‘A moral laboratory’: what attracts us to the dark side of TV?


In a world whipped into a maelstrom of division, with social and political turmoil, and climate crisis, television has provided – if not a panacea – a means of escapism. In this age of upheaval, with the hands of the doomsday clock edging unfathomably close to midnight, one would be forgiven for presuming that levity is what most TV viewers want from their screen time.

Yet, it seems, audiences’ hunger for depictions of darkness on screen has never been greater, nor more insatiable. Nordic noir is the prime example of this. Having first made its way on to British screens through dramas such as The Killing, this previously niche genre has become a global phenomenon, breaking viewing records and exceeding expectations in its popularity: when The Killing debuted its second season in 2011, more than 800,000 viewers tuned in.

Ashley, a queer club kid, gogo-boy and self-proclaimed horror enthusiast, describes himself as having always been drawn to darker, more sinister themes in his consumption of film and television: “In truth, I have always had an affinity for the macabre, gore and the art that comes from a darker aesthetic,” he says. “Its ability to push boundaries, and provoke reactions while navigating social issues will always remain exciting to me.”

A far cry from the quaintness and easy moralising of British crime procedurals and detective dramas, Nordic noir is a genre that offers up something bleaker, more darkly thrilling; its unvarnished truths and moral ambiguities capturing the imaginations – and perhaps more keenly the fears and cynicisms – of audiences across the globe. Shows such as The Bridge, Borgen and others have not only drawn widespread critical acclaim, but blockbuster viewership figures both domestically in their countries of origin, and by becoming major exports, spawning English-language remakes and copycat programmes both in the UK and the US.

Josh, a script editor, reflects on our desire to indulge in the dark and gritty: “Audiences are smart and they’re demanding increasingly sophisticated drama. There will always be a place on TV for escapist, black-and-white shows about good detectives who solve crimes and put the world to rights,” he says. “Yet the popularity of stories that depict moral ambiguity shows us that viewers want, or even need, uncomfortable complexity.”

Indeed, Daniel, another Nordic noir obsessive I speak to, finds them “comforting, rather than unnerving”, he says. “They’re always about searching for some kind of light – the truth, a missing person, even justice – in a dark environment. I think moody Scandinavian skies, long dark nights, and endlessly grey and beige outfits.”

Sophie, a 27-year-old from north London, was first introduced to the genre through Twin, a Norwegian crime drama that tells the story of a young mother responsible for the accidental death of her husband, who asks his twin to assume his identity. “I was living at home at the time and I made my mum watch every episode with me,” says Sophie. “It was so good. The storylines are so gripping and atmospheric and tense, and the characterisation is incredible too; the characters are usually complex and layered and it really draws you in.”

Face to Face stars Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm

For Daniel, part of the appeal of Nordic noir is in its sobering portrayal of the ubiquity of darkness, even in places we’ve been socialised to think it simply doesn’t exist. “I think we often idealise Scandinavian societies as these utopias where everyone is happy, rich, and faces few problems,” he says. “The reality is there are elements of those countries that face enormous problems just like any other. I like that Nordic noir has no problem in exhibiting those issues – loneliness, racism etc in a very raw way. It feels like dramas from other countries often have to characterise these stories as: ‘Well we’re not all like that though, are we?’, whereas Nordic noir says: ‘Well, maybe we all are.’”

Perhaps this is the ultimate lesson that Nordic noir and similarly dark television teaches: to complicate binary moral thinking, to consider the tangled complexity of human action and inaction (often out of our control) that forms our web of life and circumstances, rather than simply delineating between “good” and “bad” people. The search for justice is sometimes one that obscures and threatens our seemingly unshakeable ethical foundations, rather than easily illuminating them.

“At its best, good storytelling can serve as a morality laboratory,” says Josh, “where we can experiment with ideas that might be bleak, challenging, or sickening, from the comfort of our sofa. Perhaps in an increasingly scary and confusing world, we need nasty and ambiguous television to work out how we really feel about things.”

Three to watch on Viaplay

There are countless series to get stuck into on Viaplay, but for everything that’s the best of the genre, get cracking with these three …

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Cell 8
This adaptation of Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström’s bestselling book of the same title, follows detective duo Mariana Hermansson and Ewert Grens across America and Sweden, as they are thrust into an increasingly entangling and sinister set of circumstances involving a fake identity, a young man on death row, and the sometimes irreconcilable tensions between vengeance and justice.

Face to Face (Forhøret)
When veteran detective Bjørn is called into a morgue to help identify the body of a young woman, he is devastated to find the victim on the autopsy table is none other than his own daughter. The coroner has ruled her death a suicide, but Bjørn refuses to accept the verdict. As he attempts to chart the final day of her life, mounting evidence soon points towards foul play, and leads him on a furious and violent pursuit of his daughter’s killer. Over the course of a night, his investigation brings him into contact with the people who knew his daughter, revealing a complex web of criminality and deceit at the centre of both of their lives. But as the stakes mount and he inches closer to the truth, the reality of his own past and choices begins to unravel. In order to understand his daughter’s death, Bjørn must confront himself – until he finally faces the chain of events that led to her death. But will this bring him the closure he seeks?

The Machinery
When our protagonist – family man Olle Hulten – wakes up drunk on a ferry between Sweden and Norway, flanked by a gun, ski mask and a pile of cash, and with no recollection of how he got there, he instinctively flees from police hunting a hijacker and embarks on a violent odyssey to clear his name and find the real culprits. But will Hulten succeed in vindicating himself before the police catch up with him, and will his mysterious past remain buried?

What will you be watching as the nights draw in? Head to Viaplay where the gritty detectives and grim misdeeds of Nordic noir will keep you on the edge of your seat

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