Call it what you want – Nordic Noir, ScandiNoir – but it's clear they make very good TV drama in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Viewers around the world are now familiar with original, challenging and superbly crafted crime and political dramas such as The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen.
Typically, the crime dramas are dark, atmospheric police procedurals. The dialogue is spare, the storytelling lean and unfussy. The political dramas, such as Borgen, are engaging in the emphatic ordinariness of the drama – the central characters are at human-scale and their foibles recognizable as everyday vices or eccentricities.
Programming originating in Norway has garnered less attention than that from Sweden and Denmark. Lilyhammer is probably the best known, since it stands as one of Netflix's first original series. Right now, there's a lot of interest in a teen drama from Norway called Skam (Norwegian for shame), which has a cult following throughout Europe because it uses social media as an integral part of its storylines.
In general, Norway has a reputation for sleepy TV. The state broadcaster NRK is famous for programs about sheep shearing and knitting. It has also devoted resources to what it calls "slow-paced TV," which means airing footage of a lengthy train journey across the country and, recently, footage of a tidal current. But they also make fine political dramas and a new one just landed here on Netflix.
Nobel – Peace at Any Price (now streaming on Netflix Canada) has very little to do with the Nobel prize or the Nobel organization. It takes a while before the significance of the title is revealed. But what's clear from the start is that this is a terse, captivating thriller that should find a natural audience in Canada.
In part, that's because it is about Norway's military involvement in Afghanistan and the political repercussions of that military engagement. The central figure is Erling Riiser (Aksel Hennie, who is superb), an officer in the Norwegian Special Forces serving in Afghanistan. A sniper and a coolly efficient commander, we meet him when he has to make a formidably difficult decision about a threatened suicide attack on a base where Norway's soldiers are stationed.
Back home in Norway, Erling is father to a boy and husband to a government official, Johanne (Tuva Novotny) who, of course, wishes he did much less dangerous work. But part of the texture of Nobel is a questioning of what's truly dangerous these days – outright war or diplomatic manoeuvres to gain access to natural resources? At work, Johanne is dealing with a very delicate situation as her boss, a government minister, is attempting to get China on board for oil exploration in Afghanistan.
There is a superbly made scene in the first episode that involves government officials from several countries trying to be polite while attending a classical-music performance. Meanwhile, Erling is called away and is obliged to deal, assassin-style, with a figure from Afghanistan. Many threads are being drawn together.
What's captivating about the series is the low-key incisiveness. The story doesn't build hyperdramatically, even as it has tense action sequences. It moves slowly, giving space to conversations and thought. What the drama is thinking about is the small difference between the extremism in Afghanistan and the extreme capitalism that drives countries and corporations to take advantage of the earth itself. In the end, its clear that Erling, good soldier that he is, becomes a pawn in a game about oil and money.
As entertaining as Nobel is, it is also a model of imaginative storytelling. It surprises when you least expect it, much like the best of Nordic noir.
Nashville (W, 9 p.m.) returns at last. After ABC dropped the loopy and adorable country-music soaper, it was picked up by Hulu, in partnership with CMT. Here it airs on W and, as its fifth season gets under way, there is much to discover. Did that pint-sized siren Juliette (Hayden Panettiere) survive the plane crash at the end of season four? Go figure. And whither Rayna (Connie Britton), suffering again and again? Will anyone write a great hurtin' song out of all the trauma? You bet. Nashville is high-grade trashy TV, addictive and a lot of fans are glad it's back.