Full disclosure: Danish series “Unit One” hit shelves in late October, right around when I received my review copies of all thirty-two episodes of the show. Between day-to-day work, the awards season, and the holidays, it has taken me a while to make my way through the series, but there is perhaps no better time than in the quiet of the early winter TV and movie season to settle in with the International Emmy Award-winning procedural. Bringing the progressive attitude of “Borgen” (a decade before that show aired), along with the camaraderie found between the characters in the original series of “Law & Order” (along with great knack for crime storytelling), “Unit One” has lost none of its potency fifteen years since it first broadcast in 2000, and it’s well worth tracking down.
While it’s still something of an achievement when an actress is chosen to lead a new television series on U.S. network TV, in 2000 Charlotte Fich was taking on the role of Detective Chief Inspector Ingrid Dahl. She’s at the command of the titular, elite crimefighting Unit One, dedicated to homicides. Recruiting the best talent from the police department, this individual branch works out of a mobile command trailer, complete with desks, computers, and even an interrogation room, and allows the team to investigate murders right on site. (If this seems a bit strange, just remember that Denmark is about twice of the size of Massachusetts, so getting around the country isn’t too difficult). And helping to piece together the crimes is a group of individuals, each with a particular skill set: Jens Peter “I.P.” Jørgensen (Waage Sandø) is second-in-command, a forty-year veteran who has seen it all and is the pillar among the team; Allan Fischer (Mads Mikkelsen) is a good cop, dogged by his womanizing and a hot-headed attitude; by his side is his partner and friend Thomas La Cour (Lars Brygmann) who has an uncanny ability to step into the mind and motivations of killers (not unlike Hugh Dancy‘s Will Graham from “Hannibal“); and then there’s Gaby Levin (Trine Pallesen) who keeps the paperwork, evidence, and logistics in order. Overseeing them all is Ulf Thomsen (Erik Wedersøe) who at first appoints Ingrid to lead Unit One as a political move, but soon grows to respect her. And driving the squad around in his big rig is ex-football star Johnny Olsen (Lars Bom).
From that array of characters, “Unit One” might sound like any dozen other police programs (and indeed, the show has a new murder to tackle each episode out) but where the series excels is in the relationships between the players, and a fearlessness in altering their fates and lives in significant ways, with real stakes. As often away from home as they are spending time with loved ones, the team in Unit One is as much a family to each other as they are with their own husbands, wives, and children. It might sound like a small detail, but it makes the quiet moments between them warmer than you might expect, and it’s a foundation that really drives the emotional dynamics of team, and how that’s contrasted with their personal lives is an undercurrent throughout the show. And the writing team, led by Peter Thorsboe, frequently explores the balance these cops have to manage between their often harrowing professional work and the needs they must meet at home. Indeed, career aspirations, deaths, new romances, marriages, divorces — nothing is sacred for the show’s writers, as they are often keen to shake up their characters in fascinating ways, and see how they’ll come out the other side. It’s a bold move to take in a show that only runs 32 episodes, spread across four seasons (the last season is only two episode long), and one that could be either gimmicky or narratively unbalancing, but it’s all managed with care. Whether it’s utilizing two-part episodes, or quietly jumping ahead in time if necessary, “Unit One” is given a lot of dramatic room to breathe.
It surely helps that the performances are first rate. It’s probably no surprise that Mads Mikkelsen, even at this early point in his career (the series arrived four years after Nicolas Winding Refn‘s “Pusher“), is easily the best of the bunch. But for those who only know him from his more villainous turns, they’ll be surprised at how utterly charming and winning he is here. His Allan Fischer is rakishly handsome and charismatic, and even when he’s a cad, he’s undeniably likeable. And that’s because the writing infuses Fischer with true concern for his colleagues, and at the end of the day, an earnest desire to do the right thing. Playing off Brygmann as La Cour, the pair are easily the most enjoyable duo of the show, a partnership that’s only partially built on street survival (a tradition of most cop shows), but more on their polar opposite personalities and skills finding a perfect match, and respect, in each other. If you want an early example of what made Mikkelsen get noticed on the international scene, that’s reason alone to pick up the series. But the rest of the team are very good too, particularly Fich and Sandø, the former who places high demands on herself and the job, and the latter something of a big ol’ bear who can be surprisingly sensitive, and sometimes stubborn, even with all his years on the force.
But if there’s one aspect of the show that has not aged well, it’s the aesthetics. The direction (Niels Arden Oplev of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” fame is the probably the most notable name behind the camera, helming a few episodes) is functional if not memorable, but often employs some garish stylistic choices. Most egregious of all is the use of fish-eye lenses, a conceit that was already played out in the ’90s and feels wholly out of place the first time it pops up during the show. The set design can also be tacky and unappealing, with a budget for candles that seems to rival Stanley Kubrick‘s “Barry Lyndon.” They are employed at almost every opportunity — from romantic dinners to crime scenes — almost as if they were picked up in bulk and needed to be used lest they end up sitting in a closet somewhere. It’s not a detail one would normally notice, but they appear so often, you could almost make a drinking game out of it. And then there’s the series music by Jacob Groth, who uses dated electronica and FM jazz lite — sometimes at the same time — to create a distinctly unimpressive auditory concoction.
But those window dressing elements tend to fade into the background, allowing the show’s compelling drama, peppered with humor, to rise to the surface. “Unit One” is not era-defining programming, or even one of the best shows of all time. But it’s the rare show that delivers at a high level of consistency, with well-written characters you quickly become invested in. While we may be living in the golden age of television, “Unit One” is a reminder that there may be some gems you might’ve missed from the past, from unexpected corners of the TV dial, that perhaps helped lay the groundwork for the boom of creativity we’re seeing now. [B+]
“Unit One” is now available on DVD via MHz Networks.