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I decided to watch BBC’s River (a six-part police drama now available on Netflix) for three main reasons:

  1. Baumgarten

    I finished Jessica Jones and the first season of iZombie, am waiting for Transparent season 2 and Orange is the New Black season 4, and so was looking for a new series to watch.

  2. I love Stellan Skarsgård’s acting, particularly in BBC’s God on Trial (2008) in which he portrays Baumgarten, a pro-Nazi German professor who finds himself in a concentration camp as a Jew when it is learned that the father who died when he was one-year-old was Jewish. He acts as head of the court when the prisoners of a barracks at Auschwitz hold a trial to determine whether God is guilty of breaking his covenant with the Jews as they face a selection that will mean the death of half of them by morning.
    Bootstrap Bill

    I also love him as Bootstrap Bill in the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

  3. The focus on a character who sees the dead–because of mental illness and not some mystical ghostly woo–tempted me. I feared it might be too heavy to watch without causing me more emotional stress than pleasure (which is why I’m not yet watching The Man in the High Castle). It was intense, but it was also powerful and wonderful.

I ended up watching the full six hour-long episodes in four days (one the first day, one the second, and the other four the third–just couldn’t stop). But the reason I get to write this review on this site, of course, isn’t found in my motives or appreciation of the series, but in the fact that this unique crime drama is identified by several critics and even on Wikipedia as “Nordic noir.”

The show is about killing and why people do it. It’s about doing your best as a cop within a structure that seems at times intent on destroying its own effectiveness. It’s about a bunch of urban individuals just trying to make their way through the muddle that is life…and death. And it’s about the mess that lurks beneath the surface of everyone’s lives and minds. DI River (Skarsgård) is just more messed up mentally than most of us. And a lot more insightful and skillful at solving crimes, too.

Eddie Marsden as Thomas Cream

Because River sees the dead, we not only see more about how his mind works than most police characters but also even enjoy moments of verbal excess through the presence of Thomas Cream, a.k.a. The Lambeth Poisoner, a 19th-century serial killer who haunts River after he reads the man’s biography. He comes to symbolize death and destructiveness, and offers a compelling noirish feature. (I particularly love that Cream is played by Eddie Marsden, who also played the tragic father Lieble in God on Trial.)

Stylistically, one of the most powerful noir elements in River is how much silence the series allows. DI River can be at turns panicked or ecstatic, grumpy or viciously angry. He can talk exhuberantly to himself via conversations with those who have died–especially his murdered partner DS Jackie “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker), who brings out the wild variety of emotions in him best (and the actors have awesome chemistry together). But he can also be morose and silent, and the series allows time and space for this. It permits stillness, and I find this rare in television. It makes me uncomfortable, and I treasure it for that experience.


I wouldn’t have called River noir if I hadn’t seen it mentioned in reviews and then found the series identified as such on the website Nordic Noir. As the site explains: “With its roots in the ground-breaking TV dramas The Killing, Borgen, Wallander and The Bridge, Nordic Noir has become a genre in its own right, influencing screenwriters far beyond the Scandinavian Peninsula.” It’s a new subgenre for me, and I’m enthusiastic about learning more, though I wonder if I’ll like the others as well as I like River, which concludes with an uncharacteristic zest for life, despite all the evils and the ills, the trials and the just-plain-bullshit of it all.