A Facebook-and-corporeal friend recently asked for suggestions of Netflix or other binge-worthy series that were not too violent or sexualized to watch in these troubled times. Rome burns; Nero fiddles: More Downton Abbey!!!
Actually, I’m sympathetic. It’s just that I lack a reasonable answer for this very reasonable question. I’ve been inhaling — at a pace of three or four a night — a trio of the grimmest, dourest, serial-criminally obsessed shows from around the world. Now, I have a feeling that you sick folks, like me, would sacrifice one stupid fair-haired Botticelli semi-virgin who pops an unmarked pill at a party hosted by a bare-chested vulpine stranger wearing antlers for eight or ten episodes of unstoppable plot and enough red herrings to sate a red whale.
I’m talking about Case, The Break and Paranoid. All are currently streaming on Netflix and fail to make me a better person. But, as anybody who recently watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window will concur (p.s. was Jimmy Stewart ever that young and emaciated?), voyeurism can be addictive. It’s only really dangerous when you take action. No worries here. I’m as likely to ask an under-aged girl to pull up her shirt for a photo as access to a secret Icelandic party as the next mother of a college-bound daughter.
I’ll begin with Case, which like an episode of Law & Order: SVU begins with a grisly discovery. In this situation, it’s a beautiful ballerina with everything to live for hanging center stage at the theater where she rehearsed her plies. And, yes, there’s semen in that vagina. That’s the entire plot you’re getting from me – except that a wonderfully dowdy, suitably crabby single female detective, Gabriela (Steinunn Ólína Þorsteinsdóttir), works the case like an OCD avenging angel. This is the show that the headline of Decider called “The Feel-bad Icelandic Crime Drama of 2016.”
From everything I’ve heard, Iceland is a lovely place to visit with lots of pretty ponies but, having read every increasingly creepy Yrsa Sigurðardóttir supernatural mystery novel, I’m not naïve. At the annual Icelandic Noir conference, the highest award is The Icepick. These folks are serious. One Icelandic national dish is kaestur harkarl, rotten shark meat fermented in a hole in the sand for six to twelve weeks. Food writer MiMi Aye called it “the worst thing I have ever had in my mouth.”
Apparently, such odd and strange things occur naturally in the Nordic island nation without a Gap store in sight, but what I love about Case is that even if I ever attend the Reykjavik Film Festival, I will never go to a party as depraved as the one the show depicts, all while the people speak in a wonderfully elfin language suitable for The Lord of the Rings. In that episode, the party’s young host greets an alcoholic investigator who he’s blackmailed into sleeping with an under-aged opioid-addicted hooker – all nothing out of the SVU realm. Except that a wild drug-and-sex bacchanalia provides local color as the stark naked blackmailer addresses his interrogator while distractedly pulling his own pud. It’s tempting to pause at that moment, turn to my husband, and go wtf, have we ever seen that before?
No. And, yet, as soon as we finish Case, we start searching for out next fix like that poor addict who sells her body to men with fermented shark-breath. Enter The Break, a bleak Belgian series that makes Hercule Poirot resemble Mr. Rogers. In this series, a Brussels police detective returns with his teenaged daughter to Heiderfeld, the tiny village where he spent his teenaged years. Balding Yoann Peeters (Yoann Blanc) hasn’t yet clocked in on his first day when fly fishermen pull the corpse of a nineteen-year-old African soccer player out of the bucolic river. And, so, the game’s afoot, to quote Shakespeare by way of Sherlock.
As Christie knew and exploited endlessly in her twee country terrors, beneath every peaceful hamlet is the roiling mud of the human soul. (OK: a lot of demented people doing sick shit.) Peeters’ investigation, often thwarted by the local Bill, leads to such shocking displays as an incestuous brother and dominatrix sister living on a farm that appears Airbnb worthy at first sight. And we’re back in pervy party territory: the pair hosts a regular S&M gathering in their picturesque barn for the local gentry. The late night festivities include a lot of bondage and discipline and the things that even Belgian consenting adults do away from the prying eyes of Poirot.
After that, I had to have more, more, which led me, unsurprisingly, to Paranoid, originally aired on British ITV. By this time, watching all those lovely young women with the shiny hair fall by the wayside, the daughters and sons interred too soon, any mother would be paranoid. In this British procedural that vilifies big Pharma (wow, that’s an easy target!) one of the lead detectives, DS Nina Suresh, played by Indira Varma, the Oberyn Martell’s baby mama Ellaria Sand in Game of Thrones, and mother of those ass-kicking assassins the Sand Snakes.
Paranoid‘s kick-off murder occurs at a playground. A killer-in-a-hoodie stabs a local doctor-mummy while she pushes her child on the swings. Having raised children on the mean kiddie parks of Kensington, Brooklyn, homicidal rage among the swing-sets doesn’t surprise me in the least. I once saw a Russian granny pinch her misbehaving grandson in the nuts – but that’s another story for another time. In this case, between DS Nina Suresh’s raging biological clock, her hunky partner’s too-close relationship to his alcoholic mother, and their lonely, anti-psychotic pill-popping colleague, there’s ample dysfunction among the plainclothes detectives. And that doesn’t even get to the villains! While lacking in perverse orgies – although there is an inappropriate psychiatrist and sexual blackmail — the bright side is that, since Paranoid‘s in English, you can noodle on your phone and not miss a major plot-point revealed in that strangely intoxicating bubbly Icelandic of Case.
I couldn’t recommend any of these three shows streaming on Netflix to a saner soul seeking solace from reality’s craziness. But for those who share my degenerate escapism, and puzzle-love, dipping into others’ agonizing mysteries without having to eat the fermented shark provides respite from a harsh world – that could so easily be crueler if I was mainlining heroin in a Nordic squat.