Scandinavian Noir is the Dark Escape We Need

Getting Hygge with Nordic TV

Simultaneously escapist (“Look, a reindeer!”) and bleak (“I can’t believe what they did to that poor reindeer!”), Scandinavian Noir is the perfect streaming genre for these plague times. The majestic isolation of the Nordic landscape forms a moody backdrop to bingeable mysteries in which the good guys always serve justice, but not without a steep psychological cost. Luxuriously long European-style episodes allow room to construct intricate plots and multi-layered characters. Curl up on the couch in your coziest sweater and take a deep dive into the darkness that haunts the happiest, most livable societies on Earth.

Ragnarok (2020, Netflix)

This six-episode, Hemsworth-free origin story combines the high-school-is-hell meta-narrative of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a dash of X-Files-esque paranormal paranoia. The stupidly gorgeous scenery and sinister, small-town claustrophobia of the fictional fjord-side hamlet of Edda may remind you of Twin Peaks. But there’s nothing derivative about this clever update of the Thor legend, enlivened by perfectly pitched performances and a villain who never fails to take off his shirt for villainy. It’s simultaneously a soapy, snarky teen drama, an environmental parable, and a cosmic meditation on the nature of modern evil.

“We belong to an ancient, immortal warrior family,” one baddie intones. “We were worshipped. The humans sacrificed to us. We were the first gods.” Another shoots back: “And now you drive a fucking Volvo. You love to just sit on the couch and watch American TV shows while you’re eating candy. You want to give up all that?” American audiences can elect to watch a dubbed version of Ragnarok, but the Norwegian-accented English is so inscrutable that you’ll want the subtitles, too.

Department Q (2013-2016, Amazon, IFC)

Nordic Noir doesn’t get much blacker than this trio of feature-length adaptations based on Danish crime writer Jussi Adler-Olsen’s books set in Copenhagen’s cold-case division. Produced by Lars von Trier’s company, Zentropa, the films follow disgraced homicide detective Carl Mørck as he’s reluctantly reassigned to the basement office of Department Q, where he meets his new assistant, an affable Syrian immigrant. Angry, brilliant Carl and empathetic outsider Assad make a classic procedural odd couple as they reopen grisly cases that are never quite as cold as they first appear.

As Mørck, veteran Danish actor Nicolaj Lie Kaas evokes an even grumpier version of Jimmy McNulty, the flawed hero played by Dominic West on The Wire. The same qualities that make him an abrasive human being—stubbornness, cynicism, recklessness—make him a great cop. The trilogy’s slick visual style and hot-button themes go a long way toward mitigating the relentlessly grim material; the fourth film in the series, 2018’s The Purity of Vengeance, which is not yet available to stream, was the most successful Danish film ever.

Wallander (2008-2016, PBS, Netflix, Hulu)


Before he played Agatha Christie’s Detective Poirot on the big screen, Kenneth Branagh gave a five-billion-times more nuanced and affecting performance as brooding Scandinavian cop Kurt Wallander in the BBC’s English-language adaptation of Henning Mankell’s crime novels. In this character-driven series, set in bucolic southern Sweden, Branagh’s ongoing existential crisis is so compelling that it threatens to overshadow the crimes he’s investigating. His relationships with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father and his policewoman daughter bookend Wallander’s middle-aged angst. A cherubic young Tom Hiddleston plays a rookie on Wallander’s team; Branagh would later direct him in a very different Scandinavian saga, Thor.

Irene Huss (2007-2011, Amazon/MHz Choice) and Annika Bengtzon: Crime Reporter (2012, Amazon/MHz Choice)

These procedural series—both based on popular Swedish crime fiction—pit idealistic heroines against the scourges of modern-day Scandinavian society: neo-Nazis, drug dealers, terrorists, traffickers, crooked politicians, and mansplaining co-workers. Huss is a Gothenburg police detective with a black belt in jiu-jitsu, who’s raising twins with her chef husband. Bengtzon is a scrappy, sexy reporter for a barely respectable Stockholm tabloid; Stieg Larsson’s highbrow newsmagazine Millennium this ain’t.  The heroines are no less badass for also having relatably complex (and sometimes messy) personal and professional lives. They remind us that while monsters may commit crimes, smart, hardworking professionals with reliable support networks solve them. The series’ sensitive depictions of family, and workplace family, serve as an effective antidote to social distancing.

Shetland (2013-2019, Amazon, iTunes, BritBox)

Although technically part of Scotland, the Shetland Islands are halfway across the North Sea to Norway, and this BBC murder mystery series shares a geographic and thematic border with Nordic Noir. For a place with more sheep than people, the tiny archipelago has a shockingly high murder rate (it’s also the UK region currently worst affected by coronavirus). Indeed, though it may seem like there’s no place to hide in the pristine, empty landscape, illuminated (when it’s not raining) by the midnight sun, Shetland is home to all manner of nefarious activity, including arson, rape, kidnapping, and drug (and human) trafficking.

Civilization is an overnight ferry ride away, and the piteously small local police department, headed by stoic single dad Jimmy Pérez, is all that stands between the forces of good and evil. Shetland largely avoids the grit and gore of its Scandinavian counterparts, but the mysteries are as twisty as the islands’ lonely rural roads.

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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