CineSavant Column

Tuesday March 12, 2024


The Column has something different today, a round-up review, of sorts. Here’s a word on several Detective and Crime TV series we’ve been watching on disc, mostly sourced from Kino- distributed disc companies.

 Kino released a boxed set Blu-ray of the first seven seasons of Columbo TV shows last December, which was the first group of detective discs we took a dive into. We didn’t watch the show regularly when it was new and had to be reminded that it was really a TV movie series that rotated with other shows. That explains why seven whole seasons’ worth fit on five discs.

Columbo was of course dominated by Peter Falk’s winning personality, and audiences all but insisted that he keep the same affectations and buzz words going, like excusing himself and but then reversing course, saying “Just one more thing.” After a few of the early shows, the format became maybe a little too predictable. But it really set the template for TV detectives.

 Several UK and European detective & crime shows are now in distribution through Kino in multi-disc DVD sets from a global streaming company called MHZ Networks. The first we saw was a French series called Mongeville, which ran from 2013 to 2021. The ‘detective’ is a retired judge, played by Francis Perrin, who uses his knowledge of the local scene to aid a female police inspector in solving crimes. It’s a bit like Columbo but with more continuing characters; Mongeville’s ‘cultured’ mysteries usually revolve around a wealthy family or a busy company. As is typical in these shows, if a guest star is a name one remembers from older film, chances are he or she is the guilty party. These shows are also really full-length TV movies; the first ‘season’ has only three episodes.

We were knocked out by the first season, and want to re-view it from scratch. The stories are adult and complex and not self-contained. Best of all, Mongeville’s main associate was the policewoman Axelle Ferrano, played by the very interesting Maria Mouté.

The big surprise came in the second season, which was rebooted in a different direction. The fascinating Mlle. Mouté was gone, and the new main contact for Mongeville became Gaëlle Bona’s Valentine Duteil, a more cheerful sidekick character. The shows settled into a more standard format and formula. The writing quality remained good, and we warmed to Bona’s personality. But somebody must have decided to lighten up the whole show.

All of the MHZ Networks- derived French discs are in French language only, with non-removable English subtitles.

 The second MHZ Networks series from France out on DVD is Magellan, which stars Jacques Spessier as Simon Magellan. an urbane inspector in a smaller French town who uses quiet professionalism to both solve crimes and to keep his young assistants in line. Magellan has two teenaged daughters, which also keeps him occupied sorting out domestic & romantic issues, etc..

Magellan ran from 2009 through 2021. Overall, it is almost as lightweight as the pleasant, interminable English show Midsomer Murders (which we didn’t watch on videodisc). The Magellan production company must be associated with the Mongeville people, as the detective and the judge get together in more than one episode.

 And of course there’s Kino Lorber’s ongoing Blu-ray release, season by season, of Tony Shalhoub’s very good TV series Monk. The HD discs look extremely good mastered to 4K. Favorite actor Shalhoub took on a risky concept, inventing a detective-consultant who’s afflicted with a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, with its accompanying phobias, etc. The show’s 8 seasons ran between 2002 and 2009.

The ‘gimmick’ of Monk’s psych issues never becomes tiresome thanks to good writing and, again, Shalhoub’s interpretation. Ted Levine is really good as the ‘understanding police captain.’  Instead of an invitation for jokes of questionable taste, the show did good by raising awareness of other people’s often very different life situations and behavior patterns.

Monk has a helper-assistant character, played very nicely in the first 3 seasons by Bitty Schram and for the balance of the series by Traylor Howard. Monk made us realize how habit-forming these shows can be … when Ms. Schram departed we were very disappointed, but in just a couple of episodes we’d forgotten what she was like. The same occurs in most of the shows we watch when key personnel are replaced. It’s Serial Television Amnesia.


We now steer away from contemporary detectives to a stunning Kino release that helped ease our COVID lockdown, the 3 seasons, on two disc sets, of the superb German series Babylon Berlin. It just made news lately when Netflix dropped it from their streaming lineup.

Babylon Berlin is a terrific crime / espionage / political corruption series set in 1929 Weimar Berlin. It recreates a hyped yet credible world from the past, that will especially enthuse students of the period. That alone makes it exotic fare, as average Americans know little about Weimar. The musical Cabaret is set in this rough time when the democratic government of Germany was crumbling, yielding to economic and political pressure even before the 1929 stock market crash. On-the-streets fighting between communists and the NSDAP, the rising Nazi party, was a common occurrence. Publicity calls the show neo-noir, but it actually took place in the cultural caldron from which a lot of noir-like philosophies arose — decadence next to poverty and disillusion.

The cast is sensational. The lead character is inspector Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a shell-shocked WW1 vet partly hooked on drugs, who comes to Berlin from the sticks to help unravel Internal Affairs- type corruption within the ranks. The main femme interest is Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) a survivor from the slums who works as a prostitute as well as a police stenographer, and wants to become an inspector herself.

The lavishly-produced show looks more expensive than most features; filmed on enormous sets and in real Berlin buildings that can still pass as Weimar. The intricate plots and subplots involve the era’s poly-amorous club scene (more interesting and more graphic than Cabaret), police preference for NSDAP rallies over Communist protests, an effort by White Russian spies to smuggle a trainload of gold into Germany, a conspiracy of fascist industrialists and angry Army officers preparing for a government coup, innumerable criminal scams involving drugs, nightclubs, and the Babelsberg film studio, where an out-of-fashion expressionist musical is being filmed with a creepy, Conrad Veidt-like star.

Rath and Ritter must deal with crooks, thugs, corrupt doctors, turncoat policemen, Fascist conspirators, an extremely lethal, cross-dressing Russian spy, and a lowly maid tricked into helping with a fiendish political assassination. The inclusion of all kinds of political and historical detail — so many older males still sporting 19th-century facial hair! — brings the era into glamorous, glorious focus. The show is pretty explicit sexually, too.

The art direction and titles are keyed into the style of German films of the late ’20s. We might see it again soon. We’re told that a Fourth season exists, which takes the (surviving) characters into the beginnings of the Nazi era. I don’t think it’s been released here on streaming or on disc — I considered springing for a Region B disc, but the price is steep and the still images I’ve seen take the imagery back into familiar territory — everybody suffering under the Nazis, etc..


The last show on the docket and the one we’re presently into is another MHZ Networks DVD set of a series produced in Denmark and Sweden: The Bridge: The Complete Series. It ran between 2011 and 2018.

We’re told that this is the hit that launched the ‘Nordic Noir genre,’ something I’ve avoided until now. It’s already been cloned-copied in several other countries and languages. It’s slick, stylish and its music is hypnotic. Most of the colors are subdued.

We’re presently in the second of four seasons and are still completely absorbed. The storytelling skill on display is excellent. Just like Babylon Berlin, it’s more engaging and exciting than any new feature film I’ve seen in the past ten years.

The first two shows see a highly skilled group of law enforcers trying to get a handle on complex, diabolical crimes that could only be masterminded by evil geniuses with extraordinary organizational powers, modern ‘Mabuse’ types. It’s not ridiculous because terrorism invites all manner of weird supercrimes, and it’s believable because the excellent plotting and down-to-earth characters make everything seem entirely credible. No NCIS idiocy here, with computers that dispense reams of collated information.

The first show gets the burly, very likable Danish detective Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) working with his Swedish counterpart Saga Norén (Sofia Helin). Saga is a remarkable characterization of someone partly on the autism spectrum. She often strikes people as unemotional, practically robotic. The outgoing, big-hearted Martin is fascinated by her attempts to be more ‘normal.’ The bridge of the title is an enormous span that joins the two countries. There’s a slight clash of language and attitude across this very open border, but it’s a model of civilized co-dependence. Remember that?

Part of the appeal of The Bridge, frankly, is the contrast between these Scandinavian countries and the U.S.A.  We seem positively prehistoric by comparison. Their infrastructure is well maintained, the roads are in repair, and social services are taken seriously. The trains look clean and safe enough to actually use. They surely have their own problems, but everything we see is superior.

The ‘high crimes’ in The Bridge are really well worked out. As in Babylon Berlin one must at first focus to keep the characters straight, but the payoffs are exceptional — it’s like a Mabuse thriller adapted for a new century, but in a very realistic style, with interesting, adult character relationships.

We’re only in the second season of The Bridge … we don’t binge, so I can see the fun lasting well into the summer.

Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson