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19 September 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 2:30pm

What Netflix’s Criminal tells us about international appetites for crime drama

A one-room police detective drama is being released simultaneously for British, French, German and Spanish audiences.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

At first glance, Criminal, a new Netflix series released this Friday, seems to be taking crime drama back to basics. 

All episodes take place in just one location: a police interview suite and the surrounding vending machine-filled corridors. Forget revved-up car chases or bullet-fuelled break-ins; Criminal asks viewers to focus on dialogue, facial expressions, mannerisms. There are just a handful of relationships to think about, namely between the police detectives carrying out the interview and the suspect sitting on the other side of the table. Each episode is alert, first and foremost, to how each of us presents our version of events – whichever side of the table we are sitting on.

But Netflix – always under pressure to be game-changers – can’t help but make the concept a little more complicated. There are three UK episodes, each concerning a different case and suspect but featuring the same detectives, alongside three French, Spanish and German episodes. Each one is filmed in the same room and has the same police-suspect premise, but each storyline is different. The series were filmed in their respective languages and are available in their native countries, but have also been over-dubbed in English, and will all be available to watch from the UK. What, then, does Criminal, in all its inceptions, tell us about the appetite for crime stories in each European country? 

Let’s consider the type of crime we’re looking at – and who is being questioned in connection with it. In the UK’s first episode, David Tennant plays a sinister 40-something doctor, Edgar, accused of the rape and murder of his 14-year-old step-daughter, Vicky. He was accompanying her on a netball tournament, staying in hotel rooms with double beds, before she was “found dead in the woods with no knickers and a shattered skull held in place with a bag for life.” Violent, perverted and, if her step-father is guilty, borderline incestuous, this crime is the most unequivocally nasty.

But, aside from a brief period in which Edgar insists upon another man’s guilt, this tale feels more “When will they prove it’s him?” than “Whodunnit?”. This removes any risk of high blood pressure and instead requires a more forensic, measured analysis. Us Brits, Criminal implies, like to consider gore without having to get our hands dirty.

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For the first few minutes of Spain’s first episode, you’d be forgiven for forgetting you were watching a crime drama at all. Isabel (Carmen Machi), sits opposite the police staff in a white jacket and red lipstick, her bleach-blonde hair tucked behind one ear to reveal an art-deco white earring. “Love is inner strength and love is what we’re made of. But we’re always looking elsewhere for it,” she says, as part of a long opening monologue.

Isabel charms the two male police officers who sit before her, until she demands her passport be returned – that’s why she’s here – so she can travel to Berlin with her beloved dog, Luna. Then, they start to bite. She won’t be allowed her passport back until she cooperates and tells the police the whereabouts of her brother, whom they suspect to be connected to a murder. An unexpected mix of passion and dog-related gore makes this episode the most intriguing of all four first instalments, even if Machi’s Isabel falls into the stereotype of a passionate, fiery Spanish woman (if one who is a little crazed, obsessive over her dog and, it seems, little else). Thanks to Isabel, this episode verges on the comedic – according to Criminal, Spanish crime audiences desire something more absurd than the straightforward dark violence Brits prefer.

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The French and German first episodes grapple more with cultural history specific to their countries. In the former, Emilie (Sara Giraudeau) claims to have been at the Bataclan on the night of the 2015 Eagles of Death Metal performance that was targeted by Islamic-extremist gunmen. In the latter, Jochen (Peter Kurth), a real estate developer, is brought into questioning concerning the murder of Jens Krall, a handyman he hired in the former East Berlin in the 1990s, whose skeleton has been found underneath one of Jorgen’s early developments. Jorgen was a successful businessman from Cologne (“Can’t you tell by my accent?” he asks at one point – a shoddy line for a show expecting an international audience who will be listening to voice-actors); Jens was an East Berliner angered by having to “scrape to get by”. 

These historic tensions, which result in envy, lies and violence, emerge with more and more frequency throughout the episode. Germany, Criminal suggests, is a nation concerned with the difficulties of its past. A murder from a previous generation rearing its head in the present is a reminder that you can’t just bury troubles – you have to solve them. And though this particular tragedy is far more recent, France’s Criminal is also concerned with the aftermath of tragedy, what it does to its people, what it can make them into.

None of the crimes are neatly closed up in front of us – we don’t see handcuffs or prison bars. What Criminal does instead is imply conclusions, which spin themselves out of the truths and lies we see unravelling throughout each episode, as the masks of each suspect begin to fall. Many of these resolutions don’t even happen in the investigation room, but in the corridor, the grey walls of which look just the same, no matter which city we are meant to be in.