The Cultural Heritage of Scandinavian TV and “Dogma” as the secret recipe: Popularity of The Killing and Borgen

The Heritage: Then

I recently got the opportunity to be  introduced to the relatively unexplored world of Scandinavian Television and that left me pleasantly surprised.  The Nordic TV culture originally started with various educational programs (favoured by the public service channels) and then live television dramas (in Denmark supervised by “television theatre” department of Danish broadcasting corporation) in the 60s. The dramas were inspired by literature and plays of famous playwrights like Strindberg and Ibsen.

AugustStrindberg                         Ibsen_by_Olrik

 August Strindberg                                                  Henrik Ibsen

In the 70s, the film directors and screenwriters also worked for TV productions and brought realism aspect and film-flavour in the television experience. Also, since the early age of TV, Scandinavian countries exchanged TV programs in their channels which in turned opened a route for intra-Scandinavian cultural exchange.The most notable works were the documentary-style controversial Swedish TV series Scenes from a marriage (1973) by the legendary Ingmar Bergman (you can watch it here) and the single play series of 1968-1977  written by Danish writer Leif Panduro. These upturned the overall standard of the modern television of Scandinavia.

bergman_scenes from a marriage

1980s saw some prominent feminist work like Daughters of War (1981) , the Danish historical drama Matador (1978-1981) (super-famous, repeated 7 times in TV!) and Oscar-winning Fanny and Alexander (1982) (originally conceived as a four-part TV series) of BergmanOnly during the 90s, Nordic TV started to get influenced by the plots and structures of British and American tradition for long-running series. The Television industry of Scandinavia thus have an interesting heritage and mix of high avant garde art and popular culture.

… and Now

The recent Danish ones, The Killing and Borgen are not only acclaimed locally but managed to get attention from international audience; United Kingdom, Germany and Netherlands being the forerunner among them.

TheKillingCast “Dogma” for TV!

In recent years, the Danish broadcasting corporation DR took some very well-thought managerial decisions , which possibly are the key reasons for producing quality as well as successful TV drama. In 2003, the Head of Drama Division of DR at that time, Ingolf Gabold decided to create a framework for TV series with 15 so-called Dogmas of Fiction. Yes, this sounds much like the famous Dogma 95 movement of Lars von Trier and his three comrades. But they are NOT similar with the ‘vow of chastity’ which were thrown around in Paris press conference by the talented and flamboyant Trier, and unlike the ‘vow’ remained mostly unknown. Nevertheless, finally the main concepts among those dogmas have been shared by Gabold. They are: ‘One vision’, ‘Double storytelling’ and ‘Crossover’.

Firstly, in ‘one vision’, DR chose the USA TV drama mode: where scriptwriter is most important. They decided to base the series on the original ideas of the screenwriters, so that they can feel the ownership of the series throughout.  This gives a stability and artistic freedom to the writers. Secondly, ‘double storytelling’ concept helped due to the fact that in a TV series, the international  audience wants to see entertainment plot as well as that social and ethical issues are being dealt. ‘Crossover’ is the concept of overlapping  the world of Film and TV. Many talents from the film industry worked really well in the TV industry as well. Also, this gave a cinematic feeling to the series. Piv Bernth has remarked that in the Film School there is a TV term where half of an year is spent to develop a potential TV series for DR. This commitment has also increased the overall standard.


 The charismatic prime minister in Borgen, brilliantly portrayed by Sidse Babett Knudsen

Rest of the Europe are fascinated

The TV series of Scandinavia are ‘death in a cold climate’ type, which came from heritage of Nordic-noir novels and filmsThe Telegraph UK reviewer Clive James describes the third season of the TV series Borgen as a show that emphasises the fact that “Scandinavian Cultural Imperialism had come to a peak”. He further explains that may be the reason of the popularity of show like Borgen is due to the character Birgitte, who is a witty and intelligent politician, whose “mere existence – well, her mere fictional existence – is enough to suggest that the business of governing a small Scandinavian country must be madly exciting.”  This intriguing story of  smart multi-tasking  politician handling the liberal democracy and challenges of welfare state are things which the audience of Britain found very appealing. The Killing has gained significant critical acclaim in Western Europe; it has become a cult TV show. The Emmy-winning Unit One has become the prototype of DR and it’s now working,as professor Gunhild Agger puts it. According to him, Borgen deliberately moves its focus away from violence, brutality and action.  We can infer that it is relieving for some TV audience of a particular age group. It focuses to solve one crime at a time, making the series easy to catch up but interesting.

the killing - protagonist

The humble-looking super-smart detective of The Killing, played by Sofie Gråbøl

Also, the reason behind the success of The Killing and Borgen is that they operate in multiple layers at the same time and their plot often involves personal and social consciousness to which the viewers relate.  Agger says “Denmark is a warring nation, and that’s something that’s being elaborated upon in series two of The Killing, where there are numerous moral issues for the viewer to contemplate”. Subtle sub-plots like  family’s suffering, local politics, career rat race, children upbringing problems, breaches of the rules of war works really good – have a universal acceptance. Borgen-DVD cover

Last but not the least, the strong female presence ( the protagonist is the female prime minister in Borgen or the female detective with a  sweater-clad lady-next-door appearance in The Killing) are proved to be successful.  Other contemporary USA/UK TV often do not have female protagonists in their famous TV series; they are often secondary to the male protagonist or too much stereotypical in fashion and action.  These Danish series use the not-so-common lead characters to the fullest and the kind of power relationships they have with the male deuteragonist(s) are understood and appreciated by audiences all over the world.


References: Thanks to the great Coursera lectures by Professor Ib Bondebjerg and Eva Novrup Redvall; also the Telegraph UK and ScienceNordic site. 


2 thoughts on “The Cultural Heritage of Scandinavian TV and “Dogma” as the secret recipe: Popularity of The Killing and Borgen

  1. Short, precise and informative. The clarity of thought is refreshing in an article about an obscure genre!!

    One question from a noob: Is there any Scandinavian TV series on a literary work?

  2. Thank you 🙂

    As per my knowledge, the Van Veeteran series, written by Håkan Nesser is now a Danish TV series.

    Also, (though diverting a bit from your question) the series Matador’s concept and script was mostly written by a famous Danish author Lise Nørgaard.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s