5 Must-Watch Scandinavian TV Shows

Over the past five years, Scandinavia has entered a golden age (of sorts) in television. That’s not to say that their television has ever been particularly bad, per say, but recently these countries – particularly Denmark – have offered some of the most original, challenging and engaging shows around (typically dark, atmospheric police procedurals). People who live in Britain will likely be familiar with the majority of this list, but thus far US cable companies have been reluctant to show most foreign television, likely assuming audiences can’t be bothered to read subtitles. Anyway, without further ado…

5. Unit One (Rejseholdet)

Unit One

Following the very successful series Matador, which followed the lives of characters in a Danish town before and after German occupation in World War II (airing between 1978 and 1982), the creative minds behind Danish television had a difficult time distinguishing themselves from its legacy. Each new show suffered from a ‘Matador complex’, where critics would unfavourably compare the new show to its much-loved precursor. However, towards the end of the 1990s Danish TV enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, and Unit One – along with other shows such as TAXA and eventually The Eagle – was a product of this. While in many ways it could be seen as a prototype of superior shows to come, Unit One was nevertheless an engaging police procedural drama, which distinguished itself with its willingness to tackle difficult social issues such as sexism and corruption. The character of Ingrid Dahl, recently promoted to homicide chief, is similar to Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison (and many of the other female protagonists on this list) in her battle against institutionalised sexism, although arguably she lacks the balls that make her other counterparts so memorable. Yet I suspect that, without Unit One, Danish television would never have developed in such a satisfactory way. It ran for an impressive four years, won several awards (including an Emmy) and even had a young Mads Mikkelsen playing a psychotic cop. Definitely worth watching, if only to see how it all began.

4. Borgen

Borgen

It seems wrong having such a successful and well-loved show so low on this list. But with such strong competition, Denmark’s bleaker counterpart to The West Wing unfortunately sits at a (still respectable!) number four position. One of the few popular Scandinavian shows on this list yet to receive a English-language remake (probably due to the abundance of US political dramas in existence), Borgen’s most notable feature was its strong female protagonist, Birgitte Nyborg Christensen, who becomes the first female Prime Minister of Denmark. Unlike much American drama, it placed an emphasis on political developments above typical family-based drama – a challenging concept for audiences to commit to, particularly when having to keep up with complex Danish names via subtitles, but one which was incredibly rewarding. Even the slightly less brilliant third series was still, well, brilliant.

3. Wallander

Wallander

One of the more bleak offerings in an already bleak list, Wallander gathered international attention when a widely-praised English language remake starring Kenneth Branagh was released. Yet neglecting the original Swedish series, based on Henning Mankell’s long running book series, would be a mistake. Kurt Wallander is an excellent anti-hero, an idealistic but troubled cop, whose only friend is his beloved dog. It distinguished itself from more conventional American thrillers by focusing on character, mystery and suspense as opposed to bombastic action sequences. The show is beautifully shot, too – each episode feels like its own film (so much so that several of the episodes were released in cinemas). And out of the three incarnations of the detective, Krister Henriksson’s measured performance is probably the best. Sorry Rolf Lassgård.

2. The Bridge (Broen/Bron)

The Bridge

This one’s a good one to catch up with, simply for the fact that it’s still going (the second series premiered on the BBC last Sunday). Despite initial impressions of a typical Scandi-noir murder mystery, The Bridge soon distinguished itself with several qualities; 1) the fact that it was a joint Swedish-Danish production, 2) the remarkable ambition of its storyline (a villain similar to the Joker is going around killing/tormenting people in creative ways), and, most importantly, 3) the excellent cop duo of Swedish Saga Norén, a clever yet comically insensitive detective somewhere on the autistic spectrum, and Danish Martin Rohde, a family man who proves to be the perfect foil for his partner. It’s an imaginative, perfectly paced ensemble story with a heart-crushingly sad ending, so good that it was remade TWICE (the FX series with Diane Kruger and Demián Bichir, another French-English production called The Tunnel with Stephen Dillane and Clémence Poésy). Yet the original is perhaps some of the best television of the past ten years, only to be eclipsed by one other…

1. The Killing (Forbrydelsen)

The Killing

What else can I say about The Killing which hasn’t already been said? Likely the best TV series to have ever emerged from Denmark, it was remarkable for devoting equal emphasis to the three concurrent storylines of the police investigation, the victim’s family and the political side-effects of the murder – as well as being elevated by the presence of a superb jumper-wearing heroine, Sarah Lund, played magnificently by Sofie Gråbøl. The mystery itself was absorbing, but the real focus of the series was the damage the investigation had on the main characters. Lund is relentless, pursuing a seemingly endless stream of suspects, all the while alienating herself from everyone close to her. The families of the victim are sucked into a maelstrom of grief, and political candidates are faced with obstacles and corruption; Lars Mikkelsen (brother of Mads) was particularly good as idealistic mayoral candidate Troels Hartmann in the first series. It was also distinctive in its evocation and photography of Copenhagen as a murky, noir-ish city of abandoned warehouses and threats in the shadows. The show ran for three series, all of which were good – admittedly, by the end there was a rather predictable formula emerging, but the initial 20-episode run was undoubtedly one of the greatest TV murder mysteries of all time. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you don’t need to watch this show if you’ve seen the AMC remake – it pales in comparison to the original.

Scandinavian television is currently as good as it’s ever been, and the progression from the warm melodrama of the 1970s and 80s (to which Matador belonged) to the grittier police procedurals of the late 90s and 2000s has been hugely beneficial to both Sweden and Denmark’s artistic reputation. Attention from the BBC regarding Wallander and The Killing has also helped the shows on this list succeed internationally – The Killing’s third series on BBC Four peaked at over one million viewers – as well as bringing to our attention overseas talents (Both Mads and Lars Mikkelsen are now enjoying international success, the former starring in Hannibal and the latter playing the villain in an upcoming episode of BBC’s Sherlock).

Of course, I couldn’t possibly cram every show I wanted to in this list, and some honourable mentions go to The Eagle: A Crime Odyssey, another very good police procedural drama, but not quite distinctive enough to make it on the list; the decent adaptations of Jan Arnal’s Arne Dahl novels, although I felt this strayed too close to Wallander territory; and Lars Von Trier’s bizarre mini-series The Kingdom was considered for how, uh, different it was. Residents of the US will have a relatively tough time trying to find a legal way to watch these shows, although The Killing and The Bridge are both available on UK Netflix, as well as some episodes of Wallander.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Sam is a Film and English student with an interest in screenwriting, video games, Stephen King novels and David Lynch films.

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39 Comments

  1. Darlene Burton
    2

    Really glad The Bridge is coming back. The first part was brilliant, even more thrilling than ‘The Killing’ which was terrific. Also, as an Asperger woman, who once served as a police-woman, I commend the writer plus the actress, Sofia Helin, for her portrayal of the Asperger detective. I was shaken as her portrayal shook me when I first saw it, as she so reminded me of me when I was a young woman, particularly the incident in the bar and her reaction when the young man asked if he could buy her a drink. So real.

  2. Clayton
    0

    Let’s get ready to rumble, Scandi-fans. Reporting for action.

  3. Scandinavia has been having a big surge in relevance recently. Skyrim, Vikings, all these crime adaptations, Thor, Mads Mikkelson. It’s nice to have a Scandinavian invasion with only light pillaging.

  4. Pearl Stone
    0

    “Varg Veum” is also a pretty good detective series. In Norway they are released in the cinema but internationally they are sold for tv broadcasting.

    • Shelton
      1

      I saw some of the Varg Veum’s on DVD. Found the relationship between Varg Veum & the detectives a bit grating in some of the early episodes but liked it well enough over all.

      I also watched some Irene Huss & Van Veeteren about the same time. Van Veeteren – which I think Arrow/Nordic Noir might be releasing in the UK – was my favourite of the three though I’d happily watch more of all of them.

      More recently I picked up some of the early Beck’s (R1 releases as are all the others). They were made a while ago & I think it shows but I’ll get more if they are priced reasonably enough.

  5. There are so many wonderful types of shows available from the rest of Europe that have nothing to do with cops and killers. Never seen on TV here.

    • agree. i live in canada and all is available here is damn crime, murder, cops, medical shows. damn boring. i want to see shows more like Rita ( Danish show).

  6. Sean Hodges

    This was an absolutely fascinating read! I feel kind of bad that I’ve not heard of some of these shows, so this guide you’ve put up should help me fill the hours in my day.

  7. V Padilla
    1

    Actually I like most of the nordic noir’s more than the recent UK/US shows.But I feel The Bridge was 5 times better than The Killing.I have seen Beck and it was abit like Wallander,I have heard good things about Varg Veum.I have seen Irene Huss and it was like the Swedish Killing but with more strange Charater.But overall I think the Icelandic drama Svartir Englar is very underrated.

  8. How about a Swedish sitcom ?. “Solsidan” is hilarious. I had many LOL watching SO 1&2.

  9. I enjoyed the Wallander series, I hope they make more.

    • Karen Gillett (@krisstig)
      1

      there is 1 final series of Wallander with Krister. Due on BBC this year. It’s already been shown in Sweden, Poland and Germany.
      if you’re anywhere near London he’s due to be at Nordicana with other Scandi TV stars february 1 and 2 .

    • Ollie PZ
      0

      The first Swedish Wallander tv presentation of the books was far superior to the second lump of a detective…. I love the breadth of European crimis that we find through BBC Four programming. Each new discovery tends to lead me on to other great writing and TV potential. Andreas Camilliari ´s Montalbano was influenced by a Barcelona writer Manuel Vasquez Montalban and his gastronome-detective character Pepe Carvalho whose books are now in translation and could provide a really interesting TV series.

  10. Samantha
    0

    For a few years ago, I watched an excellent Icelandic sitcom set in a petrol station, Night Shift. I read somewhere that this was the first part of a trilogy featuring the same lead characters. Wish I could watch the rest.

  11. Laura Brady
    0

    I like to imagine that the Norwegians just refuse to translate all of their whimsical, light-hearted crime fiction. If the rest of the world knew that they were rich, blonde, attractive and happy, the resentment would be too much.

  12. There are often dubbed Scandanavian dramas on here in Germany, I have seen Irene Huss here and a few others…

  13. Michelle Webb

    Nice job, thanks for exposing some new texts for me to look into. Cheers! Nicely written too 😀

  14. Austin Bender

    I’ve been interested in watching the Scandinavian version of The Killing. I like the acting in the American version, but I’ve never seen a remake better than the original, so I’m positive that this is epic.

  15. Jennifer Carr

    Great article. I really miss The Killing. I wish they’d make another just to give some closure on that cliffhanger.

  16. There are so many wonderful types of shows available from the rest of Europe that have nothing to do with cops and killers. Never seen on UK TV.

  17. Interesting! I might actually watch a few!

  18. HariMackinnon

    Having heard an awful lot about shows like The Killing and Borgan but not yet taking the plunge, this has definitely given me the kick I needed! It’s great to see how different cultures tackle genres that some might’ve considered to be stagnating a bit. And it’s always great to see the BBC find cool things to put on our screens.

  19. Wallander is one of my favorites. I’m a big fan of the flawed hero, and the often bleak skies that loom throughout the series add a sense of foreboding to the general feel of the show.
    I’ll definitely have to check out the rest on this list.

  20. There’s alot of cops in sitcoms that you’ll find in the whole wide world.. but on top of my list is Barney Fife of Andy Griffith Show, I died laughing at the humorous way he acts.. I’m 18 now and It hasn’t changed It is still my favorite Show because The writing was fantastic only to be topped by incredible actor plus It could make you laugh and cry in just about every episode and make you feel good about the world we live in if only for a short while.

    ranker.com/list/greatest-cops-on-tv-sitcoms/ranker-tv?utm_expid=16418821-2.PAaBT_MORcmI67lBYq2pgw.0

  21. eileen ashe
    0

    cannot find this darn film all I get is the “Seattle based” Rosie movie darn it

  22. Is there any way to watch these terrific shows in the USA through Britain’s translations. We found Wallander on Amazon and The Bridge on HuluPlus but not sure about any of the others. We just love them; think they’re much better than most US crime TV.

    Thanks

  23. You forgot ‘Livvagterne’ (‘The Protectors’) and ‘Den som draeber’ (‘The one that kills’ – us version ‘Those who kill’ 😀

  24. Terry Kureth
    0

    I was surprised not to find “Dtcte” listed in the top five. Do you have any comments on “Dicte”?

  25. All the shows mentioned are great – but for anyone like me – obsessed for no particular reason with Scandinavian film & television, particularly crime series – there’s nothing new here. Hot off the tube is Fortitude – a co-production of Denmark, Iceland (where it’s filmed) and Ireland (I think…). A well paced, beautifully shot and designed crime story a la True Detective in Iceland or like The Bridge – it takes place in a small town named Fortitude (which is obviously what one needs to live and survive in a place like it). A place where polar bears actually eat people, the winters have 23 hours of darkness a day…but the snow capped mountains and water and twinkly lights make it seem beautiful and majestic despite the pervasive darkness – literal and metaphorical. It stars Richard Dormer, Sofie Grabol (from the Danish Forbrydelsen or The Killing), lots of very recognizable British actors like Christopher Eccleston, Luke Treadway, Michael Gambon, and the actress who played opposite Derek Jacobi in Doctor Who as a lizard woman who befriends Martha Jones. It’s even got an American – Stanley Tucci – who is fabulous as the is he good or is he really bad guy – an “independent” investigator brought in from Britain to investigate the two murders that take place in this otherwise quiet, remote, ice castle paradise. The writers/producers are so hip they even include the very cool idea of the town’s politicians investing everything in building an all ice hotel – built directly into the glacier. The show is modern, too, in its casting – with a black Search & Rescue ex-soldier who is married to a white British girl and they have a gorgeous mixed race son who is an excellent child actor. Frank, the S&R guy mentioned above, is so hot, he has a little exotic Spanish beauty on the side. The town is made up of all nationalities, from Russian to Irish, and there’s even a little Native spirituality and mystery woven in to completely round out the This is Truly a Global Age idea even in this podunk Icelandic town “where polar bears outnumber the humans by triple.”

    I got lucky with Fortitude – having never heard of it – I came across it on a video file sharing community – the same one that enabled me to watch Forbrydelsen from Season 1 to Season 3. These shows aren’t easy to find – and if you do find them, they usually cost a pretty Euro penny. I paid nearly $30 for the DVD series Johan Falk, which really wasn’t worth it though it did teach me that not all Scandinavian crime series are cinematic gems as previously thought.

    Therefore, I started seeking out free or nearly free – like Wallander on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Interestingly, there are three versions of Wallander…two Swedish versions, one with Rolf Lassgard as a big, not terribly likeable Wallander and the other with my favorite, Krister Henriksen. Lassgard seems like a big ham, milking dramatic moments, hogging the scene – I imagine him as not being easy to work with, thinking he’s all that because he does star in a ton of Wallander TV movies, some of which are stand alone stories, others with up to four two-hour movies making up the mini-series. His Wallander drinks and discovers he has diabetes, which messes him up. In the Wallanders I prefer, with Krister Henriksen, Wallander has Alzheimer’s – which to my mind, cranks up the stakes. That’s the big difference between the two – the Lassgard Wallander is a large, sappy version made for television, but I don’t want to see him with his shirt off or in his boxers, seducing the ladies, with his flabby swagger. Krister’s Wallander has issues, serious issues, but he’s likable, watchable…he’s more subtle, more professional and buyable as a top criminal investigator. Having never read Henning Mankell’s novels on which the character is based, I can’t say which is more true to the creator’s vision.

    Anyway, there’s a third version of Wallander, the BBC or British version, which stars Kenneth Branagh as the Swedish detective with issues. In this version, Branagh’s Wallander is, like the others, a loner who lives for his work, obsessive even – and so, isn’t a great dad to his grown daughter, can’t sustain a relationship with a woman, and alienates all his co-workers by keeping to himself and being ten million times smarter and better at his job than they are.

    So, this article lists 5 great Scandinavian shows (4 for me, as I haven’t yet seen Unit One) – but I want more, and more recent, like Fortitude.

  26. The Danish “Arvingerne” (“The Legacy”) should absolutely not be excluded here! That and “Borgen” should be at the top of the list!

  27. Just ran across this site. I watched and loved all of these series. Henriksson is the best of the Wallanders. Close to the character in the book, and wonderfully understated in his work. I thought the American take on The Bridge was also good, but perhaps not as good as the original. “The Killing”, wow, had to watch it.

  28. Mary Hannah
    0

    I agree the killing was superb l wish it and Sarah (plus her jumpers )would return

  29. 1. Love the actors
    2. Love the stories
    3. Love to read the cc.

  30. eric yeakel
    0

    i like kenneth branagh, however, krister hendricksen is a more likeable and appealing wallander.

  31. Gavin Fernie
    0

    As good as Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander series is, the original Swedish series with Rolf Lassgard, and the other Swedish Wallander series, with Krister Henricksen, are simply brilliant because you cannot beat the ‘indigenous’ feel of the Swedish versions. The original Scandinavian BRIDGE is absolutely outstanding, but surprisingly the Damien Bechir/ Diane Kruger series is equally good. Mexico crossed with the great charm of the USA Texican atmosphere makes for gripping TV.

  32. Hi I am a resident of the U.S. and thank you for your site. I am a big fan of Dannish and Finnish as well as British crime movies and tv series. Are we able to watch U.K. Netflix here in the States.

  33. Hi I am a resident of the U.S. and thank you for your site. I am a big fan of Danish and Finnish as well as British crime movies and tv series. Are we able to watch U.K. Netflix here in the States.

  34. Jewelie Dee
    0

    I really like Dicte starring Eben Hjalje. It’s not so dark as some of these but still compelling.

  35. Susan
    0

    I don’t have any idea where to watch these. I wish I did.

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