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What Sad Television Detectives Teach Us About Ourselves

The genre—brooding detective overcomes immense inner and outer conflict to solve impossibly complex and sinister crimes—isn’t new, but these shows feel especially current in today’s climate. In the Trump-Zuckerberg universe, we are all sad detectives in a season that never ends.

Ringer illustration

I’ve been watching a lot of sad detective shows lately. You know the kind I mean. Mist rests absently on the glassy surface of a lake. Silent and perfect, the forest guards its secrets. Then an arm—a human arm—floats to the surface of the water. Who could have wanted to kill Ingvar Thorvaldsson, a drifter with only the most tangential connections to the international shipping conglomerate planning to construct a state-of-the-art new harbor in the town, thereby making the mayor and several leading citizens very rich? The shorebirds wheel and caw. Frafn Bgarnisson used to be a hotshot homicide investigator in the big city. Psychologically destroyed by the unsolved murder of his wife, Frafn has moved back to his sleepy hometown, where he smokes unfiltered cigarettes, his lined, grief-haunted eyes narrowing as he watches the interplay of light and water far, far out at sea. He was the best goddamn detective I ever saw, someone whispers. But now he has episodes. He hears voices. He’s unpredictable. Doesn’t obey orders. Drives a Nissan Xterra. But it’s rugged. Never washes it. Fan-shaped spatters of mud on both doors. Chain-smoking as he clatters over the forest roads. Wears excellent sweaters. Phenomenal knits. Up on the fjord, birds glide noiselessly among the spruce trees. Or are they fir? He’s raising his daughter alone. Her name’s Hjolfrith. She makes toast.

“Eat your toast, papa,” Hjolfrith says sternly. She’s only 12, but she takes care of him. They’ve been through so much. It would be terrible if she were endangered in any way. Surely no agents of an international shipping conglomerate will ever kidnap her in a last-ditch effort to save themselves from being brought to justice.

“I will pick you up in the Xterra after your tuba lesson,” Frafn sighs, contemplating the eternity of darkness behind the semi-translucent veil of human experience.

That’s the kind of show I’ve been watching. I find the genre weirdly reassuring. Don’t ask me why. Nothing comforts me like sad detective shows and baking competitions. Apparently, when the leaves change and the nights draw in, I look for solace either in people battling through terrible depression to stop serial killers or in people not battling through terrible depression to make spice cake. You could combine the two, but I’m not sure it would get you anywhere. “Grimland (2017). Shattered by the brutal murder of his grocer, a once-brilliant pastry chef moves to the remote North Sea island of Grimland, where his unconventional Victoria sponge exposes the townsfolk’s dark secrets.” I guess I’d stream it.

It’s obviously not red-hot entertainment news to point out the prevalence of sad detectives in international mystery series. People have been asking why the detectives are all so sad for a decade or more. The Danish show Forbrydelsen, the basis for the American series The Killing, premiered in 2007. The Scandi noir literary genre, the blood-spattered snowfield in which many sad detective shows first uncurled their gloomy roots, goes back to well before the 2005 publication of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Since the early 2010s there have been approximately 11,064—the saddest number; just look at it—sad detective series, often but by no means exclusively Scandinavian, some of the highlights including:

Luther (2010–present): Stars Idris Elba, who is handsome, famous, rich, talented, universally beloved, and known to spend a nontrivial percentage of his free time spinning DJ sets in the sun-dappled Elysian dance-paradise of Ibiza. In Luther, Elba plays a man consumed by the violence and trauma of his job and subject to fits of blinding, irrational fury. Acting-wise, an incredible stretch—like watching Sean Penn play Virginia Woolf.

Top of the Lake (2013): Only talking about the first season because I still haven’t watched the second. No reason, just haven’t found the free space in my baking-show calendar. Aesthetically one of the deeper sad detective joints. Brainchild of Jane Campion, an artist. Explores themes beyond just, like, “You won’t believe what went down in that lyrical copse of trees over yonder.” Still no shortage of lyrical copses. Elisabeth Moss plays the sad detective. I don’t have finely tuned New Zealand accent receptors, but to me, she seems great in the part. No sadness is quite as sad as sadness in short-haul motorboats.

Wallander (2005–2016): I’m including both the Swedish and the U.K. series in those air dates. The U.K. really had no right to claim Scandi noir as its own, but you can’t stop the British from colonizing. From Scandi noir they will go on to establish a mercantile trading port on the edge of sorrow itself. (“Not as bad as you’d think—everyone already speaks English!”) Kurt Wallander is a brilliant detective damaged by the demands of his job, his own preternatural empathy with the victims of the murders he investigates, etc. Kenneth Branagh plays him in the British version. I’d say Branagh is a little too pleased with himself to play a sad detective, but a man named Kenneth playing a man named Kurt really gets at the grievous essence of the genre.

River (2015): Not Scandinavian but stars Stellan Skarsgard. John River is a brilliant detective tormented by the recent murder of his partner. Notable even among other sad detective shows for featuring a really, really sad detective. He has sad visions. Also, he has incredible midcentury modern furniture. Personally not my style these days, but I respect it in context. When you’re deducing through grief at an elite level, you appreciate a clean sofa back.

Marcella (2016–present): Marcella Backland is a brilliant detective devastated by etc. Her husband is leaving her. She has unexplained blackouts. Like Top of the Lake, Marcella does some interesting things with gender assumptions within the sad detective tradition. Typically, women who become sad detectives are allowed to be kind of decorously glazed and melancholy, but they’re expected to keep their shit together and not make too much trouble at their jobs. Sgt. Catherine Cawood, Sarah Lancashire’s brilliant Yorkshire policewoman in Happy Valley, has endured genuine horrors but almost doesn’t even qualify as a sad detective because her pain doesn’t impact her competence. She just gets on with it. The legendary D.I. Jane Tennison, the detective played by Helen Mirren in the genre precursor Prime Suspect, becomes a borderline sad detective not because of the violence she witnesses but because of the bullshit she has to put up with in a male-dominated workplace. She’s haunted by the horror of just literally trying to do her job well. Men who are sad detectives are allowed to be loners and break all the rules; women, the genre says, had better show up on time, and with doughnuts, for all the happy-detective meetings. To which Marcella is like, “You idiots, the mirror of her psyche is so comprehensively shattered that she barely knows how to walk down the street. Get your own doughnuts.”

The list goes on. What’s fascinating to me about the sad detective canon right now is not that the trend is new, but that the shows still feel so current despite the trend’s manifest not-newness. It’s a subjective thing, but I think you could even go further: The genre feels more of the moment the more familiar and shopworn its tropes become. What came across as a little odd and edgy in 2009 now seems to model a straightforwardly obvious way of looking at the world. Even the mechanism that causes you to start watching one of these shows—the selection algorithm—seems to chime with their underlying message about alienation and the hidden structures of power.

Think about this for a second. What are all detective shows ultimately about? Constructing a narrative, right? They’re about our ability to take the mystifying confusion of events and order it into an intelligible story, an interpretation that enables us to understand the world, or at least to believe we understand it. You could argue that detective stories are about the possibility of arriving at accurate interpretations rather than merely intelligible ones, but the deepest fantasy of the classic mystery story is that intelligibility is accuracy, as long as it’s thorough enough: When you eliminate the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth. I have not found in life that the thing that is true is always the thing that makes the most sense, but it is in detective stories.

The emotional state of detectives, then, can be read as an index of a culture’s attitude toward the possibility of things making sense. The absolute confidence and brisk purposefulness of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes belongs to a world imperially certain that things are fundamentally intelligible. Comprehension is swiftly attainable, muddles can be straightened out. The elegant humor and puzzle-solving brio of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers’s great detectives belongs to a world in which things have gotten substantially more complex, but in which there is still a deep underlying faith that order is the natural condition of things.

The figure of the sad detective—the detective trying to arrive at an intelligible narrative through catastrophic inner and outer difficulties, which include the possible untrustworthiness of the detective’s own perceptions—belongs to a world in which little of that underlying faith in order is left. Now, the assumption is not that the true thing is what makes sense, or that the truth can be grasped at all; now, intelligibility can be achieved only through a heroic effort, at enormous personal cost (the lingering guilt of botched cases, in Trapped and Broadchurch; reality-altering knowledge of profound evil, in Top of the Lake and Wallander; dead family members, in many shows; strained relationships with coworkers, in just about all of them). And what was a vague hint of incipient unintelligibility a decade ago, a ripple of anxiety about war and globalization and the internet, is now the atmospheric condition of life for many people. That’s why these shows feel current, I think. In the Trump-Zuckerberg universe, we are all sad detectives in a season that never ends.

In that sense, it’s interesting that the United States—one of the world’s sadder countries!—has contributed so little to the sad detective genre. America is ostensibly the home of rugged individualism, but we tend to like our TV murders to be solved by wisecracking ensembles of work friends. (I have no idea what a show like NCIS says about the fundamental intelligibility of the ratings, much less the universe.) It’s in Europe, notionally a hive of squishy communitarians, that the detectives are brooding existential heroes gazing solo into the abyss.

That said, it’s possible that the most fascinating sad detective show of all is also the most American. Monk, which aired its last episode 10 years ago next month, starred Tony Shalhoub as a brilliant police detective psychologically shattered by the unsolved murder of his wife. The trauma he’d suffered left him unable to navigate the world without a full-time assistant. He solved crimes while experiencing a litany of intense phobias and emotional issues. In other words, the show, which debuted in 2002, anticipated key elements of many of the sad detective dramas that came after it. But where those shows are almost unrelentingly grim, Monk plays as an elegant, almost Poirot-ian comedy. Where those shows are set in gritty urban streetscapes and blizzard-prone border towns, Monk takes place in a cheery San Francisco. Where those shows feature gruesome violence and vast conspiracies, the murders and murderers on Monk tend to be sillier, more low-stakes, and more tonally absurd.

I have a sense that not many people are watching or thinking about Monk right now, which is too bad. Partly because it’s a really good show, sweet and well-acted and formally polished, and partly because it’s always fascinating when the parody of a genre comes into being before the genre itself has fully formed. Mainly, though, it’s because Monk seems so well-suited to a culture in which memes are sometimes the only weapon against despair. It’s a witty farce about the experience of psychological trauma, a comedy about an obsessive-compulsive problem-solver’s experience of total epistemic collapse. What could be more perfect for the internet in 2019?