With the recent DVD release of Exit we were treated to a crucial moment in Mads Mikkelsen’s screen career, one that had previously been unavailable in the UK. On the cusp of international stardom and yet blissfully unaware that he was about to embark on a journey that would lead to him one day playing the most infamous serial killing cannibal in modern fiction.
For a long time it seemed as though several essential pre Exit moments in Mikkeslen’s career would always remain unobtainable to us. Tantalising hints of complex characters in intense productions were dotted around various web pages enticing and frustrating fans with the possibility of mesmerising portrayals being forevermore beyond our reach . Resigned to the prospect of never being able to purchase subtitled DVDs of Exit and Unit One and see first hand if the promise of greatness was always there, fans were taken by surprise when Arrow Films rectified that situation and started issuing those very same titles. For the first time fans can begin building a more complete overview of .Mikkelsen’s early career with the added bonus of sampling some excellent examples of Scandinavian film and TV.
As the latest title to be released under the Nordic Noir banner, Unit One may quite possibly be one of the most historically significant titles to be issued by Arrow Films’ Scandinavian imprint. Fast moving, and gritty, Unit One is the show that changed the face of Danish television. Rescuing the crime genre from decades of male dominance, the series placed a strong and dynamic female character at the centre of the action and in doing so opened a door which would enable Sarah Lund and Saga Noren to follow through in later years.
Premièring in 2000, Unit One is a series about a high profile mobile police team that travels the width and breadth of Denmark in order to investigate murders, incidents of serial rape, arson, extortion, and any other forms of criminality which may be too specialised for the local law enforcement agency to deal with. Based on real-life crimes, the show proudly wears its authenticity on its sleeve, taking great care to let the viewers know what sentence was metered out to the miscreants.
Produced in response to American crime series which were very popular with Danish audiences, Unit One was commissioned by future home of The Killingand Borgen, DR1, as a part of a policy to increase the share of home grown content broadcast by the station. From its inception the producers of Unit One were determined to craft a show that was comparable to anything being made across the Atlantic. That the series was awarded an International Emmy Award in 2002 is proof that the producers succeeded in their aims.
Incredibly popular in Denmark, Unit One ran for four seasons and the shutters finally came down on the mobile police unit because of a desire to go out on top and leave the audience hungry for more. More than a decade on from the final episode the lessons learnt whilst making this series are still being employed in day-to-day Danish TV drama production.
Showrunner, Peter Thorsboe’s commitment to and excitement for the subject matter was such that Unit One became the first part in a thematic trilogy (Unit One, The Eagle, The Protectors) that explored criminality and the emotional and social sacrifices made by police officers. With this first installment Thorsboe made a creative decision not to sensationalise the heinous criminal acts the show would deal with each week and by populating the series with believable and sympathetically written detectives he weighted the show with an emotional anchor that prevented any melodramatic heightening of tone.
The inclusion of a female senior female detective may seem to fans of Nordic Noir to be an essential ingredient but for Danish audiences in 2000 this was revolutionary television. Ingrid Dahl, played by Charlotte Fich, is a prototype for the more socially dysfunctional female leads that feature in current Danish TV crime shows. Identification figure and outsider, it is through her eyes we become acquainted with Unit One’s modus operandi and the fellow team members.
Having an unshakeable belief in the rule of law and due process Dahl is plunged into a world outside of her comfort zone when she is made acting commander of the unit. Her primary objective is to apprehend her predecessor’s killer and build a watertight case which will withstand the scrutiny of the state prosecutor and defence lawyer.
The first season is essentially Dahl’s story despite Unit One being billed an ensemble show. With the greatest amount of screen time and most significant emotional character arc Dahl is the motor behind the team’s narrative actions . An emotionally strong woman with the ability to be decisive and a strong sense of empathy, Dahl stands in stark contrast to the Nordic Noir model of femininity with which we are more familiar. Lacking the social awkwardness of Saga Noren or the skewed private life of Sarah Lund, Dahl is successful at work and has a loving and sympathetic family which accepts that sometimes holidays might have to be postponed or cancelled because of police business.
Previously, Dhal has acted within the letter of the law and hasn’t tolerated any actions by her colleagues in which rules were broken or bent to secure a conviction but upon joining Unit One she has to come to terms with a mode of policing that operates with a very different methodology. Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary to enter a property without a warrant and Dahl soon learns when to turn a blind eye or fake a deaf ear.The extent to which the presence of femininity within a traditionally masculine may transform policing is a subplot throughout the first series. Dahl’s promotion is resented by some of her male colleagues despite them benefiting from it due to a tokenistic financial initiative which sees the team being awarded better facilities and pay rises as part of an programme aimed at increasing the presence of woman within senior roles. Dahl faces accusations of political correctness head on and spends the first series proving to her colleagues and a skeptical public that she is able do the job better than any comparable male candidate.
Unit One’s first series was rewarded with critical praise and impressive viewing figures that annihilated the rival network’s competition. DR1 instantly realised it had a hit on its hands and seizing the momentum commissioned a second season. Allocating an increased budget and greater technical resources DR1 was committed to producing a series which built upon lessons learnt during the first series, ensuring that the sophomore season took the show to even greater heights.
In series two the central premise would remain unchanged but with a years experience under its belt the production team had an acute awareness of what changes were needed in order to amplify the distinct voice. The outmoded cinematographic techniques employed in the first few episodes were discarded and replaced by a visual palette that would, with minor modifications, still be in use in 2013.
Armed with a sharper and faster batch of scripts Unit One‘s second season rewarded viewers with pay-offs on plot points hinted at in earlier episodes and brought the supporting cast to the fore.
An unspecified amount of time has passed since the end of the first series,. Dahl has come to terms with a personal tragedy and the team has laid the ghost of the previous supervising officer to rest. Now viewed as a friend, as well as a colleague, she is able to counsel team members in moments of emotional crisis knowing that they now regard her as an equal.
The series’ balance becomes far more equally distributed as subsidiary members of the team are given an increased amount of screen time. Individual emotional storylines crash into criminal investigations and then rebound back. Being on call 24/7 means that officers have long ago given up any pretence of being able to manage a harmonious private life. Never able to switch off from work means that the team feels more alive when in the the field and sometimes may need a particularly gruesome case to escape from domestic turmoil.
From guest artiste to series regular Unit One is populated by actors at the top of their game shining in a ground breaking series. Because of his current high profile attention may initially focuses on Mads Mikkelson to see if the greatness was there at such an early point in his career, yes it was, but focusing on a single actor is a disservice to a superb cast, many of whom would become familiar faces on Danish screens in subsequent years.
Unit One – Series 1 and 2 can be ordered from Amazon:
Series 3 will be released in 2014 and can be pre-ordered from Amazon: