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More Taste AND Less Filling: European Procedurals are Better Than Ours

By Mike Roorda | Seriously Random Lists | July 1, 2013 | Comments ()


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Generally speaking, the popular crime procedurals on American television are pretty horrible. They're bland, uninspired, repetitive and overly simplistic. There's no real challenge to the viewer. You can turn your brain off for an hour. Just sit back and relax while the overly lit, poorly acted pablum simply dribbles in through your eyeholes, neither sustaining or entertaining, only existing to distract. The characters are interchangeable and uninteresting, often with different actors stepping in and out of roles to serve the needs of the producers. Take, for example "CSI: The Original" and "Law and Order: The one from the 90s." Both shows have had exceptionally long runs due in part to the fact that their casts are largely unimportant. Whatever sort of interpersonal arcs they shoehorn into the weekly plots is simple fluff put there to support the weight of the weekly investigations into yet another murder. The basic premise is always the same, somebody got themselves murderized and those gumshoes are gonna catch them.

I watch a lot of procedurals. It's similar to what I'm assuming a hardcore addiction is like. I'm ashamed, I do it in secret and I'll lie to anyone who confronts me about it. The attraction tends to be fleeting though. Not usually lasting more than one season, once I get really and truly bored with a show I have to move on. (Except for you "NCIS." I don't care what anyone says. Our relationship has meaning. You know "Hawaii Five-O" is just a phase. It doesn't mean anything to me, I swear!) Having milked the last bit of enjoyment out of most of what American crime shows have to offer I turned to Netflix Instant, hoping to find a new dose of cops and murdering murderers to watch. That's when I found out. Seriously, everybody listen up now. European crime shows are not f*cking around. They're actually GOOD. They are full of stories that are much more interesting and actors that were hired to act instead of wear low cut blouses and painted on jeans to comically lit interrogation scenes. So here, for your enjoyment, are the way superior crime procedurals (and miniseries) on Netflix Instant that you need to check out. Even if you normally hate procedurals, these are good television.

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Wallander. This one is a British show based on Swedish novels about a detective and police inspector in a small Swedish town. The lead is played with notable passion by Kenneth Branagh. Kurt Wallander is a mashup of detective tropes, single, tired and worn, and deeply disturbed by the horrors he has to face in order to do his job. Somehow they all work though and do so without feeling cheesy or overblown. The plots are extremely well paced and take their time to set up and resolve. The scenery and the way the show is shot around it is extremely pleasing to the eye as well. The Sweden shown here is wet, gray and dreary and contributes greatly to the overall tone of the show. Currently there are three seasons of three episodes each available for viewing. As seems typical with these BBC dramas, the episodes themselves are an hour and a half long, giving them the feel of short interconnected movies instead of a traditional television show.

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Jack Taylor. Another set of novels converted into a television show, this one stars Iain Glen (Ser Jorah on "Game of Thrones") as the disgraced and former member of the Irish Guarda who solves crimes almost against his will and in spite of his near constant consumption of cheap whiskey. This show has even more of a made for TV movie feel to it, but it does it fairly well. Not as compelling or driven as Wallander the plots can sometimes feel like they're wandering a bit and taking to long to get to the good stuff. It's still well worth a watch though, if only to see Glen put on a so-accurate-it's-uncomfortable show as a falling down drunk who sometimes moonlights as a private eye. There's three episodes out and again, they're an hour and a half long.

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Top of the Lake. Here at Pajiba, we've been evangelizing this show for some time now. I'm simply here to reiterate that, yes, it is amazing and you should totally check it out. Elisabeth Moss, in a departure from her role as Peggy on "Mad Men," is investigating the disappearance of a local girl who recently tried to kill herself. Set in New Zealand, the town she's in is populated with an eclectic and varied assortment of criminals and miscreants, some of whom she's either romantically involved with or has been in the past. The story itself is notable because it's much darker, and much more cerebral than some of the other fare on this list. (But not the darkest, we'll get to that one.) Moss's character, Robin Griffin, is damaged goods. There's a trauma in her past, and it informs and shapes how she approaches her case. The audience isn't immediately clued in to the details and the picture of her past is colored in slowly. The reveal is a punch in solar plexus, painful and robbing you of breath. It's a seven episode series and each comes in just under an hour.

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Luther. This is the granddaddy British procedural. The patriarch. The Boss. All other procedurals either crib from this one or should. We've discussed it at length here, so I'll try and keep this short. Idris Elba plays the titular Luther in this extremely dark and compelling drama. I initially watched this because I loved his turn as Stringer Bell on The Wire and once again he turns in a performance that is simply stunning. The beautiful Ruth Wilson plays Alice Morgan, a criminal who delights in both taunting and tantalizing Luther with smoldering looks and tidbits of information that Luther needs to solve his crimes. Be warned. This is the darkest of the dark. There are a few scenes in here that aren't necessarily gory, but horrible for what they put the characters (and often the victims) through. There are six episodes in the first season and four in the second. A third is coming out soonish, so you should catch up now while you can. They're an hour each, so easily digestible in small doses.

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Sherlock. It sort of feels like cheating to include this on the list. Surely you've all seen this by now right? However, to not include it would be a gross oversight as this is clearly the best in the bunch. I won't bore you by rehashing details and recounting the plots here, but understand this: If you haven't taken the time to sit down and watch the two three episode seasons that are currently available you and I just aren't going to be friends. You're not coming to any of my BBQ's and I'm not going to attend your birthday party. This is television the way it's meant to be done with two actors who are clearly enjoying themselves and putting on a hell of a show. If you meet someone and they tell you that they hated this show, just turn around and walk away. They probably also don't like puppies, happiness or sunshine and only exist to throw a wet blanket over the joy in others that they so clearly lack themselves.

This list surely isn't exhaustive. These are just the ones that I've seen enough of to personally vouch for. I still haven't gotten around to "Annika Bengtzon: Crime Reporter," "Foyle's War" or the more standard procedural "MI-5." although I've heard good things about all of them. Like most things from Europe, these shows have a hint of similarity to their American counterparts, but ultimately end up feeling more exciting and exotic. For someone, such as myself, who secretly consumes some of the bottom of the barrel crime shows out there, it's nice to occasionally treat myself to something a little bit more refined.



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Comments Are Welcome, Jerks Will Be Banned


  • Magiel

    After a sudden attack of love for Mads Mikkelsen I started on this (very good):

    Rejseholdet
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt02...

    And indeed a little bit dissapointed that Europe suddenly is just England..

  • basse buus

    oh Fischer! Oh the hair!

  • EssyRomaine

    I highly recommend Henning Mankell's Wallender it's brilliant. Personally I prefer it to the English version.

  • Uriah_Creep

    As usual, many of these series are not available on Netflix Canada. Piss me off.

  • Mitchell Hundred

    Consider yourself lucky that you haven't gotten around to MI-5 yet. I watched seven seasons of that show, and not one of them was any better than just 'okay'. Several were downright shitty. The only episode I kind of liked was the one in Season 2 about suicide bombers, and even then that was mostly because of Alexander Siddig's performance.

  • Greg!

    Luther is the grandaddy of something? Try Morse or Lewis. I'd start with Inspector Lewis and work backwards (if only for the Divine Sergeant Hathaway, i.e., Mr. Rose Tyler). I think there's a generation of 20-somethings like me that grew up on 'Masterpiece Mystery!' that suddenly feel old reading this list.

  • UnderTheDark

    Oh god, I LOVE Inspector Lewis! The characters are sooo good, and it's great fun playing "Spot the Actor"... I saw Varys playing a vaguely pedophilic Oxford professor and nearly choked on my ginger ale :)

    Right now I'm looking forward to Broadchurch (with David Tennant) and The Fall (with Gillian Anderson).

  • mc-rox

    You forgot Wire in the Blood and Lewis, my two favorites but good list. I shall look for Jack Taylor. Maybe not for this list but Case Histories is good.

  • PeacheeKeen

    Hello to Jason Isaacs!

  • Conor

    Not exactly a procedural, but I'd HIGHLY recommend the Irish series Love/Hate to anyone who appreciates good crime drama.

    And it's got Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger from GoT) and Robert Sheehan (Misfits) if you're looking for some big names involved.

  • annie

    Annnnnd I've forgotten everything I just read because I the scarf gif. Gets me every damn time, dammit.

  • Ron Wells

    How can you discuss Wallander and not mention that Tom Hiddleston plays one of the detectives under Wallander for the first two seasons? It's not always the biggest part, but it is how he got cast (by Branagh) as Loki. Also, David Warner as Wallander's Dad with dementia.

  • Jifaner

    When I finished Sherlock on Netflix I wanted to cry. I need more, dammit!

  • weetiger3

    This is a fantastic list, despite being incomplete (Cracker, Wire in the Blood and the sublime Prime Suspect all mentioned below). While I can't wait for Broadchurch this summer on BBCAmerica, I am giddy with the prospect of being able to find Jack Taylor! (Ken Bruen's books are among my all-time favorites)

  • Milly

    If you can find them, Prime Suspect and Cracker are very very good.

    Morse gives you great performances and a nice look at middle class England, Frost is a big more rough round the edges and Taggart, well, Taggart is chock full of 'mahdah".

  • frozen01

    Cracker is on Netflix :)

  • Silchasruin

    Love Cracker

    Lots of good british shows, but there should really be some Scandinavian shows on that list

  • I watched 4 series of Cracker over the Christmas break whilst "working from home". It was glorious.

  • smartyskort

    No "Wire In the Blood"? I love that one. Very dark but appealing nonetheless, and great chemistry.

  • Three_nineteen

    Another good Robson Green procedural is "Touching Evil".

  • Me too! My first introduction to Robson Green.

  • Slash

    Wallender is depressing. I've seen it, it's OK, but meh ... Sherlock is awesome, but yeah, not enough of it. Seriously ridiculous. That's one reason why I like "Elementary." At least Jonny Lee Miller can be bothered to do more than 3 fucking episodes a year. Damn.

    I haven't seen the rest. Lack of BBC America and no real impulse to Netflix.

  • frozen01

    Is this list limited to shows still currently airing?

  • emmalita

    Excellent timing on this list. I'm looking for something new to watch.

  • Mr_Zito

    Wallander is amazing, and I would say this is the real darkest of the
    dark. I had to watch one episode and then wait for something like a
    month so I was ready to take another one.

  • emmalita

    I'm watching season 1 now. It is bleak, but so good. But why do they keep telling him to wait for back-up? Don't they know he never waits for back-up?

  • Zirza

    Luther season 3 starts tomorrow on the Beeb and I am ridiculously over-excited. I feel like a four year old at Disneyland.

  • Sam Underwood

    Broadchurch and The Fall need to be added to this list as of right now.

  • BWeaves

    OK, pretty old, BUT you must watch the Jeremy Brett versions of Sherlock Holmes. They are dead on exactly how the stories were written. Plus, the scenes are shot exactly like the original illustrations that accompanied the stories. Nothing against Cumberbatch, but Jeremy Brett IS Sherlock Holmes.

  • Uriah_Creep

    Amen to that.

  • Hazel Dean

    Indeed. I love Cumberbatch, but Jeremy Brett is even better as Sherlock.

  • Jim

    No Broadchurch love?

  • Jim

    Ah, lovely. Thank you.

  • BWeaves

    Should I be renting the British version of Wallander or the original Swedish version?

  • PaddyDog

    Both. Even though they cover the same stories, you'll feel that you're watching two different shows.

  • indarchandra

    Agreed. It's like seeing multiple productions of a Shakespeare play - same story different interpretations still full of awesome

  • jthomas666

    It is older and somewhat offbeat, but The Last Detective, starring Peter Davidson, is wonderful.

    Shameless plug: http://www.dvdverdict.com/revi...

  • EssyRomaine

    The Last Detective was fabulous. I'd also recommend Campion for fans of Peter Davison.

  • BWeaves

    YES!!!! Love Peter Davidson. He's wonderfully downtrodden in that one. The first episode just killed me. He solves the crime and everyone hates him for it.

  • BWeaves

    You need to get on FOYLE'S WAR right now. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200. Stop what you are doing and watch it, right now.

    Also, I love the UK version of Life on Mars. It's not so much about the plot as the characters.

  • Margrete

    I love me some Foyle's war! I also have an unnatural love for all things miss Marpe and Poirot. There's something comforting about those shows.

  • John W

    Is Top of The Lake returning? Haven't seen the first two but the latter three are all awesome. IFC has both Top of The Lake and Rectify.

  • Lovely Bones

    Top of the Lake is a definite miniseries, it was meant to have ended for sure where it did, unlike Rectify which was apparently open to being continued, and is doing so.

  • indarchandra

    Hrm... Top of the Lake is New Zealand and so very not European, but then again mayhaps it first aired on BBC/ITV/random channel in Europe and I've been known to be nitpicky about stupid stuff... still... Kiwi Pride!

  • Teresa Sadler

    What about Jack Irish? With Guy Pierce? Or the Doctor Blake Mysteries? Those blew me away! I'm loving the rare glimpses I get into Australian TV. And in Ireland, The Fall was beautiful - almost no conversation, but unfolding character depiction that was intimately devastating. I have Falcon, set in Spain, but in English (yet to see). I have to say something about Doctor Blake though. Set in 1958 (?), the sets, costumes, etc, were perfect. The attention to detail was amazing. There was an asylum episode, that, for once, rang true to it's time, and was not ridiculous. Having sound knowledge myself, the ECT use/experience, and medical theory was well researched and portrayed. The crime plots didn't offer up a great number of surprises (for me), but, the characters, their arcs, the beauty of the production, and the unique historical setting were fantastic.

  • BWeaves

    Oh, you know us Americans. If you speak English with what we think is an English accent, then you must be European. New South Wales is in England, right?

    (Please note the sarcasm font. My best friend lives in Tasmania and is married to a Kiwi, so I get it.)

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    Also apparently if you DON'T speak English, you don't exist! (tongue firmly in cheek). But seriously, a European shows list without a single non-English show is...well...odd.

  • I like Spiral (Engrenages). Granted I saw this cos they showed it on BBC.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Eh, as long as they're not looking at Germany, I'm fine. The stuff on TV here is embarrassing.

  • indarchandra

    word up. I was just happy to see we weren't counting Canada on the list.

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    What? Canada isn't in Europe? But you have the same queen as the UK! And you speak French! And a universal health care system. That's some European shit right there.

  • Artemis

    Are all crime shows classified as procedurals now? I love Luther, but I don't really think of it as a procedural since there's a LOT of serialized story-telling going on in that show, even if there's also a new crime in most episodes. I haven't seen Top of the Lake yet, but from what I understand it's not a procedural at all -- there's a single crime being explored over the course of the season.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    I'd also expect the degree of the lead's departure from actual procedure to make it harder to classify as a procedural. Luther kinda sorta starts out following the rules, but he pretty quickly goes right off the reservation in no time.

  • Kathleen Allen

    you "haven't gotten around to foyle's war yet" you haven't GOTTEN AROUND to foyle's war yet"? what the hedoublehockeysticks is wrong with you? it's michael kitchen speaking the horowitz. GET ON IT, MAN! and also hells yeah to borgen and inspector montalbano.

  • MichaelEhrgott

    I would add "Copper" to this list. It's on Netlfix. Basically a Gangs of New York set procedural in the Five Points neighborhood. Great watching.

  • frozen01

    As much as I enjoy seeing Henry from Blood Ties playing another role that isn't in US Being Human, I prefer Ripper Street. It's nearly IDENTICAL in plot to Copper, except that it takes place in Victorian London.
    I think "Copper" was basically BBCA's way of adapting Ripper Street for an American audience and coming up with something original for the station.

    Oh, and speaking of which, Whitechapel is another good British crime drama (modern era, this time).

  • Magiel

    Ripper street is awesome and addictive!

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Whitechapel is fantastic.

    I wouldn't call Copper "good" (they killed a fantastic new character off last week, for example). Ripper Street has the better actors, and the better writers. Both certainly look very much alike.

  • frozen01

    I wasn't really able to get too much into Copper until they started bringing in more aspects of the Civil War into it. But, yeah, Ripper Street is better... though I don't think they really look very similar. The similarities to me were in the initial plot: Both have unconventional detectives who have brilliant but fish-out-of-water sidekicks (an American in London, a black man in Civil War era US) and have suffered the loss of a child.

    I couldn't quite put my finger on why Ripper Street was better until your comment, though. You're right... the acting and writing is superior.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Technically American.

  • MichaelEhrgott

    BBC America....yeah I guess you're right. But with the amount of Irish and English actors on there I think it counts. :)

  • Brian Martin

    The Fall is woefully absent...For shame.

  • I'll be watching ep 3 tonight. Thus far I am creeped out and fascinated in equal measure. T

    VERY MINOR SPOILER

    The whole closing 10-ish minutes of ep 2 with the babysitter had me squirming uncomfortably.

  • Brian Martin

    I had a difficult time with the "himanization" of the villain through his children. It's much easier to think of him as an inhuman monster instead of the father of two.

  • emmalita

    Is The Fall a procedural or a crime drama? There is no crime of the week, but it is focused a lot on the procedure of solving the crime. If The Fall is a procedural, then the original Prime Suspect needs to be on this list.

  • Brian Martin

    The Fall is as much a procedural as Top of the Lake. Prime Suspects is more than welcome on this list.

  • And I enjoyed The Shadow Line, but again it's not really procedural - just crime drama.

  • Oliver Benson

    I have not finished this, yet, but so far it is STUNNING.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    A note about Jack Taylor: I've got nothing against Iain Glen. He's a fine actor. But him trying to come up with a convincing Irish accent is rather painful to watch (He's not as bad as Donal Logue, though). I bet that there were enough Irish actors around for his part.

    Still a good series, though.

  • emmalita

    Craig Ferguson has a funny explanation for his bad English accent - it was revenge for all the terrible Scottish accents done by English actors.

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    Wait...you said European and all you got is British? Scandie crime shows are taking over Europe and not a mention? The Bridge? Borgen (don't know the English title)? Hell even the original Wallander? The Killing?

  • basse buus

    Yay! Scandi love! or just Danish love:) The AV-club is doing a recap of season 1 of Borgen. As sort-of-a-Dane it's really funny to see how people struggle the fake Danish politics: Yes we have that many parties. To all of the Mads Mikkelsen lovers out there I would really recommend seeing the Emmy-winner Rejseholdet(I think the english title was Unit One) a procedural from 2000 where the cheekbones are a part of a mobile murder solving unit.

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    Norwegian here :) Unfortunately we don't make nearly as many kick ass shows as you Danes and Swedes. Damn it! Lillyhammer was an attempt, but a poor one. Yeah, Norway has the same insane political system, mostly gives me a headache. I'll check out Rejseholdet! I'd never heard of it. Cheers.

  • BuffyloGal

    Last time I checked, New Zealand wasn't in Europe either. At least Wallander is set in Sweden.

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    I just assumed it was a British produced show...I have no idea.

  • ERM

    I don't think many people at Pajiba are going to watch a tv show that isn't in English.

    Are subtitled tv shows even available?

  • Slim

    I have to watch Top of the Lake with the subtitles on and I have spent time in Queenstown.

  • Jamie Tye

    that's just sad. why the aversion to subtitles? The Bridge and The Killing are easily some of the best tv shows i have ever watched. The language thing isnt even an issue.

  • emmalita

    I have no aversion to subtitles, but I have a hard time finding a lot of these shows.

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    Are you new? Of course Pajibans love subtitles! It's like reading while watching TV!

    Also yes, in the UK anyway, these shows are shown on British channels with subtitles. I'm not sure what the situation is for Americans.

  • frozen01

    Well, on television, you would rarely see anything that requires subtitles for the entirety of the show (it's not uncommon for there to be small scenes in foreign languages, much like in movies, but it's rare to see anything that is ENTIRELY in a foreign language unless it's on the Spanish channel).

    These shows, however, are on Netflix, and there are TONS of subtitled foreign shows on there (the royalties are cheaper).

  • Three_nineteen

    "Take, for example “CSI: The Original” and “Law and Order: The one from
    the 90s.” Both shows have had exceptionally long runs due in part to the
    fact that their casts are largely unimportant. Whatever sort of
    interpersonal arcs they shoehorn into the weekly plots is simple fluff
    put there to support the weight of the weekly investigations into yet
    another murder."

    I think that the reason L&O: Original Recipe lasted so long was that there were good actors with decent chemistry on it. It suffered in the later seasons both by diluting the brand with other L&O shows and because after Carey Lowell left, the replacements kept getting prettier with less acting ability. They corrected that at the end with Jeremy Sisto and Anthony Anderson, but by then it was too late.

    Coincidentally, the CSI franchise started up right around the time Carey Lowell left L&O.

  • Less Lee Moore

    I had to comment here because I had to defend my beloved Law & Order. Yes, it had several weak seasons (any episodes with Elisabeth Rohm and that Republican dude are dead to me), but it was the first of the modern US procedurals and when it was good, it was untouchable.

  • Three_nineteen

    And I have seen all the episodes - the good, the bad, and the ugly - multiple times. I excel at the "guess which L&O ep it is within 30 seconds of turning it on" game.

  • Less Lee Moore

    ME TOO!!

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    Guh, Carey Lowell. Excuse me while I travel back to being 14 and having extremely inappropriate fantasies about a woman old enough to be my mother.

  • John G.

    Yes, but Sherlock is absurdly less filling.

    I only just got into it a couple weeks ago, and then I was immediately done. Season 1 and Season 2 were done in a day. When I realized that the 3 episodes per season thing was not a mistake, I took a sledgehammer to my TV. Of course, now I'm left with a hunger for Cumberbatch that can not be slaked.

  • annie

    On the one hand, three feature-length episodes per season. On other hand, MORE NOW OKAY NOW *kicks ground petulantly*

  • This is added genius of this show, demonstrating that old-fashioned economic term 'scarcity', whereby we ascribe greater value to something we don't get as much of as we'd like. While the longing is great, the payback is equal to it. There's little reason (yet) to think that will change.

  • ruby

    They're filming Season 3 now....it's not much of a consolation, but it means that there will be (some) more eventually.

  • frozen01

    I'd rather rewatch Sherlock for the hundredth time than watch most American cop/detective shows, to be honest. Quality over quantity.

  • Ginger

    Maybe less filling, but tastes GREAT, thanks to The Batch.

  • emmalita

    You are me, one year ago. Hint: The Hobbit movie is not a good substitute.

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