he past few years have brought a wave of Scandinavian television dramas to British and American television screens. Shows such as Denmark’s “Borgen,” “The Killing” and “Follow the Money” the Swedish “Wallander,” the Swedish-Danish “The Bridge,” and even the original-language films of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander trilogy have given viewers exotic characters as well as new cinematic settings and styles. Nordic content has also produced challenges and given interested viewers new skills.
Familiarity with subtitles and Scandinavian directors — think Ingmar Bergman — were once art house affectations (movies were “films” or “cinema.”) But the spread of Scandinavian crime series has made subtitle reading a skil. Dedicated fans of “Nordic noir” and “Scandivision” learn to master the hushed nuances that pass for conversation in laconic northern realms. Some even pick up on tidbits of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian and pepper their conversation with the foreign words for coroner, judge or gang member.
Scandinavian directors and writers rely on some common themes to propel their shows and Google translate can help you identify them. Here’s a short glossary:
- Mørke horisont (Norway): “Dark horizon.” Dark gray sea meeting dark gray sky is common solution for opening credits or knotty moments when investigators are stymied. Gazing across a watery void can bring counsel. Don’t miss out on the Jungian allusions.
- Ex-nationalistisk selvretfærdig forretningsmand (Denmark): “Bigoted ex-nationalist businessman.” Think Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea, a respected and even beloved company, with a secret past tied to nationalist or philo-Nazi movements. This kind of character may seem like a pillar of a bland Nordic bourgeoisie, belying a capacity to go to desperate and violent lengths.
- Trævlet vokalmusik med akustisk guitar (Denmark): This is basically stringy vocal music with acoustic guitar that links 1970s singer-songwriters with ancient Norse sagas.
- Windpinad industriområde (Sweden): “A windswept industrial area.” A dock or cargo terminal, where stacked containers, cavernous warehouses and high-voltage or dangerous equipment like forklifts offer threatening settings for showdowns between police and criminals or gangs and potential turncoats and informants. Nice nexus of post-industrial decay and Scandinavians’ seagoing heritage.
- Personen med minimala sociala färdigheter (Sweden): “Person with minimal social skills.” Being of few words is definitely a Scandinavian stereotype. Socially challenged characters such as Saga in “The Bridge” or Lisbeth Salander bring a degree of awkwardness that’s remarkable even near the Arctic Circle. These people usually have a quirky talent in reverse proportion to their inability to relate to others.
- Etsivä joka on nähnyt parempia päiviä (Finland). “Detective who has seen better days.” Typically, such a character will be on probation after some transgression committed in pursuit of justice, whether excess violence or exceeding even Scandinavian standards of alcohol consumption. See also: Skyllet op reporter or “Washed up reporter.”
- Ekteskapet vakler på randen (Norway): “Marriage teetering on the brink.” Scandinavians may have a reputation as pioneers of living out of wedlock and casual sex, but the ease of getting together does not prevent relationship troubles, which are always fodder for a subplot. See no. 8 below.
- Beklager om ikke å være en bedre far/mor (Norway): “Regret about not being a better father or mother.” This is another Scandinavian stereotype that occasionally loses the plot. Be prepared for lots of tiny blue eyes welling with tears when Mom or Dad trades that birthday party for a stakeout or overtime.
- Overraskelse ikke alle i landet er veldig hyggelig (Norway): Stereotype alert! “Not everyone in the country is nice,” which means generic looking white people can be very ugly customers even though they live in countries with a high happiness index. Scandinavian directors and writers make hay out of the rest of the world’s expectation that extensive social welfare systems make people nice.
- NGO arbetare med en tvivelaktig tidigare (Sweden). “NGO worker with a dubious past.” Raoul Wallenberg helped Jews escape the SS. UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjold and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme worked for world peace. All three died in mysterious circumstances! Scandinavians know how to milk dirty dealings from would-be humanitarianism. Scandi-noir writers can confound expectations. Take the eco-terrorists in second season of “The Bridge,” men and women whose good-guy credentials hide some weird things.
- Rysk gangster troligen med KGB tidigare (Sweden): “Russian gangster probably with a KGB past.” One of the many benefits of the Cold War’s end was the new — and seemingly endless — supply of fictional criminals with Soviet pasts. KGB training means these villains have skills and sophistication that Sicilian Mafia bad guys can only dream of.
- De är så normalt ser, hur kan de möjligen vara ond? (Sweden): “They look so normal, how can they be so bad?” Who knew nice white, Aryan faces could hide such evil? And they aren’t even Nazis.
- Är det inte galet att deras polisbilar är Volvos och Saabs (Sweden). “How crazy it that Volvos and Saabs are police cars?” What started out as a fact — Volvos and Saabs are normal in Scandinavia — turns out to be a handy way to reach Volvo and Saab owners in more southern climes. These are whole foods shoppers, Patagonia fleece lovers and PBS subscribers, the kind of folks who shun U.S. cops and Detroit-made minicars. (See corollary: Yes, cops can be metrosexual.)
- Hyväsydäminen muslimi kaveri (Finland): “Good-hearted Muslim guy.” Scandinavians can be a bit challenged on the Muslim front. Some shows make up for the likes of mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik and insensitive cartoonists (remember Denmark’s 2005 Muhammad cartoon controversy?) with nice Muslim guys who swear by familiar family values.