Sea monsters. Smutty pensioners. Dead horses. A villain called Bosse Nova. These are not the kind of things you expect to find in a Norwegian TV series. At least, not if you believe the Scandi noir stereotypes. And Hellfjord defies Scandi stereotypes with gloriously twisted glee.
The seven-episode comedy thriller is a demented, disturbing piece of TV, a slice of absurd humour, grim murder and lots of lots of dead fish. It’s not easy to do dark humour and sustain it over three hours, but Hellfjord nails its tone perfectly. And then starts hammer more nails in on exactly the same spot.
The show follows Salamander (Zahid Ali), a policeman in Oslo who finds himself a national disgrace, after attempting a mercy killing on his injured horse during a parade. He doesn’t just put it out of its misery: he does it repeatedly, from a gun to a dustbin to someone else’s car. There’s a nastiness to seeing that violence unfold against an animal, but Hellfjord doesn’t just flirt with controversy: it marries it and has its babies. And so Salamander is sent to Hellfjord as a temporary sheriff for three months – a small town in the middle of nowhere.
“What if I do a good job?” he asks his supervisor. “That won’t happen,” comes the cold reply.
There are no points for guessing that this is exactly what happens, but Hellfjord is as much about narrative surprises as it is subtle titles.
Salamander sets about trying to police the community, but immediately finds himself up to his eyeballs in corpses with mobile phones inside them, a sinister fishing company (called Hellfish), which employs most of the village, and a landlady, Auntie Cosie (Maria Bock), with more than a casual interest in his bathroom habits. There’s a wonderful grotesque’s gallery feel to the local populace, which recalls The League of Gentlemen – and the programme’s make-up team are just as proficient with their prosthetics.
Clueless police office Kobba (Stig Fride Henriksen) is the only one to look weirder than Auntie Cosie, both of them barely human and certainly far from normal. Such eccentric supporting characters are par for the course in TV mysteries, but Hellfjord turns the eccentricity dial to 11, then keeps twisting. That same approach is true of the rest of the series, from the romantic interest – nice-but-dim journalist Johanne (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), who is too gormless to realise they share any chemistry – to the Angelo Badalamenti-pastiching soundtrack, not to mention the narrative itself.
Tommy Wirkola’s script, co-written with Henriksen and Ali, gives both stars the maximum chance to show off their comic timing, but also smartly deploys cliffhangers every half-hour like clockwork, daring you to keep watching (and also helping to alleviate any lull halfway through). There’s fun in seeing what outlandish twists they can serve up for the sake of it (Salamander going undercover in prison naturally spirals into disaster, while also seeing him pretend to be a neo-Nazi), but the joy lies in the sheer pace of jokes, which don’t let up. Even if you don’t find Auntie Cosie’s naughtiness amusing, there are enough oddball, surreal moments to tickle your funny bone elsewhere – any scene featuring Kobba’s Finnish mail order bride, Riina (Pihla Viitala), is cruelly hilarious, while Ali’s nice-guy deadpan is just the right side of endearing.
Somewhere between Hot Fuzz, Twin Peaks and The Killing, the result is a blast of disgusting fresh air. It might seem like a surprise for Scandi TV, but look closer and you can see the Norwegian blood running right through it, from the bleakly comic violence of Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance and the quick thrills of Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters to the surreal imagination of André Øvredal’s Trollhunter. With Dead Snow’s Wirkola on board, there’s enough here to make for a international hit as popular as Lilyhammer, which was embraced by Netflix as an original for the streaming service. Hellfjord deserves to do the same on Walter Presents. It might not be new territory for Norway, but Hellfjord still wonderfully unique.
Hellfjord: Season 1 is available to watch online and download on Walter Presents.
For more information on the other foreign-language shows available, see our Walter Presents TV guide.