Writing a good plot is only half the entertainment problem for on-screen mystery. The other problem is creating characters we are intrigued by and interested in watching. Sometimes it’s because we are gripped by their struggles or character (Prime Suspect, Vera), but more often we are pulled in by their foibles (Poirot, Morse/Endeavour, Monk). Three relatively new series fall very much in the latter category.
Koen De Bouw (Salamander) is a Belgian riff on Monk, for lack of a better description. But he’s less slapstick and more entertainingly tragic as he navigates the academic and criminal justice worlds. The mysteries are a mixed bag, but mostly just a vehicle for his journey toward healing from an initially unspecified tragedy. Along with the hysterical Goele Derick as his department administrator, ex-student turned police detective, Ella Leyers, and ex-lover turned police DCI Tanja Oostvogels, along with a bunch of other recurring characters, he unravels suspicious deaths while trying to straighten out his life.
The result is both funny and poignant without getting too broad. It does, however, get more than a little strange in the presentation, as T’s inner life become fantasies that continually intrude on his waking life. It is a visual language and mystery all its own that we get to enjoy and examine as the show unspools. The result is somewhere between a cozy and a hard-core British mystery; never too violent to be uncomfortable nor too sanitized to be boring. And there are plenty of laugh out loud moments to keep it all going.
Like The Bridge, this show tackles cross-border/cross-cultural issues. In this case Finland and Russia. But rather than one long challenge, there are several shorter, multi-part mysteries that scaffold the story of the characters involved with some longer arcs to pull it together. It makes it all more digestible, and we never have to soak too long in any one tale of darkness and misery (hey, it’s Finland).
But because the main character, Ville Virtanen, is so amusingly off-beat, the darkness is counter-balanced and often kept at bay. But Virtanen is only half of the success of the show. Anu Sinisalo, as the ex-FSB turned Finnish cop has her own funny and scary peculiarities. And she sells them well. The two together become the epicenter of the swirling politics and mysteries that invade the smallish Finnish town on the border. The rest of the cast is solid as well, but without these two, it frankly wouldn’t work.
Another Finnish import, and with less of a quirky set of leads as more just broken humans. And, to be honest, somewhat broken writing; police procedure is not their forte. Pihla Viitala (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters) unapologetically plays a grieving woman who’s skills as a parent are seriously suspect. What she does have going for her is drive and intuition. One of the nice things that sets this show apart is how the mysteries play out to the last moments of each season. However, getting there is often a lesson in frustration as we watch her step-daughter make one bad choice after another, and her partner ignore the facts and refuse to trust her for far too long. Basically, this is an imperfect but intriguing series. With better writing, they’d be really great, but they really don’t have that yet. Perhaps in the next series.