By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist August 16, 2013 at 9:56AM
Over the past few years, Scandinavian crime fiction has been hot both at home and abroad. "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" has obviously been the biggest cultural crossover, but so too have books by folks like Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell and Karin Fossum, along with TV shows like "Wallander," "The Killing" and "The Bridge" (the latter two of which have been remade for American television). Generally, the entire genre is seen as darker and smarter than your average crime flick or paperback page turner, and completed with a flair unique to the region. But if you need evidence that not everything from Scandinavia's creative pool brims with freshness and can be just as generic as your average TV show on U.S. primetime, than "Annika Bengtzon, Crime Reporter" has more than ample proof.
To be certain, the premise is not without promise. Based on the best-selling crime novels by Liza Marklund, the show follows the titular Annika (Malin Crépin), a no nonsense reporter for Swedish tabloid Kvällspressen with a dogged drive to get to the truth of any story. The only thing standing in her way tends to be the cops and their careful adherence to troublesome things like procedure, and her bosses at the paper who would prefer to look before they leap. Of course, Annika's devotion to her work throws a wrench into the already wobbling gears of her home life, marriage and involvement with her two young kids. If it sounds fairly boilerplate, that's because it is, and unfortunately even with 90 minutes granted to each entry in the series, little is done to try and elevate the material in either ambition or execution.
The six episodes—if you want to call them that, though they could arguably each work as standalone movies—each find Annika diving into a case, knocking on doors, working the phones and doing all she can to crack the story, but unfortunately the plotting of these tales hardly ever makes the resolutions satisfying. Take for example, the very first entry, "Nobel's Last Will," which is provocatively (at first, anyway) set against the backdrop of Sweden's treasured Nobel prize group. A murder takes place during the prestigious awards banquet, and at first, the narrative sets up no small number of suspects, almost Agatha Christie style, with a variety of different motives presented for slaying the victim. But it seems the writers don't know what to do and any mystery that's presented is quickly snuffed out when every potential candidate for crime is killed off (not to mention that guest star Antje Traue—seen recently snarling in "Man of Steel"—is mostly wasted, besides filling out some rather flattering evening wear).
But this sort of laziness is present through all six episodes to varying degrees, and if it's not the main plot that isn't working, then it's the contrivances used to support it that also prove to be jarring. Among them, Annika has very little journalistic competition—it appears every other paper in Sweden is content with reporting press releases—while the police seem as intelligent or dumb as the scripts require. But perhaps most frustratingly, those around Annika are nothing more than one-dimensional character markers found in almost any standard procedural. She has an inter-office rivalry with a colleague (though it doesn't go beyond shoehorned quips every now and then, and the source of their tension is never revealed), a cop connection who is a friend or roadblock depending on the day, and a hard-nosed boss higher up the chain of command who is sometimes forced to keep her in check. And then there's her husband Thomas (Richard Ulfsäter, who looks like a Swedish Paul Rudd), who spends most of the six episodes exasperated that his wife has a job that takes her away from the house at all hours.
With story threads that deal in shady real estate deals, seedy happenings at strip clubs, celebrity murder and more, "Annika Bengtzon" isn't help either by its overall lack of imagination. You've likely seen better variations of these stories on "Law & Order" years ago, and it's a shame, particularly when the show has much more potential. Crépin is very good as Annika, and while the material isn't always worth her skills, she makes a captivating lead who sells even some of the more preposterous developments that arise through the six episodes (we'd reckon she could have Hollywood potential given the right project and character). And the show also nicely captures the immediacy and fever of covering breaking stories, and in particular, the constantly changing and evolving nature of the news cycle, which adds a pulse to the proceedings when one is often lacking.
But it's not enough to recommend the show. "Annika Bengtzon" is a more than ample example that mediocre ideas can flourish anywhere, even within a burgeoning, popular subgenre. As tastemakers on this side of the pond continue to look overseas for compelling new stories, movies and shows, we can save them the time by letting them know that "Annika Bengtzon" isn't worth investigating. [C-]
"Annika Bengtzon, Crime Reporter" is now available on DVD via MHz Networks.