I call it the ‘Nirvana effect’: some style of music or movies becomes popular, and everybody starts producing similar content in the hope of cashing in on the new trend. In the days of Nirvana it led to a long list of mediocre grunge bands and only a couple of brilliant ones (fill in your favorites here). In the days of streaming services it leads to a long list of crime series (and true crime documentaries…). As I had plenty of time during the pandemic and my travels, here is an overview of what crime series I watched on Netflix.
Nirvana’s Nevermind kickstarted the avalanche in the 90s in the music industry. One of the kickstarters in the television industry probably was The Killing (Forbrydelsen). Debuting in 2007 on Danish television, the knitted-sweater wearing detective Sarah Lund became an international phenomenon in 2011 when Channel 4 broadcasted it in the UK.
It was the birth of ‘Scandinavian noir’ or Scandinoir on television. The combination of long storylines with bleak photography and mesmerizing landscapes proved something different than the usual ‘crime solved within an hour of television’ formats. The Killing’s first season exaggerated a bit, with twenty (!) episodes, with the other two seasons being a bit more to-the-point before Sarah Lund flew away.
There was obviously demand for this type of television. The Bridge (Broen) satisfied that thirst. It can be viewed on Netflix, and is in my opinion even better than The Killing.
There are not only intelligent meandering storylines, with many twists and dead ends. The biggest quality arguably is again a tormented detective. Actually two detectives in this case, with Saga Noren being the autistic Swedish police detective and martin Rohde her Danish counterpart. Yes, this one is set in Scandinavia as well, and makes for four seasons of gripping television. I happily admit to have cried after the last episode of the first season.
List of crime noir on Netflix
Now, these series started before the advent of streaming services. But in recent years they latched on to the format. So in case you have no idea what to see next, here is a list of what I saw on Netflix:
- Deadwind: the playbook here is similar to The Bridge, with a tormented female detective hunting for killers against the Finnish landscape. Now, this makes for beautiful drone shots, but the writing is weak. If you pay attention, you know within five minutes who is the killer in the first season. The second season is arguably better, but makes some improbable plot twists. Where did that helicopter came from???
- Bordertown: this is an intriguing but in the end disappoihnting Finnish one as well. The main character, detective Kari, and his family are genuinely sympathetic and interesting to watch. But the plot unfurls in batches of two episodes, revolving around different murder cases. The narrative arc is way too short to make it genuinely exciting, the plots are razor-thin. Unfortunately another case of great landscape shots combined with bad sub-par writing (only watched one of the two available seasons)
- The Valhalla Murders: this one is even more sparse in its remote Icelandic setting and dialogues, which makes it one of my favorites. It is actually based on a similar real-life story from the 1940s, and the main (female) protagonist isn’t nearly as traumatized as Sarah Lund or Saga Noren. With only one season, it is a great investment of your weekend
- Case: another one from Iceland, but this one without the epic drone shots of the landscape. It brings you the story of local cop Gabriela, who of course has a hidden personal trauma as well. She is pleasantly restrained, but the unlikely plot falls apart in the last two episodes. Based on the last scene, it looks like we will have a second season of this as well
- you can stay in Northern Europe a bit longer when you switch to Poland. The advent of Netflix there brought several series to an international audience. The Mire brings the tried-and-tested concept of the old and experienced reporter versus the young and talented newcomer onto the screen. Set in the 1980s, it is nothing really special but an entertaining peek nonetheless into society at that time. A second season has been launched in 2021, where world famous Anton Corbijn is the director of photography. We return to the small Polish city, where most of the main characters return as well to investigate what a flood has to do with the death of a young boy.
- another crime serie from Poland took its inspiration from Harlan Coben’s thrillers. But in The Woods the scene has been moved from New Jersey to Warsaw. The photography is beautiful (the intro sequence with close-ups in the forest for example), the two timelines (one in 1994 and the other in 2019) set in different colors. The pace is pleasantly slow. Another adaptation of a Coben novel premiered on April 30 2021 on Netflix, called El Inocente / The Innocent. That one isn’t really ‘crime noir’, but a well-written one-season thriller set in Barcelona
- the UK obviously fell in love big time with Scandinavian noir. It was inevitable local series were to be commissioned. Broadchurch‘s first season was ab-so-lute-ly gripping, the last episode will stay with you for a long time. Olivia Colman gives a splendid performance as the police detective in a small town. Haven’t seen season two though, as reviews were mixed at best
- another one from the UK is The Fall with Gillian Anderson. That one starts captivating, with the hunt for a serial killer. Unfortunately, despite great acting, the series becomes less and less interesting along the way
- now you may have noted that another feature of many of these crime series is that they are set in small villages. Luxemburg series Capitani doesn’t aim for the originality prize as it is set in a small town, AND has a tormented detective called Capitani, AND brings in the ‘village idiot’ as an important witness. But… episodes only last 30 minutes, the pace is high, and Capitani himself has an intensity to him. Though the plot reveal at the end is maybe not as spectacular as hoped, the loose ends make you curious for the second season
- in the last year there has been a rise of what is referred to as Galician Noir, named after the remote lush region in northwest Spain. Bitter Daisies (O sabor das margaridas) again takes the remote village, the tormented female detective and the ‘village idiot’ as core elements. The plot though is pretty intelligent, the photography beautiful (no bleak landscapes here!). And the second season, just released on Netflix, has a better and tighter plot. A third season is apparently in the works. Episodes are long by the way, often running over the hour. But then again, the number of episodes is limited
- also set in Galicia, The Mess you Leave Behind (El desorden que dejas) only runs for one season. It is also refreshing the plot around the death of a teacher doesn’t involve any detectives or journalists. So this is a straightforward one-day binge
- finally France has produced some solid crime series. The Frozen Dead (Glace) from 2017 wasn’t originally produced for Netflix, though found an international audience there. It has some familiar ingredients (remote village, a convicted criminal that needs to help solve a recent crime -> Silence of the Lambs set a template here) but is an entertaining watch, with only six episodes. The open end screams though for a second season that until now never materialized
- finally, La Mante also takes the template of the convicted criminal and a serial killer. Yes, we have seen this before, but the plot was written extremely well. The acting is furious, and La Mante is only one season
List of crime noir on other channels
This is a relatively recent addition, as my VPN has allowed me to watch more high-quality crime series even. So:
- Heksejakt (Witch Hunt) is a Norwegian TV series from 2020. Instead of the usual murder case, this one is an extremely intense series about an office manager who gets a highly questionable invoice on her desk for approval at the law firm she is working. Once she starts asking questions, the whistleblower spirals into darkness. Extremely good acting (you will hate some of the main characters even before the end of the first episode), tight scriptwriting, and an end that leaves the possibility for a second season!
- The Investigation: back to Denmark, with Sören Malling (Borgen, The Killing) again as the main character. The series completely focuses on him, as he as the leading detective has to solve the gruesome murder of journalist Kim Wall. Her disappearance in 2017 was a media spectacle in Denmark: these beautiful mini-series give a highly personal insight into the introverted detective and how he and his team hunt for evidence.