When I wasn’t watching college football yesterday, I spent some time reading the new issue of the New Yorker on my iPad. Two pieces stood out to me as excellent: this Adam Green profile of master pickpocket Apollo Robbins (seriously, read the whole thing when you have an hour to spare), and Lauren Collins’ deep dive into Danish television, specifically why and how shows like The Killing — the original version, BTW, not the sh*t-sandwich AMC served us — have become so good and popular worldwide.
Sadly, Collins’ massive piece is hidden behind the New Yorker paywall, but here’s what it essentially boils down to: a) Danish television is dominated by a single public television network (DR) that is well-funded by citizens who happily cough up a good bit of money each year to support it, and b) the aforementioned publicly funded network treats its writers like kings, just as they should be.
Here are two excerpts from the piece that I think get right to the heart of this. The first…
“The Killing,” “Borgen,” and “The Bridge” are all made by Denmark’s public-service broadcaster, DR. Established in 1926, by an act of parliament, DR remained a monopoly of nation-wide television until 1988. It dominates Danish cultural life to the extent that, each week, ninety-seven per cent of the population listens to or watches something from its Web site or one of its ten radio stations and six television channels, including DR1 (the flagship chan- nel), DR2 (its artsier offshoot), DRK (for kultur and history), and DR Ramasjang, which — as Lauren Kirchner, of the Web site the Awl, recently pointed out — is producing some of the world’s most “terrific, bizarre” children’s programming, complete with a singing pizza and cross-dressing puppets. DR is required by law to work “in the interest of the people,” providing “a wide range of programs and services comprising news coverage, information, education, art, and entertainment.” Nadia Kløvedal Reich, DR’s head of fiction, told me recently, “We have a huge influence in society. Our main goal is to tell stories about Danish people, in Denmark.”
Danes with televisions pay an annual licensing fee of about four hundred dollars, giving DR a yearly budget of six hundred and sixty million dollars. Because Denmark is small, and relatively heterogeneous, DR can attempt to appeal to almost everyone. It is both mass-oriented and high-minded — CBS and NPR, with a touch of HBO. Like the BBC, it is considered a tent pole of the nation’s identity, and even though it is by definition apolitical, it is suspected in certain quarters of harboring a left-wing agenda.
One of DR’s competitive advantages is its centralization, which allows its employees to exploit decades’ worth of accumulated institutional knowledge. A showrunner can float a plot point by a specialist on the news desk. A producer can get a backdrop made in minutes in the downstairs workshop, where, amid clouds of sawdust, I noticed a large wooden letter. “Oh, that’s the ‘X’ from ‘The X Factor,’ ” someone said.
At one point, as I sat in the lobby, two youngsters walked by carrying paper plates heaped with salad. I had the feeling that I knew them, even though I knew no one in Copenhagen. It turned out that they were the actors who play Birgitte Nyborg’s children. Later, I walked past Studio 8, a hangar-like space that houses a replica of the Danish Prime Minister’s suite of offices at Christians- borg Palace. The costume department was in the basement. There were moose heads, dozens of rocking chairs, a room entirely filled with stools. Umbrellas were arranged by category: Old, New, Plastic, Children’s, Chinese, Bag. This was the hit factory — European television’s Motown Records, 1966.
DR now produces only original material, but until twenty-five years ago half of its repertoire consisted of filmed plays. In the nineteen-nineties, “two game-chang- ers,” as Gjervig Gram called them, overturned the status quo. First, the Danish film scene flourished, spawning the Dogme 95 movement, in which directors such as Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg filmed pure, realistic stories in an austere style. “Danish television producers were inspired—not necessarily by Dogme’s specific values, but by the way Dogme had made it on the world stage,” the Guardian writer Patrick Kingsley explains in his new book, “How to Be Danish.” There is an unusual amount of crossover in Denmark between the worlds of film and television. Nearly all the country’s leading directors, cinematographers, and script-writers are graduates of the state-funded National Film School of Denmark. Eva Novrup Redvall, an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Cognition, and Communication at the University of Copenhagen, has written that the school’s screenwriting department fosters a “shared language between professions.” In 1994, von Trier made “The Kingdom,” a melancholy DR miniseries about life in the neurosurgery ward of Copenhagen’s largest hospital. DR uses the school as a farm system, hiring talented young alumni and pairing them with trusted veterans.
The second thing that revolutionized Danish television was a trip to America. In the mid-nineties, DR sent several of its top executives and producers to Los Angeles, where they visited the sets of “N.Y.P.D. Blue,” “L.A. Law,” and “24.” They returned to Denmark with new concepts: writers’ rooms, showrunners, multi-episode series. “From then on, we were consciously trying to professionalize,” Piv Bernth, of “The Killing,” said. Gjervig Gram explained, “We said, ‘We’re going to do it the American way,’ but it took some years to find the Danish way to do it the American way.”
The first hallmark of the Danish way is a principle that DR calls “one vision.” This means, essentially, that the writer is king. A ten-episode season of a show like “Borgen” is made on a relatively small budget of about eight million dollars, but DR lavishes its writers with time and indulgence. An incubation period of several years is customary. “I think it’s very important that every one of us stands guard around the author’s mission,” Morten Hesseldahl told me. “It’s a romantic impression of how the artist should work.”
Finally, I really want to see this show, “The Bridge,” based solely on Lauren Collins’ description of the pilot’s opening scene…
My favorite of the Danish shows I watched was “The Bridge,” which opens with a power outage on the sleek Øre- sund Bridge, connecting Copenhagen and Malmö, Sweden. When the lights come on, a body appears, straddling the bridge’s center point. Paramedics try to move it; it pulls apart at the midsection, the camera lingering on a wormy display of innards. The legs, which turn out to belong to a Copenhagen prostitute, are in Denmark; the torso, of the Malmö city-council chairwoman, are in Sweden.
My kind of television right there!