Televised Grief

If anyone has been watching Season 5 of The Good Wife, they are in the middle of dealing with grief. Grief as a TV watcher as well as seeing grief depicted on screen. I am not going to spoil the details of what happens in The Good Wife or any other show that is on at present. If the show has been off the air for five years, the death will be named. Accepting that viewers get invested in characters (and there is a whole different conversation about the relationship between a TV watcher and fictional character) lets look at storytellers convey grief in a TV series.

There is a difference between death and grief and a death is used often in storytelling on TV. It can be used as a cliffhanger, a chance to reset story lines, giving the characters a reason to do something, a way to get out a plot hole or a way to up the stakes, cough, Breaking Bad, cough. How long does a program show the remaining characters going through grief? It must be a difficult line to walk as most shows are about moving the plot forward and making sure that they entertain. So grief is usually depicted as immediate big reactions that move to more proactive emotions such as anger (which is usually linked to revenge) all within one or two episodes so a show can start to move on to its new direction. 

In the past we have had Six Feet Under, which is a show about life and death. So grief is part of the DNA of the show, however the grief in the first season was dealt with when we did not know much about the characters and were getting to know them through this emotional lens. It is only until the last season when we go through Nate's death that how Six Feet Under deals with grief is highlighted for us. We think we know how a character should react (like we assume about our friends) and we are watching to see if this is correct and how it will play out.  Here is an excellent article written in 2005, about the authenticity of grief in the show.

The original Danish series, The Killing, paints the picture of a couple's grief throughout the first two seasons or 20 episodes depending on how the show was presented to you. I have not watched the American version, but the original is very very good and the impact of the death of the murder victim of the remaining members of her family is expertly written and portrayed. Here is a great summation of the show.  The Body episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is held up as the definitive take on grief in one episode. It contains the storytelling to one episode and takes the viewer through the ringer. However, it is more about anchoring the show in the reality of being powerless in a world where people have superpowers and there are monsters to kill. 

It will be interesting to see how The Good Wife plays out this scenario. Already they are indicating that they are spending more time with the other aspects of grief such as numbness, being hit by random emotional overloads, suppression of reactions, keep up a front and being true to the character and how they will deal with something that is overwhelming. I for one will be watching.

Behind the Scenes with The Killing and Borgen

This week in Sydney, Australia, we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to speak with Piv Bernt, Head of Drama at DK (Danish Broadcasting Corporation); Sofie Gråbøl, the lead actress ofThe Killing (Forbrydelsen); Adam Prise, creator and writer of Borgenand Sidse Babett Knudsen, lead actress for Borgen. Hosted by Australian TV personality Julia Zemiro from SBS, the talk gave us an insight into the way that TV drama is made in Denmark through the public broadcasting system and the strengths and weaknesses of having a small population on which to source the creative team.   

First off, the talk was in English, so the four people being interviewed spoke fluently in their second language and in the case of Sidse Babett Knudsen, a third language as she also speaks French.  Very impressive. Glimpsing behind the scenes on TV programs is usually the domain of US entertainment industry, and if you are lucky some very popular British programs.  To see how it is done in a European country is a rare treat.  Denmark has the population of 5.59 million.  So not many people in the grand scheme of things. DK is the public broadcasting company in Denmark and it runs in a similar way to the BBC, as it is an independent, licence-financed public institution. In the mid 1990s the Head of Drama at the time decided to focus on building quality stories with one vision. Inspired by the writing format of American shows on HBO like The Wire and Six Feet Under, that use a group of writers who work with the creator/show runner, and combining it a commitment to telling stories about contemporary Denmark, with all its strengths and weaknesses. For a writer/creator, getting a story commissioned by DK is the biggest hurdle, as there is an insistence from the broadcaster that the show is not just its three sentence description, it has a second or third layer that reflects life in Denmark.  Once the idea is commissioned, the 'one vision' approach takes over. The writer/creator is given 20 episodes to tell a story and enough pre-production time to build a team of cast and crew that contribute to the 'one vision' of the story that is being told. If you look back at the series of shows that came out of Denmark since the 1990s you could make a case for the inevitability of the success of The Killing and subsequently Borgen, The 'one vision' approach is working.  


An important point made by Piv Bernt when asked by why The Killing became an international hit when the previous shows from DK did not, was the investment made in production values. The look, the tone, the music and sound are important, and so is the acknowledgement and use of a unique location - Denmark. What a no-brainer.  No wonder tourism has increased in Denmark. It is a country I want to go to now, not so much before I watched my fill of Danish dramas.  

There are lessons in the approach taken from DK. The commitment to a story with a 20 episode commission takes the executive conversation away from ratings and the cancellation pressure off the cast and crew. The limited resources and opportunities makes the commissioning process more rigorous which means if the story is picked up, it 50% of the way there.   

The discussion also touched on the remakes - very polite, but just watch the original; the small pool of actors in a small country and the delight in offering well rounded characters of both sexes.  These stories are about human beings, no matter their gender. 


Top 10 Favourite TV Programs for 2012

This is the time for those pesky Top 10 lists for the year.  I am not going to do the ‘best’ as I don’t watch everything – I have never gotten into Breaking Bad, I am on a break from Sons of Anarchy (the 4th season was just too violent)  and I think Homeland is good but not great.  So here are my top 10 favourite programs for 2012:

10. Justified (USA) Season 3
How could that they top that awesome second season? Well they did. The big bads for the season were Detroit mobster, Robert Quarles (Neal McDonough) trying to get in on the local Oxy action, and local ‘mayor’ of Noble’s Holler in the segregated part of Harlan County, Ellstin Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson).  However, the season was all about family, their betrayal and loyality, both Raylan’s and Boyd’s.

9. Archer (USA) Season 3
This is the funniest and sharpest spy adult cartoon on the planet.  There is great voice work by H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, Amber Nash and Jessica Walter and you actually start to care for these crazy characters and their insane lives. 

8. Fringe (USA) Season 5
Fringe is one of the best shows on at the moment.  It is an ode to creativity and strength of conviction.  As soon as the series creators realised the show was not going to get ratings that make it a ‘hit’, but they did have an avid fan base and support from Fox Network, they had the licence to tell the stories they want.  Fringe’s final season is proving to be completely different from what came before and simultaneously true to previous seasons.  The trio of Olivia (Anna Torv), Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Walter (John Noble) are fantastic actors and they anchor you through the incrediable leaps of faith required in good science fiction.  I suspect that this shows legacy will be ‘All You Need Is Love’.

7. Being Human (UK) Season 4
What do you do when one of your lead actors decides to leave the show to go to New Zealand to make The Hobbit? You give him the best send off in the final of the previous season, start to close the story arcs of the remaining lead characters in the beginning episodes of the latest season and seamlessly introduce and reboot the series.  Beautifully done.

6. Call The Midwife (UK) Season 1
Midwifery in London’s East End in the 1950s.  Not your typical topic for great Sunday night TV.  But this charming BBC series based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth is a winning combination of comedy and drama.  Showing us the true worth of the British National Health Service and introducing the comedian Miranda Heart to a great dramatic role.

5.  The Bridge (Sweden/Denmark) Season 1
The Bridge was the first joint creative and financial set up between Denmark and Sweden.  The story is driven by a criminal investigation instigated by the dumping of a body on the Oresund Bridge joining Sweden and Denmark.  One investigator from each country, this detective double act is a winning combination of verging on Aspergers Saga Norén (Sofia Helin), the lead homicide detective in Malmö and friendly Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia), the lead homicide detective in Copenhagen.  The first season is a compelling crime story with great twists and turns and loads of adrenalin.

4. Game of Thrones (USA) Season 2
This adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin's series of fantasy novels, this second season is bigger, better and with more characters.  It builds up to the Battle of Blackwater, with all its magic, betrayal, love and scheming, however it is the character duets that stand out in this season.    The wonderful work between Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister, head of the Lannister family and Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, the younger daughter of Stark family of Winterfell who is disguised as an orphan boy and in his service as she tries to get back to Winterfell from King’s Landing ; Rose Leslie as Ygritte, a Wildling and Kit Harrington as a new member of the Night Watch and Ned Stark bastard,  Jon Snow; Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth, a female warrior and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as her prisoner of war, Jaime Lannister; and Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister trading barbs with Lena Heady his elder sister and Queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, Cersei Baratheon.

3. Mad Men (USA) Season 5
There was some backlash over the amount of time spent on Megan (Jessica Pare), Don’s second wife this season, but to me it was logical that she was seen in stark contrast to Betty (January Jones) and her icy coldness of previous seasons.  Although their screen time was not as much as Megan, it was decisions made by Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) that had the greatest impact.  Season 6 will be very interesting indeed.

2. The Killing (Denmark) Season 3 or 4 depending who you ask
Technically it is Season 4, but as 1 and 2 were shown at once in the UK, the Brits call it Season 3.  Now coming to an end next week in the UK, this season and this series is great television.  It will go down in the TV Annals as one of the best crime dramas made with a mesmerising central performance by Sofie Grabol as Detective Inspector Sarah Lund.

1.  Sherlock (UK) Season 2
Just four words – A Scandal In Belgravia.  Enough said.  Best 90 minutes of TV for 2012.

The Guardian's blog on The Killing

This is one of the best blogs for a TV series.  Vicky Frost does a fabulous job of summarising the episodes and weaving in the basis to the conversation that happens in the comments section.  You can just feel that the English viewers of the latest season of The Killing from Denmark are just as excited about the blog and the conversation as the episodes they have just consumed. Lots of fun.

Danish Crime Drama on TV

The Killing, the original Danish version and not the US remake, became a ratings hit for the BBC two years ago. British TV made European crime drama popular and started a shapeless knitted jersey fashion trend. Little did they know that European crime drama had been making a killing in Australia for a number of years.

Starting with the Danish onslaught of Unit One (Danish: Rejseholdet) and The Eagle: A Crime Odyssey (Danish: Ørnen: En krimi-odyssé) in the mid 2000s, the Australian TV channel, SBS, realised that by fulfilling its founding belief of that all Australians, regardless of geography, age, cultural background or language skills should have access to high quality, independent, culturally-relevant Australian media*, it was also getting a following for European flavoured crime. And then came The Killing, a whole year before the UK. We were glued to our TV sets week after week, stumbling across fellow viewers at dinner parties or at work. It was a throwback to the pre-internet 1990s. As it was not yet known in the US or the UK, the English-language based entertainment industry was not talking about it, and English speaking fans were in the minority. We went back to the original water cooler and the only spoilers were the previews for the next episode each week. It was fantastic.

Since then we have had The Protectors (Danish: Livvagterne) about the police bodyguard squad (PET) and most recently The Bridge (Swedish/Danish: Bron/Broen), a Danish and Swedish co-production about a murder investigation resulting from a body found on the Oresund Bridge connecting the two countries.  FX in the US have already ordered a pilot for a US remake taking place on the border between the US and Mexico.  It looks like the remake factory hasn't learnt their lesson from The Killing experience.  Getting a glimpse into Danish culture is half the fun of these series. The popularity of The Killing in the UK led to the BBC trusting the taste of its audience and importing two French crime dramas, Spiral (French: Engrenages) and Barquo (French: Barquo).

All three series of Spiral have shown on SBS, and we wait with bated breath to find out what happens next. For some of the best commentary on The Killing, Spiral, The Bridge, and Danish political drama Borgen, go to The Guardian online. There you can find a community of viewers who know their Sofie Gråbøl from their Sofia Helin, and help you with the light fittings envy that wells up inside you once you have watched more than one European crime dramas. No one does household furnishings like the Northern Europeans.                     

* Us/Our Story