Public Service Announcement 51 of 2019: Fosse/Verdon, Below The Surface (Gidseltagningen), Der Pass, The Teacher (Belfer)

The latest show to roll off the Prestige TV production line is FX’s Fosse/Verdon, about the creative and romantic partnership between actor/dancer Gwen Verdon and her husband, director/choreographer Bob Fosse. With seven Emmy nominations in the bag, and Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in the leading roles, there are plenty of reasons to give it a go. On the other hand the subject matter doesn’t greatly interest me, and it feels a bit too much like Homework TV for my liking, so I’ll probably pass (tonight, BBC Two, 9pm).

Meantime, if subtitles are your thing, there’s plenty of new drama to choose from. Top of the list, on the basis of precedent, is season 2 of Below the Surface (Gidseltagningen), the first run of which I described as “not an exceptional show, but a good one”. Is that enough to tempt me back? Dunno. Anyway, this time around the action shifts from the Copenhagen underground railway to a ferry between Denmark and Sweden (Saturday, BBC Four, 9pm). And another show “inspired” by the between-countries device in The Bridge, is Der Pass, where the action is set in a mountain, um, pass between Germany and Austria (Wednesdays, Sky Atlantic).

I’m more intrigued by The Teacher (Belfer), a Polish crime thriller from 2016, in which a teacher moves to a small town for work and starts to investigate the murder of one of his school’s students. Broke ratings records in Poland and won Best TV Series at the Polish Film Awards, apparently (All4/Walter Presents, available now).

Below the Surface (Gidseltagningen) s1 ep 7; s1 ep 8

Last week’s revelation that former Danish soldier Mark Hald, presumed dead, is the architect of the hostage crisis sees Philip immediately benched in the penultimate episode. Philip says he didn’t recognise Mark’s voice and thought he was dead, but no-one, not even Louise, believes him. In fact, the reason that Philip knows Mark is that the two of them were held captive together, along with Jim Hansen, the brother of Ben, the deceitful lover of Naja Toft. And the reason no-one knew about that is that Philip was instructed by the government to pretend he was held hostage on his own.

Above and below the ground, the TTF and the terrorists are debating what to do next. The TTF decides that it’s time to go in, and Naja offers to go down first as a distraction. As it happens, it’s her turn for the flashbacks this week, which reveal that she’s seeking redemption for an occasion when, as a reporter, she was investigating sex trafficking and turned her back on someone who was suffering. It works, sort of: the TTF piles in and most of the hostages are freed, although Mark manages to keep three of them, and demands both the ransom money and Philip.

This takes us to the final episode, which unfortunately is the first one I thought to be a little bit ponderous. It closes off the main plot points efficiently, but perhaps takes too long to get there. So, yes, as I speculated at the start there was indeed something shady about Philip’s “escape”: his ransom was paid by his father, and on leaving he vowed to Mark and Jim that he would get them out. Philip is interviewed by Mark, and his deception about his heroic status – albeit acting under orders – is streamed to the public thanks to Naja, who then gets her old job back. And the ransom money being demanded by the terrorists this time round was intended to pay for Jim’s release, although a final, tragic twist renders that moot. Overall, then, not an exceptional show, but a good one. 

Below the Surface (Gidseltagningen) s1 ep 5; s1 ep 6

At the start of episode 5, we get to see that the WTF?! moment at the end of the fourth episode was the TTF going into the lockup associated with the terrorists, and finding a splendid Conspiracy Wall covered in pictures of Philip. Oh no, it’s just because you’re head of the counterterrorism task force, he’s assured by one of his superiors; it’s nothing personal, even though short of putting up a sign on the wall saying “This Is Totally Personal, Philip” there doesn’t seem to be much more the terrorists could have done to drive that point home.

Underground, though, patience is running out: the captives decide to launch an assault on their captors, and they’re going to use the next Naja Toft interview as a distraction, although Naja herself is thrown before she goes live with hostage Ricco, when he tells her that he’s known Leon for years and he doesn’t have a son. So who, wonders Naja, is Jonas, that man I’ve been hitting it with…? Before she can explore that thread on air, though, the interview starts and Joachim, having earlier smuggled a spanner into the cage, moves into action: he knocks one of the terrorists out, takes his gun, and releases everyone else from the cage. 

Unfortunately he can’t quite cement his advantage, and Philip, by phone, persuades him to disarm before everyone gets killed. Joachim gets a beating from the terrorists for his insubordination, and when this turns into a scuffle Bodil, another hostage, is shot and killed.

So the subterranean mood is pretty gloomy in episode 6: it’s Joachim’s 50th birthday, but he doesn’t want to celebrate it. I know how you feel, dude, and I wasn’t even being held at gunpoint. And upstairs, when Bodil’s corpse is the latest to be delivered to the surface in the Lift of Doom, the politicians are starting to get a little bit more demanding with Philip and the TTF. They aren’t mollified by his observation that it could be worse, in that the hostages could all be dead, which is both true and hardly the point. Luckily, there’s a break coming, and it’s because Jonas couldn’t keep his story straight: Naja now knows that there’s something wrong, and manages to alert Louise before Jonas, who has turned aggressive, is able to drag her out of her house.

The TTF, then, has someone directly involved with the plot under lock and key. Once again, it being Denmark, they don’t take a blowtorch to Jonas’s nipples, but sit him down, offer him coffee, and do a bit of quick Googling. His name, it turns out, is Ben, and his brother was killed in action when part of a platoon called K7. This gives Louise something to work with. Incidentally, I was perhaps just a little unfair when in my review of the first episode I suggested that Louise was somewhat high-maintenance: as flashbacks reveal, she has a great big Secret Pain, relating to issues around men who hide emotional turmoil; so it’s unsurprising that she wanted Philip to open up. She may also be the most competent person in the TTF, as she manages to identify one of the terrorists: an ex-squaddie named Mark, who Philip seems to know.

Another two very watchable episodes, then. It should be said that this show was postponed last week because of events in Carcassonne and Trèbes in France on 23 March, when hostages were taken. This included a gendarme who demonstrated almost unbelievable bravery in offering himself as a substitute for someone who was being held, and who then paid with his life when trying to bring the incident to an end. Requiescat in pace, Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame.

Below The Surface (Gidseltagningen) s1 ep 3; s1 ep 4

Episodes 3 and 4 followed the pattern of the first two: nothing remarkable, but decent storytelling and one or two twists to keep the viewers interested. In the third episode, the stakes are getting higher. It’s confirmed that Adel has indeed been killed; and Leon, another of the hostages, has slipped into a diabetic coma. Insulin is requested, and Philip and the TTF decide that provides an opportunity to mount a rescue mission. (I have been persistently delighted by the discovery that, according to the subtitles, there’s a Danish equivalent of “Copy that!”.)

It all goes very badly wrong, though – the captors are much more sophisticated than he thought, and in the resulting shootout Silas, one of the captives, is shot in the stomach. Fortunately we have Marie the nurse to help; unfortunately, as her flashbacks reveal, she failed her medical training because she hesitated when faced with a medical emergency, which isn’t great when you’re a hostage and need to treat a fellow hostage with a life-threatening bullet wound.

Meantime, the terrorists, media-savvy as well as dangerous, have offered Naja Toft another interview, although it’s acknowledged that if there are hostages dying all over the place that won’t help the fundraising thing. So insulin is allowed in for Leon, who survives; and Silas is taken to the surface for treatment. At some point, I thought, they’ll run out of hostages if this sort of thing keeps happening – that’s two out of eight gone already, with a third needing regular insulin, and no sign of the money yet. Naja, meantime, decides that she can no longer facilitate the terrorists, and backs away from the fundraising campaign.

Which takes us to episode 4. Philip and the TTF are trying to trace the weapons being used by the terrorists, and pursuing this – in a manner which, as is often the way in TV drama, involves a few deductive leaps – takes them to Torben, a former soldier with PTSD, living in the forest. (Well, it is a Scandi-drama.) As this is a Danish show rather than 24, they offer Torben empathetic questioning rather than suspending him from a ceiling and whipping him until he squeals for mercy; he, in turn, points them to a biker gang, and when the team opens a lock-up garage being used by the gang them have an actual “What the fuck?” moment, which we’ll presumably find out more about in the next episode.

Philip is still convinced that Ahmad is one of the captors, and asks for the circumstances of his apparent death to be investigated. Under stress, he starts crying in front of Louise, who, presumably satisfied that she’s finally broken him, makes out with him. And Leon is revealed, through flashbacks, to have been in a relationship with a Thai sex worker. Meantime, though, there’s an even more unexpected bond being forged: Leon’s son makes contact with Naja Toft, is totally sympathetic about her decision to take a step back from dealing with the hostages, and offers to take over the fundraising. In due course they end up in bed together, and when he leaves her apartment he phones one of the terrorists to tell him that Naja will answer next time she gets a call from them.

So, some quick unpacking: (a) the son of one of the hostages is working with the captors. Does this mean that the motive for the attack is still money, or is there something else going on? Does Leon’s son (didn’t catch his name) have a grudge against his father, or – if Philip is correct about the identity of the head terrorist – something personal against Philip? And (b) does this mean that Naja Toft, experienced journalist, has been honeytrapped? Oh, I do hope so. Less savoury is the sexual assault perpetrated by one of the terrorists, which looks as if it might have driven a wedge between him and the others.

Below The Surface (Gidseltagningen) s1 ep 1; s1 ep 2


Below The Surface is the latest drama to fill BBC4’s Subtitled Saturday slot, and it’s actually quite good. Not great, not spectacular, but good.

The first episode starts with the hijacking of an underground train in Copenhagen: fifteen passengers are marched off at gunpoint by three captors, then caged in a part of the metro system which is under construction. The terrorists are helpfully Anglophone, incidentally, which might be verisimilitude, or a production company with an eye on international sales.

The job of finding the hostages and securing their safe release falls to Philip Nørgaard (Johannes Lassen), the man in charge of the Danish Counter-Terrorism Task Force. Philip was himself captured and tortured in an unspecified foreign country, and as a result is still suffering from PTSD. His “escape” from captivity is referred to in a way which renders it somewhat ambiguous: to start with I wondered whether this was going to be a sort of Hygge Homeland, with the implication that Philip might be on the side of the hijackers, but I don’t think the show’s going there. Philip also has a somewhat high-maintenance girlfriend, Louise (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), who clearly thinks he should just get over his own kidnap already, draw a line, and move on. Louise is also part of his task force, mind you, so maintaining the separation of church and state isn’t going to be easy.

Thus far the show has been refreshingly free of the Scandidrama cliches: no tasteful knitwear, no snow, no forests, and (best of all) no imaginatively mutilated dead young women. However, having a plot arc featuring the media seems to be nøn-negøtiable. So we’re over to yet another TV studio where no-one is allowed to sit down, and introduced to Naja, an experienced broadcaster who is selected by the captors as their link to the outside world: as part of their media strategy, in fact, they offer her a Skype interview with one of the hostages.

So who are the hijackers? And what do they want? They make contact with Philip’s team and provide an answer to the second question: they want €4m. There’s some debate about whether this is high or low. Seems quite reasonable, to me, for 15 hostages, but of course we need to go through the usual We Don’t Pay Terrorists stuff. An answer to the first question, on the other hand, remains elusive until right at the end, when the show pulls off a quite terrific twist, suggesting that one of the hijackers might well be known to Philip: specifically, that he’s Ahmad, the man who held Philip in captivity.

In the second episode, Philip tries to convince the head of the Danish security service of this, but the latter isn’t having it: Ahmad was killed by an American drone, so you’re imagining it, and are you feeling OK, Philip? I’m willing to bet that Ahmad’s body was never recovered, and those of us who have ever seen TV before etc. etc. Philip also has a conversation with his father, a retired security operative himself, which subtly heightens the mystery around his “escape” from captivity: my guess at the moment is that someone paid a ransom for Philip in defiance of governmental policy.

Which is kind of where we are with the present-day hostages. Naja is fired by her employers for running the Skype hostage interview – I would have thought that the ratings alone would have guaranteed her a job for life, but apparently not – so she sets up a blog and starts crowdfunding the ransom, with the support of the families of the hostages. Philip can’t stop her, exactly, but he reasonably points out that she has no experience of negotiating with terrorists. Not that his own point man, Esben, is great at it either, mind you, so he pulls Esben back and gives the gig to Louise.

The terrorists then offer Naja another interview with a hostage, but Philip is on alert: he thinks that they might be using Naja to further their cause, possibly even livestream an execution, and he prepares to block the transmission if necessary. And it is necessary: the interview is with hostage Adel (the excellent Dar Salim, who was Amir in Borgen and Peter in The Bridge), who has been goading the terrorists, verbally and physically, since being taken captive. I’m not sure why he was chosen for the interview, but he declines to follow the script, and just as a gun is pointed at Adel Philip pulls the plug on the stream. A few minutes later the task force is told where to pick up Adel’s body. By this stage we’ve been given, through flashbacks, an idea of Adel’s personality and background, so this is an effective gambit on a number of levels: we’re being introduced to the hostages, which increases our investment in their fate; and the writers appreciate the need to raise the stakes by killing one or two people off. All in all, it’s a promising start.

Public Service Announcement 12 of 2018: Nashville, Below The Surface

Nashville is returning to UK screens for its sixth and last season. I thought season 5, its first post-network effort, a little up-and-down: understandably, perhaps, the show seemed directionless in the immediate post-Connie Britton period, and Hayden Panettiere wasn’t given nearly enough to do. (Connie fans – and who isn’t one? – might like to note that her new show 9-1-1 now has a UK broadcaster.) But it was an excellent year for Chip Esten, and for Maisy and Lennon Stella. Anyway this is all irrelevant, because I stopped pretending years ago that I was anything other than hopelessly in love with this show. And even though I’m now the only person left on the good ship Gunnlett, if that isn’t endgame a little part of me will die. Weekly reviews to come (Friday 9 March, 10pm, Sky Living).

I’m also going to review the first two episodes, at least, of the next inhabitant of BBC4’s Subtitles-on-Saturday slot: Below The Surface (Gidseltagningen), a Danish drama in which 15 people are taken hostage on board an underground train in Copenhagen. It’s exec produced by, among others, Adam Price (Borgen) and Søren Sveistrup (The Killing/Forbrydelsen). It’s been a while since Unpopcult took on some Scandi-drama, and I quite like the premise, so I’m going to give it a go, even if, inevitably, it’s in BBC4’s favoured stupid double-bills (Saturday 10 March, BBC4, 9 and 10pm).

Also starting: season 2 of Jessica Jones (Netflix, now); season 5 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine (tonight, E4, 9pm); season 8 of Still Game (tonight, BBC 1, 9.30pm).