Sofia Helin plays socially challenged Saga Norén in "The Bridge."

Sofia Helin plays socially challenged Saga Norén in “The Bridge.”

The past few years have brought a wave of Scandinavian television dramas to British and American television screens. Shows such as Denmark’s “Borgen,” “The Killing” and “Follow the Money” the Swedish “Wallander,” the Swedish-Danish “The Bridge,” and even the original-language films of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander trilogy have given viewers exotic characters as well as new cinematic settings and styles. Nordic content has also produced challenges and given interested viewers new skills.

Familiarity with subtitles and Scandinavian directors — think Ingmar Bergman — were once art house affectations (movies were “films” or “cinema.”) But the spread of Scandinavian crime series has made subtitle reading a skil. Dedicated fans of “Nordic noir” and “Scandivision” learn to master the hushed nuances that pass for conversation in laconic northern realms. Some even pick up on tidbits of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian and pepper their conversation with the foreign words for coroner, judge or gang member.

Scandinavian directors and writers rely on some common themes to propel their shows and Google translate can help you identify them. Here’s a short glossary:

  1. Mørke horisont (Norway): “Dark horizon.” Dark gray sea meeting dark gray sky is common solution for opening credits or knotty moments when investigators are stymied. Gazing across a watery void can bring counsel. Don’t miss out on the Jungian allusions.
  2. Ex-nationalistisk selvretfærdig forretningsmand (Denmark): “Bigoted ex-nationalist businessman.” Think Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Ikea, a respected and even beloved company, with a secret past tied to nationalist or philo-Nazi movements. This kind of character may seem like a pillar of a bland Nordic bourgeoisie, belying a capacity to go to desperate and violent lengths. 
    In "Follow the Money," Alexander "Sander" Sødergren (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) seems nice enough, but…

    In “Follow the Money,” Alexander “Sander” Sødergren (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) seems nice enough, but…

  3. Trævlet vokalmusik med akustisk guitar (Denmark): This is basically stringy vocal music with acoustic guitar that links 1970s singer-songwriters with ancient Norse sagas.
  4. Windpinad industriområde (Sweden): “A windswept industrial area.” A dock or cargo terminal, where stacked containers, cavernous warehouses and high-voltage or dangerous equipment like forklifts offer threatening settings for showdowns between police and criminals or gangs and potential turncoats and informants. Nice nexus of post-industrial decay and Scandinavians’ seagoing heritage.
  5. Personen med minimala sociala färdigheter (Sweden): “Person with minimal social skills.” Being of few words is definitely a Scandinavian stereotype. Socially challenged characters such as Saga in “The Bridge” or Lisbeth Salander bring a degree of awkwardness that’s remarkable even near the Arctic Circle. These people usually have a quirky talent in reverse proportion to their inability to relate to others.
  6. Etsivä joka on nähnyt parempia päiviä (Finland). “Detective who has seen better days.” Typically, such a character will be on probation after some transgression committed in pursuit of justice, whether excess violence or exceeding even Scandinavian standards of alcohol consumption. See also: Skyllet op reporter or “Washed up reporter.”