Emotions, Authenticity and Relevance in Non-US TV Series: The Bridge, The Fugitives, The Returning

in 18th Geneva International Film Festival Tous Ecrans

by Kira Taszman

A female body is found on the bridge separating two countries. The corpse has been neatly laid on the line symbolizing the bridge’s border: the body’s upper half is located in one country, the other half in the neighboring country. However, it soon turns out that the cadaver is cut in half, and, to make things worse, that the torso and the lower half actually belong to two different women… For those familiar with this kind of exquisitely gruesome death scenario, I can confirm: yes, this is a crime story from Scandinavia. The Bridge (Broen/Bron) is a Swedish/Danish co-production, a success story in 10 episodes (and two seasons so far) that accompanies Swedish police officer Sara Norden (Sofia Helm) and Danish cop Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) in their joint efforts to trace the serial killer who is responsible for the morbid show on Øresund Bridge.

The Bridge was just one of 18 series from all over the world which viewers at this year’s festival could get a glimpse of, by watching the pilot or the first two episodes. That these appetizers fueled the audience’s hunger for more is proof that the festival’s programmers have done a good job. They have demonstrated that there’s more to the TV format than the dominant American shows (however good they may be).

But do TV series from around the world differ that much from American productions: gripping espionage series like 24, elegant period pieces like Mad Men, or shows that deal with crime and family at the same time, like the excellent Breaking Bad? This may not be the most important issue. Regardless of budget or production conditions, TV series need to have an appeal that is universally valid. If they manage to get the right mixture of good storytelling, emotions, authenticity and relevance, then international audiences should be able to appreciate them.

All of the aforementioned qualities apply to The Fugitives (Prófugos). This crime series from Chile (produced by HBO Chile) tells the story of a drug-trafficking operation gone wrong. Four men are charged with smuggling cocaine via truck from Bolivia to Chile, the coup being controlled by a female cartel boss in prison. But when the takeover is about to occur at the harbor of Valparaíso, the gangsters realize, to their horror, that they have been set up. A reception committee of heavily armed police are awaiting them; on top of this, they are being fired at by hitmen from the other drug cartel that was supposed to buy the merchandise.

After a violent shootout with a high body count, the four gangsters can escape and are on the run. But not all the members of the group have the same agenda. The trigger-happy Mario (Luis Gnecco) suspects a mole in their ranks, and he is correct. Tegui (Benjamín Vicuña) turns out to be an undercover cop who has told the police about the location of the takeover. But in the shootout, he has killed a fellow policeman, who almost blew his cover. The monosyllabic Oscar (Francisco Reyes) turns out to have a past as a political activist. And finally, the fourth gangster, Vicente (Néstor Cantillana), is the commanditaire’s son…

The show gives a fascinating insight into the Chilean landscape – the first half of the pilot is more like a road movie. Fast-paced action is another asset of this original crime series. Yet action is used sparsely – for instance, at the end of the pilot, when all the threads leading up to the bloody finale eventually come together. Until then, the spectator witnesses a psychological battle, where all four thugs try to figure out who their partners actually are, their mutual suspicion only surpassed by the survival instinct in each of them. The thugs must stick together against their will, with Tegui desperately trying to buy some time, as he is now in danger of being pursued by three factions, including his partners in crime.

In addition, a love triangle is about to unfold. as well as a connection between a high-ranking police officer and the mob. The Fugitives is very effective at keeping the spectator on edge, yet because of its detailed psychology and well-written plot, it can create suspense by subtler means than standard shootouts and car chases (which, of course, also take place).

Character development also emerges as a strong suit of The Bridge: not only do the differences between the two cops manifest themselves though a language barrier, but they also display opposing, if not clashing, personalities. Martin Rohde is a former ladies’ man turned family man; he has five children from different women to his credit, and has just undergone a vasectomy. He is a rather laid-back type, whereas Sarah Norden presents slightly autistic traits, focusing solely on her work and displaying little empathy. The interaction between the two generates some comic relief, lightening the uncanny and oppressive atmosphere. Other characters with a connection to the bridge also come into play: a man in need of a heart transplant, a woman fleeing her abusive husband, and a homeless woman. These subplots are developed in great (but never tedious) detail, and the spectator senses that they will overlap at some point. 

The concept of character development is even more important in The Returning (Les revenants), a brand new French series produced by the pay TV channel Canal+, which takes the spectator into more fantastic spheres. The first scenes show a fatal school bus accident, involving a 13-year-old redhead, Camille. Then we witness a leap in time: three years later, the same Camille, physically unharmed and unchanged, is seen walking the roads of her small hometown in rural, mountainous France, returning to her house. Unaware of the emotional stir she is causing around her, Camille tells her stunned mother (Anne Consigny) in the most casual tone that she does not understand why she woke up all alone in a field. It is only when Camille is confronted with her twin sister Léna – who is now three years older, taller and has turned into a young woman – that the truth begins to dawn upon her.

Camille is not the only strangely resurrected, walking dead character in the village. A young man, Simon, knocks on the door of his former girlfriend’s flat, only to find out that she no longer lives there. A mysterious young boy is seeking the affection of an oddly scarred woman. The returning people have remained unchanged since the time of their deaths. They can feel, speak, be seen and have interaction with living people, yet they have trouble understanding that they are in a different zone now that they are deceased.

At some point, all of the returning display some kind of aggressive behavior: shouting, fistfights, and even the stabbing of an innocent passerby in the subway. Here again, the series shows its preference for psychology and emotions over sheer violence. Some surviving relatives of the returning dead are shaken; others cling to rational explanations, while Camille’s twin sister Léna opts for rejection as a means of self-protection. The first two episodes of the series never indulge in easy shock effects or explicit fantasy elements, yet the mystery remains alive and so does the audience’s curiosity.

Although only a small percentage of these non-American series may be sold to other countries (unless, like The Bridge, they are co-produced by a TV channel in Germany, where the series has already aired), this does not lessen their artistic and technical qualities. The Geneva festival gives audiences the opportunity to watch international TV productions, and makes it seem as normal an activity as watching international feature-length films. With international websites and DVD boxes with multiple language subtitles, it should not be too difficult for audiences, wherever they live, to continue enjoying the shows they watched in Geneva.

Edited by Lesley Chow