S1: Some inherent problems from the structure and it doesn't always build tension well, but mostly it is effective, engaging and satisfying
I was late to the party when it came to Scandinavian drama so while The Bridge was being hailed as "the new Forbrydelsen", I was still in the position of having never seen Forbrydelsen – so it seemed sensible that I watch that instead. So it was as the second season arrived in the UK that I started to watch the first season of The Bridge. The plot starts with the hook/pitch that everyone knows, which is a body is dumped precisely on the border between Denmark and Sweden (halfway across a bridge), starting an investigation that involves both police forces – primarily led by family man Dane Martin and aspergers' suffering Saga. Although this is all I knew about the plot, it soon becomes bigger than that as the body turns out to be the first in a series of "lessons" that someone or some group is showing society by committing violent crimes. With the first lesson delivered (we are not all equal in the eyes of the law), the police work to prevent further lessons.
The first thing to say is that, although it makes an easy sound bite, The Bridge is not Forbrydelsen – it isn't in the same league and I think the obvious reason for them being compared is that BBC4 wanted to make sure its viewers of that followed into this – and the critics repeated the press releases as part of their reviews. This is not to say that it isn't good though, but just that it is structured differently and has different focuses than this series. Generally the drama works on a more fluid level with forward motion being the name of the game – not in a rushed 24 style but not in a slower, tighter focused way either. Instead of focusing on one reasonably tight group of suspects and playing with our perspectives, The Bridge brings in new characters frequently, often without us knowing how or if they fit in, and then they do fit in adding to the mystery and to the plot. It is not a wholly successful structure because you are frequently left wondering who you are watching and if you should know about them already and are being stupid. Additionally, the in and out flow of the characters does rather give the feel of them being disposable red-herrings, which OK they often are, but I didn't like that I often felt that way. The structure also adds to the feeling that the show is reluctant to have really "big" moments and it doesn't always ratchet up tension as it could. For example there are several deaths which are delivered with a question rather than a certainty, so their impact is reduced. Likewise some of the twists are arrived at rather than hitting us in a way that would have made more impact. It does keep the consistency, but at times I wanted it to grab me and force me into the next episode, which it only did once or twice.
It does still maintain a good pace though and despite the issues with the structure, I was engaged by the overall plot and the specifics. The characters don't have a great deal of depth to them but I did like Martin and Saga – their relationship was not as well done as it could have been but it had a nice frustrated chemistry. Saga was my favorite of the two (like everyone else) as her inability to recognize social rules or the feelings of others was well done and played well for drama and some comic moments, while Martin was more easily likable but flawed in his own very serious ways. Helin plays Saga really well, very stiff and awkward in some ways – it is funny to read some comments here that criticize her performance for this as some viewers didn't get her character and mistook this for her giving a bad performance! Bodnia is engagingly consistent and gets better as he goes as he has more to work with. The various supporting turns are good but with characters coming and going it is important the lead pair work – and they do.
The Bridge is not as brilliant as you will have heard and it does have inherent problems with its structure and its reluctant to really build tension and to deliver big moments in rather understated ways, but it does still work as a whole drama. The twists, turns and red-herrings provide ample material as we go through the various lessons, while the pairing of the characters gives a nice dynamic. It isn't Forbrydelsen but that isn't to say that it isn't enjoyable, and I will be back for the second season shortly.
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