Belgian Salamander’s Appealingly Untrendy Approach to Suspense

Salamander is one of those programs you find only because (unlike lots of the mainstream stuff you logged on hoping to find) Netflix is offering it on their streaming service. I clicked through to this Belgian suspense tale I’d never heard of on the promise of its nearly five-star user rating. As I approach the end of the series’ one season’s worth of episodes thus far consumed in a rapid one-week binge, I have started to reflect on what about it is special.

From the start that program participates in that admirable European tradition of actually casting normal-looking, middle-aged humans and treating them like they can believably represent interesting, complicated, and, yes, sexy people.

My now several hours with the series is also certainly the longest time I ever spent listening to people speak Flemish—to my ear a fascinating aural mash-up of French and German phonemes but hardly the reason I’ve been compulsively returning to my laptop. When I consider Salamander and what I am enjoying about it, these foreign distinctives are not at the top of the list.

I’ve realized that escaping into this Brussels-based mystery is less like watching good television from another country than it is like watching good television from another time. Let me be clear: the series is by no means outdated in its look, its brisk pace, or its long-format approach to storytelling. But it manages to spin its yarn without a lot of the latest concerns that define paranoia culture and without any of the narrative crutches that have become fashionable on American primetime. Continue reading Belgian Salamander’s Appealingly Untrendy Approach to Suspense

More Afraid of Women than the Big Bad Wolf?

I’ve been on a bit of a bender.  For a week, I sucked down episodes of Netflix’s Hemlock Grove like the strung-out sci-fi fantasy junkie that I am. The night before I finished the last two episodes–a mere six days after my first taste–a friend asked me if Hemlock Grove was any good.  And I had to admit that I still wasn’t sure.

It’s been a strange sort of addiction all along.  People talk about chasing the high of the first hit, but that’s not our story.  At the end of episode one, I had little more than a grudging hope for a novel(ish) approach to building supernatural universe–these things have rules, after all, and for me the rules are where it’s at–and something like a pang of brand loyalty for bad guys played by the brooding, blond Skarsgard brothers.

On these promises, the series delivered with some regularity if with not much panache.  Skarsgard the youngest (Bill, 23, with something like the commanding shoulders but not quite the easy charm of brother Alexander and a dash of brother Gustaf‘s ability to turn his countenance from impish to menacing and back again before you’re sure his face has moved at all) varies from fine to excellent.  He manages to put across a fairly unlikeable and deeply implausible character such that you start to blame the material for his weaker moments. (Does anyone think that even a rich kid in a red Porsche can get away with wearing a sport coat to high school everyday without seeming more douchey than anything else? Even James Spader could barely pull that off 25 years ago.)

Turns out that the werewolves were excellent throughout. Continue reading More Afraid of Women than the Big Bad Wolf?