DVD Review: Salamander – The Complete Season One

The success of BBC Four’s Saturday evening subtitled drama slot has exceeded all expectations. Healthy viewing figures have been complimented by effusive critical notices in the mainstream press. Resisting temptation to rest on its laurels, the station’s solution to the problem of how to fill a The Bridge shaped hole in its schedules is to expand its palate and introduce British viewers to series from a broader selection of countries. The future of Nordic Noir is assured, several intriguing shows are scheduled for later in the year and as viewer loyalty is seemingly guaranteed the network is confident it can offer up a selection of fresh voices without alienating the core fanbase.

Proving that BBC Four has a long-term strategy in place, news of Salamander‘s acquisition was first revealed to the press in May 2013, almost a full year before UK transmission. Hot on the heels of the première screening on the Belgian public broadcasting station Eén the BBC’s acquisition team recognised that here was a series which would sit comfortably within the newly expanded parameters of the now traditional subtitled drama slot. Anticipating, and to a certain extent initiating, changes to the zeitgeist the series arrived as crime fiction from the continent is in the ascendant. Oldcastle Books will be publishing Euro Noir, a roadmap to continental crime fiction by Barry Forshaw and Arrow Films has created a Noir sub-label dedicated to releasing the very best contemporary and archive slices of crime thriller TV series.

With over 2.3 million iPlayer requests and an average 4.0 audience share, BBC Four’s faith in Belgian conspiracy thriller Salamander has been comfortably rewarded. A ratings smash in its homeland, published figures show that the series was watched by 56% of the available audience and set new records for timeshifting.

Unashamedly pan-Atlantic in tone, the programme was deliberately written to attract the widest possible domestic audience with one eye on the export market. As a court reporter for the Antwerp Gazette series creator Ward Hulselmans became intimately familiar with criminality, its causes, and implications for the wider fabric of a community. Since 1990 he has worked exclusively in television, employing the many years spent documenting cases to good effect, ensuring no matter how implausible a plot point may initially appear to be it is thoroughly grounded in currently existing trends of lawless behaviour.

Secrets powerful enough to bring down an entire country are at risk of being exposed after a gang breaks into a bank vault and targets sixty-six safes containing documents belonging to the great and the good. Instantly recognizing the significance of what the robbery represents, the bank’s owner, Raymond Jonkhere (Mike Verdrengh) wants to keep knowledge of the theft a closely guarded secret. Protecting the institution’s reputation and the nation’s ruling elite is paramount.

Acting on a tip-off from an informer, implacable and individualistic detective Paul Geradi (Filip Peeters) inadvertently stumbles onto a case that his own department wants to shut down. Bloody-minded in his approach to work, obstacles thrown at him are met with equal and opposing force. As the owners of safety deposit boxes begin to vanish, commit suicide, or unexpectedly resign from senior positions Gerardi realizes that he may be the only person able to investigate who staged the heist, and why only sixty-six boxes were opened.

As the case progresses it becomes apparent that the upper echelons of society are tainted the stench of corruption. A secret organisation with its roots in the resistance movement is acting as a shadow government, maneuvering ministers into key posts, facilitating business deals, and protecting members of the royal family. Gerardi’s dogged determination to uncover the truth behind ‘Salamander’ sets him on a collision course with his colleagues and has tragic personal consequences…

Masculinity is placed centre stage, in stark contrast to Nordic series which have placed great emphasis on the sanctity of femininity. With his super-strong hair gel, immaculate beard and crease free Levis, Gerardi is simultaneously a European Jack Bauer and accidental hero archetype. Thrust into a world of murky dealings, ambiguous figures, and betrayal he refuses to walk away even when it would be in his best interests to do so and therein lies the secret of his Achilles heel. Obsession about work may quite literally prove to be a fatal flaw…

High concept, thoroughly modern and yet reassuringly familiar Salamander is an energetic show which mines current fears about the banking sector and a lack of transparency in governance alongside anxieties that have been part and parcel of the modern (or post-modern) Belgian condition since the end of World War II, most notably how to reconcile collaborationist activity within the national consciousness, institutional abuse, and possible erosion of national sovereignty.

Generic tropes are employed in a knowing fashion. A conspiracy thriller filtered through the prism of Hitchockian themes with the narrative structure of a Saturday morning cliffhanger serial, Salamander deliberately takes a leisurely pace at first before igniting and then hurtles towards the conclusion at breakneck speed, hitting the viewer with a barrage of stunning set pieces and plot reveals.

Salamander: The Complete Season One is available to order from Amazon.