Reading the signs?

Nordic Noir has really taken off on TV and captured an audience on Saturday nights at 9pm on BBC4 – the ‘Subtitle Slot’ as I like to think of it. So what is the attraction? I’m trying to pin it down for me. Of course, one point is, that it is an alternative to standard Saturday night TV offerings if you’re not enamoured with the X Factor/strictly/you’ve been framed (repeats) kind of fare. And if perhaps the viewer does not have an extensive social life, (e.g. me) the 9pm slot has become an event for Saturday night.

Generally, the programmes are crime stories, one main plot serialised over a number of weeks or various stand alone programmes featuring a core cast. (Borgen isn’t a detective programme, but there has been an element of ‘crime’ involved and I would class it as Nordic Noir).  The plots have a familiar feel – something bad happens (the crime), this is investigated (the detectives/police) and there is a resolution (not always a straightforward solving of the crime). Along the way, we get to know the characters of the main protagonists.  So there’s a plot line, but there is also a lot of characterization. The cultural feel is different -the way (manner) that people talk and how they relate to each other, the scenery, house interiors, what they eat etc. We are transported to a different country, watch different scenery and listen to a different language. Personally, I enjoy looking at all those IKEA interiors that everyone seems to live in. I have some of the same stuff in my house. As a Scot living in Scotland, I can relate to the dark and the gloom! The weather is not always perfect; the sun does not always shine. The people involved, are often portrayed living ordinary lives, with happy, sad and terrible things happening to them at times. They get on buses, do their laundry, chase criminals, and sort out ‘the bad guy’.  I guess overall there is a familiarity to them that I can relate to, and yet, they are distinctly foreign.

So why don’t I feel the same way about American crime series? They are the ones that feel foreign to me. I’m not knocking them. Some of them are very good. But I don’t have to read subtitles. They are speaking in English (allegedly). Often it feels like once again we are transported to a different country, watch different scenery and listen to a different language. And here is where the familiarity ends for me. I am definitely watching something that feels very different to my culture. Everything is bigger, brasher, brighter. The cars are bigger, the landscape is emptier and the houses and interiors are very different to what I see around me. Often, a ‘poor’ neighbourhood seems to be made up of large detached (wooden) houses and people drive large cars.

Maybe because there have been so many American series on TV over the years, they have taken on a kind of familiarity but certainly in the various crime programmes, you never really see the people involved doing everyday things.

I suppose I definitely have to concentrate more watching a subtitled programme – it can’t just be on in the background while you do the ironing, cook the tea, read the paper or whatever. With no subtitles, you can dip in and out, channel hop etc.

So all this above has just led me to think overall that what is ‘foreign’ feels familiar and what is ‘familiar’ feels foreign. Not a thought that will change the world, but I think it’s interesting.


  1. it sure always bothers me that so-called ‘realistic’ US crime shows the gender roles are often stereotyped and the women always wearing lots of makeup and still having an eye to being attractive to the men. The Scandinavian shows seem more realistic and have more gender equality, the women aren’t just there are props to the male characters.

    1. do you think that the Scandi shows present a more realistic image of gender roles?

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