8.8 True Detectives

Next week, I’m heading to Finland. I must say that I am excited, but not for the reasons you may expect. You see, I’ve become pretty obsessed with all the seemingly endless supply of European detective shows being dumped on Netflix. I’ve written about this already HERE, but this entry is focused on a pattern that has emerged after watching too many of these shows.

Consider this a handy list of the common factors in most of these programs. This probably won’t mean anything to anyone except me, but you might find it useful. Or, you could take these points, put them into a spreadsheet and a drinking game. Whenever one of these appears in a show, you gotta drink. If you are planning on doing this, please be responsible and don’t binge watch all at once. That won’t be good for anyone.

Yes, I’ve gone through shows like River, The Bridge, Luther and Marcella. Although some of the points below show up in those shows, I’m mainly referring to Broadchurch, Shetland, Hinterland, Happy Valley, The Break, Wallander and Trapped, among others.

1. Small Towns

Sure, there’s a lot of bad things that happen in cities, but the real fucked up stuff is happening in small remote European towns. I know this isn’t a new idea, but almost every show that takes place in a small town introduces the place as beautiful, quiet, calm and idyllic. Right, just don’t go out to the woods. And the people? They are so nice and neighbourly and just want to help you. Don’t believe any of this.

2. Troubled Detectives

Usually, but not always, the show starts with a detective from the big city arriving in the small town to take over the police department. They are definitely running from something and don’t like to shave. They most likely messed up a big case in the city and think getting away from it all will make it disappear. This does two things. First, when the bad shit starts happening in the small town, it’s a lot of, Awww, damnit, I was trying to get away from all this! Second, they will definitely fuck things up the way they did in the city. As the old saying goes, Wherever you go, there you are.

3. There Will Be Brooding

Get ready for A LOT of shots of people just sitting somewhere thinking. I actually admire the time these shows take to just watch people processing the messed up things happening to them and around them. There is not just brooding by the troubled detective, but pretty much everyone. The naive local cops who can’t believe what is happening. The victims. People on the peripheral. Everyone.

4. Sex

Again, a lot of stuff goes down in the city, but the sex lives of people living in small towns? City dwellers have nothing on them. The programs that take place in cities show very little of the sex lives of the characters. Once you get deep under the skin of a small town, there are all manners of sex parties, orgies, fantasies fulfilled and BDSM. And everyone is in on it - the chief of police, the mayor, EVERYONE.

5. Violence

Depending on what country, guns aren’t as prevalent in Europe as they are over here. It seems that some detectives carry them, others don’t. The funny thing is that they often don’t seem to need them. Once they figure out who the criminals are, most of the time they just admit to what they did with an, Aw, shucks, you caught me. This being said, these criminals don’t need guns because the way people are killed happens in all manner of creative ways. And the violence is usually representative of the area. For example, if it’s a fishing town, harpoons or hooks may be used. Let me tell you, after that first act of violence, the murderer get emboldened and things get weirder and more violent from there.

6. Cell Phones

Remember back when cell phones were new and reception was generally terrible? It became a trope in every goddamn horror movie or police show that when someone was about to get attacked, all of a sudden they had no cell phone reception and couldn’t call for help. These shows have brought this back. One of the things I’ve learned about small towns in Europe is that they have shitty cell phone reception. When I’m in Finland, if I get out to the country, if I do not have cell phone reception, that is a sign to get the hell out of there immediately.

 7. Large Corporations Don’t Like the Environment

In almost all of these shows, there is a subplot involving the local politicians and a large corporation. Usually, the corporation wants to build something big - a factory or oil pipelines - which will fundamentally change the makeup of the small town. As you might have guessed, there are a few older people whose family has lived on the land for generations. The politicians are like, Come on old people get with the program. The old people are like, Greedy bastards. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point. Sure, what the corporation is planning will destroy the environment, but it’s progress, right?

This is not an exhaustive list of all the tropes, it’s more of an ongoing analysis of what goes in to creating a European detective show. What I’m really hoping is that something goes down in Finland and I can see first hand just how true these tropes are to real life. I can take in all these points, however, the one thing that is getting a little tiring is characters wondering, in some form or another, this: How could something like this ever happen here? I mean, come on, seriously? How could something like this NOT happen here?

Paul Dore