Over the past two decades, Nordic television drama has seen a significant leap in popularity and critical attention. Driven initially by the success of screen adaptations of literary crime thrillers like
In this article, we focus on the critical possibilities of Nordic Noir as a genre of popular television drama that is watched and adapted around the globe. We posit that complex geopolitical themes and plots are imbricated with the genre's unique focus on weaving sociopolitical critiques (often of the Scandinavian welfare state) into the crime plot – a feature of the feted “double storytelling” tradition in Scandinavian television drama production (Redvall, 2013) – and further mediated through a third layer of critique, or a “third gaze”, that foregrounds Nordic landscapes or aesthetics as an actor. Following Robert A. Saunders's (2019b) work on geopolitical television drama, it is clear that Nordic crime dramas are high-quality series that engage with world politics via imaginary scenarios, build understandings of social, geographical, and political realms, and question basic ideas of domestic versus foreign identities via their narratives. We further argue that the particular textures and contours of such geopolitically inflected Nordic Noir television has inspired new perspectives on crime television drama production far beyond Norden. In particular, to what extent can the geopolitical and critical tensions inherent in the Nordic Noir genre also speak to realities outside the Nordic region, and even beyond the European context? By examining Viu/HBO Asia's Southeast Asian
Evolving out of the literary tradition of Scandinavian crime fiction, which dates back to the late 1960s, the Nordic Noir brand emerged as a marketable category of television entertainment through a succession of Danish crime series that hit the British market in the early 2000s, notably
From the perspective of geopolitical television, the characteristics of Nordic Noir are embedded in the particular public service commitments and storytelling traditions that the broadcasters within the region have refined. DR has had a leading role in this regard, with the Danish broadcaster having developed particular principles (the so-called “dogma” for television production) for high-quality television drama based on its public service commitments (Redvall, 2013). Beside adhering to the established principles associated with attractive visuals, quality artistic collaborations, and provision of a “good story”, there is also an ambition to develop strong narratives with double plots that address ethical or social concerns. This “double plotting” is directly linked to the broadcasters’ public service mandate to tell stories that challenge audiences, are important to society in general, and that other (i.e., commercial) players dare not tell (Redvall, 2019). This means that besides the immediate plotline, there is another (or underlying) narrative premise that raises difficult questions which often impugn the state, corporations, society, and even the much-touted “perfection” of the Nordic region as a whole. As such, there is a parallel to the tradition of the Scandinavian crime fiction storytelling with its consistent indictment of the problems of the Nordic welfare state. One example here is how the series
In general, when we look at the historical, institutional, and cultural conditions for crime fiction – and, later, television drama – from the Nordic region, there is an ambition to address ethical, societal, and political conditions in contemporary culture via the stories, distinguishing such fare from similar content elsewhere in Europe or North America, particularly those produced by commercial broadcasters. However, since these two forms of popular culture have become heavily consumed outside the region, a reflexive narrative layer has begun to emerge: the international fascination about anything Nordic – geography, culture, or politics – has emerged as a key marketing strategy for getting these stories made (Agger, 2020; Waade & Jensen, 2013; Roberts, 2016). A case in point is the significant use of the region's topography and climate, like the rainy, dark November setting of
This leads to the idea that there are not only two, but rather
In general, the three plot elements engage the viewer in distinct and meaningful ways: the crime plotline is a mystery and action narrative that appeals to the viewer in cognitive and emotional ways; the ethical, social, and political narrative engagement appeals to the viewer's more general worldview and societal perspectives; and, finally, the cinematic gaze refers to the viewer's aesthetic experience characterised by affect, such as contemplation, desire, and nostalgia. This triple premise encompasses different and contrasting fascinations and processes, and different viewers might mainly engage in one or two of the three. Consequently, when focusing on the pedagogical content of the Nordic Noir series, it is important to consider this triple premise as part of the storytelling process, wherein geopolitical codes and visions are conveyed not by one method of meaning-making, but a triptych comprised of the crime, an ethical or societal premise, and the cinematic gaze which features iconic sights – or sites – of Norden.
By one reading of the discipline's historiography, we can argue that geopolitics
As a screened scion of Scandinavian detective fiction, Nordic Noir – as a regional form of geopolitical television – possesses a particular attentiveness to its content that distinguishes it from similar fare in the US, Germany, the UK, or Italy. Rooted in a critical, leftist tradition that ultimately indicts the state or corporations through key details manifesting during the investigation (see Stougaard-Nielsen, 2017), Scandi-noir as a literary genre endowed its televisual offspring with a fecund reservoir of normative orientations and approaches to crime which have made it especially
Few in the field of transnational television studies would argue against the notion that Nordic television series are recognised as the highest-quality with the farthest reach in the current globalised milieu and have a significant impact beyond their primarily cosmopolitan, niche audience in different nations and on different continents (Jensen, 2016). Abetted by advances in production and distribution, particularly via transnational digital distribution platforms, series like
Building on Saunders's (2019b: 693) work on geopolitical television, it is important to note that different regions possess different concerns regarding “ways of seeing” and “knowing” world politics when it comes to what appears on the small screen. Just as geopolitical television programming from South Asia like
However, it is perhaps more telling to explore areas where Nordic Noir series defy easy categorisation within Saunders's typology. Iceland's
As is evident, the geopolitical, social-ethical, and eco-critical elements of Nordic Noir are highly embedded in the region's democratic and cultural conditions – the genre reflects and speaks to its Nordic codes and visions of how the world “really works” (Rowley & Weldes, 2012). However, when a Nordic Noir series is exported as a format, and further “remapped” (Forrest & Martínez, 2015) onto other social and geopolitical contexts beyond this region, does the genre retain its socially and politically critical edge and engagement that it exerts within the Nordic region? Or does this feature of societal criticism and geopolitical engagement simply become an exotic veneer in the format within the transcultural trade, import, acquisition, and adaptation of popular Nordic crime series outside the region? And how is this negotiated in media systems and cultures that have differing levels of regulatory tolerance when it comes to the depiction and critique of local or regional politics in popular media? In the next section, we consider the evolution of the Nordic Noir genre as it travels
The case of the Southeast Asian localisation Beyond Southeast Asia, other potential locales might include the Caribbean Basin, parts of Latin America, southern India, sub-Saharan Africa, and Oceania.
Beyond Southeast Asia, other potential locales might include the Caribbean Basin, parts of Latin America, southern India, sub-Saharan Africa, and Oceania.
As discussed earlier, the broad international impact of Nordic Noir has been widely acknowledged, whether it is the global export and reception of such television dramas (Bondebjerg & Redvall, 2015), the influence of Nordic production values (Waade & Jensen, 2013; Jensen et al., 2016), or the adaptation of a Nordic Noir aesthetic and approach to social critique to dramas set in different geographical locales (Creeber, 2015; Hansen & Waade, 2017; Badley et al., 2020). Travelling to or influencing the production of dramas in countries beyond Scandinavia like Germany, France, the UK, Poland, Russia, Australia, and the US, the march of Nordic television production (and its practitioners) is in full swing. While its popularity is more noticeable in European and Anglosphere territories, as described above, its impact in Asia has been fairly muted, in part due to its status as a relatively unpopular (that is, not known to mainstream audiences) genre of non–English-language drama and availability only on niche television channels. That is, a cross-border region where the two countries bordering each other have a close geopolitical relationship based on sociocultural, political-systemic similarities and yet maintain particular differences that form the basis of a degree of friendly rivalry.
That is, a cross-border region where the two countries bordering each other have a close geopolitical relationship based on sociocultural, political-systemic similarities and yet maintain particular differences that form the basis of a degree of friendly rivalry.
The producers of the original series have thus capitalised on
An example of how Nordic Noir not only travels globally but also attempts to transpose its socially and politically conscious ethos to both analogous and dissimilar political and cultural contexts, the Malaysia-Singapore localisation,
The main storyline of
Despite the disparate geographical landscape and cultural backdrop, the Southeast Asian localisation attempts to retain the “strangeness” and “high value” markers (Lotman, 1990: 146) of the Nordic original (such as the noir-ish plotline, bold archetypes, and dramatic aesthetics). Elements of the storyline are also recalibrated to fit within “the metalingual structure of the importing culture” (Griggs, 2018: 281). The post-industrial locales of urban Copenhagen and Malmö are thus transmogrified into the urban commercial sprawl of Johor Bahru and dense, hypermodern Singapore, with a corresponding shift from an eternally dark, cold, and overcast northern European climate to an eternally sunny and oppressingly hot and humid environs of the tropics. As Nordic Noir is recalibrated to fit the equatorial settings of tropical noir, so too does its Nordic aesthetic gaze shift to a visual gaze that elicits a different geopolitical imagination. Our use of the “tropical” nomenclature signals not only oppositional difference in climate and landscape, but also conjures some of the Southeast Asian region's sociocultural specificities that are markedly different from the Nordic region. Where the popular imagination of the Nordic countries projects a certain “ethnic, linguistic, and cultural homogeneity” (Hilson, 2008: 148) amongst its social democratic and broadly Lutheran societies, the articulation of tropical noir in
That cultural specificity is an important part of the DNA of the series – functioning in part as the third, aesthetic gaze in the Nordic Noir model that activates viewers’ engagement with meanings evoked by place-specific visual elements – and was taken into serious consideration by the producers and writers of We wanted a variety of looks. […] We were very conscious of getting people who looked like real people... Malaysia and Singapore have diverse populations – Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian... we’ve managed to get the whole gamut. So that's kind of what we were concerned about in terms of diversity.
We wanted a variety of looks. […] We were very conscious of getting people who looked like real people... Malaysia and Singapore have diverse populations – Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian... we’ve managed to get the whole gamut. So that's kind of what we were concerned about in terms of diversity.
Further, the series was largely shot on location amidst the dense urban cityscapes and tropical junglescapes between the state of Johor, on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, and the island nation of Singapore. Being just one-and-a-half degrees north of the equator, the heat, high humidity, and invariably bright conditions contrast sharply with the far chillier and darker forebear of the series. Where the noir-ness comes through is via the faded grey, blue, green, and brown palette used throughout the series that bleeds the images of vibrant colours and imparts an ashen tone to the overall image, and in particular, the characters’ appearance. While the vistas of natural Nordic landscapes are typically used to evoke particular effects in the viewer's experience of the drama represented on the Nordic screen, natural landscapes in
For instance, one of the Truth Terrorist's five “truths” foregrounds the illegal trafficking of workers and migrants from Indonesia, whose poverty has driven them to desperation, risking their lives to get to nearby Malaysia by boat to find menial employment. The physical journey plied by the Indonesian villagers depicts their bodies being laid into the recess of a small fishing boat and hidden under a dense tangle of fishing nets. Once on Malaysian soil, they are transferred into a shipping container (like lifeless commodities) which is then driven across a Malaysian highway threading through a green hinterland. Their journey is aided by the very fishing boats and shipping containers that signal the region's maritime trade network. This visual referencing creates a backdrop that reinforces the neoliberal economic and political transnationalism of Southeast Asia, where Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have been part of a cross-border economic collaboration known as the Indonesia-Malaysia-Singapore Growth Triangle since the 1990s. Within this transnational framework, authorities have frequently drawn on the rhetoric of borderlessness in the service of frictionless trade policy and economic cooperation (similar to the “borderless” framework that girds the Øresund Region showcased in The US-Mexico and UK-France renditions of the series similarly focused on the (illegal) routes of migrant labour, refugees, and trade across shared borders as a key geopolitical theme.
The US-Mexico and UK-France renditions of the series similarly focused on the (illegal) routes of migrant labour, refugees, and trade across shared borders as a key geopolitical theme.
Herein lies a crucial point about
However, this is where the limits of its critical potential end. It is worth noting that the media environments in both countries are highly regulated by the state and enact comparatively restrictive content guidelines that discourage the depiction of (political) themes or topics that may be potentially critical of state policies and institutions, or critiques of public policies related to multiculturalism and religion (Barker & Lee, 2019). Even though
On the one hand, the regionally specific elements described above constitute some of the adaptation's affinity with its Scandinavian original in terms of its sociopolitical engagement. Yet, on the other hand, the triple premise that we argue is characteristic of Nordic Noir struggles to materialise in the Southeast Asian adaptation, with landscape thus reverting from a position of aesthetic BigPay is an e-wallet service and Travel360 is an online travel platform. Both are subsidiaries of AirAsia, a major low-cost airline based in Malaysia and owned by Tony Fernandez, one of Malaysia's 50 richest people, according to
BigPay is an e-wallet service and Travel360 is an online travel platform. Both are subsidiaries of AirAsia, a major low-cost airline based in Malaysia and owned by Tony Fernandez, one of Malaysia's 50 richest people, according to
Lim also emphasises that, due to the broad reach of Viu, the production had to also take into account an even more heterogeneous audience while also striking a balance between local cultural specificity and international, cross-cultural appeal. As Lim notes, the production's visual style and storytelling had to speak to universal values and problems, and not just appeal to Malaysian and Singaporean audiences (personal interview with Min Lim, 4 July 2019). As such, save for the linguistic markers of English and Malay used in the dialogue and the multi-ethnic, pan-Asian representation of the cast, the production design is culturally neutral, or sometimes even incongruent with the everyday geographical realities of the region (for instance, the characters wear multiple layers of clothes outdoors in a tropical climate that averages 30 degrees Celsius throughout the year), while many of the social problems depicted in the series remain acultural and their relationship to specific institutional influence or policy are undefined. This difficult negotiation between the universal and the particular results in a conflicted process of world-building in
Employing an extra-regional case study of Viu/HBO Asia's
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