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

By Mike Roorda | Lists | July 1, 2013 |

By Mike Roorda | Lists | July 1, 2013 |

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.