: one of those people who thinks the apocalypse is nigh and that only the select few with the tinned food, the guns, and the knowledge of where all the bunkers are are going to make it through.
But how are our mismatched duo going to fund all their strange capers over the next seven episodes? Well, as luck would have it, a wounded acquaintance of Leif’s has turned up with a bullet in his kidney as a result of a semi-botched bank raid. All his accomplices were caught but this chap managed to get away with all the money, which he’s prepared to share in return for medical treatment and facial reconstruction surgery.
What I like, after one episode, is that its trajectory isn’t at all obvious. It could spin off in any number of directions from off-kilter medical crime drama to full-on, bizarro, Where-is-Jessica-Hyde?-style paranoid apocalyptic conspiracy thriller. I’m rather hoping for the latter, the premature cancellation by Channel 4 of Dennis Kelly’s brilliant 2013/2014 series Utopia after just two seasons being one of the most mystifying and wrong decisions in the history of TV. But even if it’s the former, well, you really can’t go far wrong with these non-Anglosphere serial dramas, can you?
Watching them is a bit like going on holiday: these people look like us and (more or less) dress like us, but the language, the sensibility, the cultural attitudes are all so alien you might as well be on another planet. This is one reason why many of the series I’ve most enjoyed in the last ten years or so — Spiral, The Bridge, The Returned, Narcos, Deutschland 83, Trapped — have been foreign. Even when the plot’s a bit ropey (which it usually isn’t because we only tend to get the best from each country), the location and atmosphere carry you through.
I particularly like the continentals’ attitude to sex. When characters shag on TV in the English-speaking world, it’s usually indicative of something dire, be it infidelity or fatal jealousy or, at best, the brief moment of happiness before it all goes wrong. In both the UK and the US, we still have this puritanical hang-up that sex is a bit wrong. This applies to everything from thrillers to Game of Thrones, where sex is rarely shown being enjoyed as part of a loving, married relationship and almost always debauched, pervy or dangerous.
For your continentals, on the other hand, having sex is about as big a deal as going for a cheeky McDonald’s when you’re peckish, or putting one foot in front of another when you go for a walk. Hence, for example, Saga — the sexually voracious blonde detective in The Bridge who, were she a British creation would be a male-wish-fulfilment figure (the hot Scandi chick who picks you up in a club and has meaningless sex with you without your even having to buy her a drink or practise your chat-up lines), but who in Danish/Swedish co-production land is just a typical demure woman. Probably.
Anyway, if you like this sort of thing, just go to the Walter Presents section at Channel 4’s website and you can gorge to your heart’s content. It’s curated by a TV buff called Walter Iuzzolino who watched 3,500 hours of foreign-language TV drama and based his choices on three criteria: the show has to be a hit in its native country; it must be critically acclaimed; and it must include the best of that country’s writing, acting and direction.
Brazilian drama set in 1970 about a film censor who moves into porn direction? Check. A haunting, sexy vampire thriller from Denmark? Check. But how does anyone have time to watch all this stuff? I don’t and it’s supposed to be my job.