Review: Heartless

Heartless is the first genre drama for teens produced for the Danish TV channel Kanal 5, and as such also their first original drama production ever. The supernatural series deals with anxiety and identification and other common teen themes.

Set at an oldfashionedheartless poster boarding school where girls were only allowed to study in recent years, Heartless follows two orphan teens, brother and sister, who try to find out about their mother. Clues have led them to the school, where they pretend to study while conducting investigations. They also have to deal with powerhungry co-students and not so pleasant school traditions, but their biggest challenge is that they are “suckers”; they need to suck energy from other people to stay alive. A bit like vampires, except they don’t need blood. In stead they put their lips against a victim’s lips and suck energy from them, like an industrial strength vacuum cleaner giving you a kiss. However, they are not alone in having strange and dangerous special abilities….

The 5-part miniseries has been specially designed to cater to the same segment that watches Vampire Diaries, Twilight and True Blood. The actors, the characters, the entire school setting, and the underlying themes seem very well adjusted to these audiences. In fact, the series feels a bit over the top in that regard. Everything is so much by the book that the creators must have flipped the book over and started from page one again, once they had exhausted all the clichées in Teen Genre Drama for Dummies, just to make sure they didn’t forget something. That is of course a problem. And what is worse; not only have we all read that book and seen in adapted to movies and TV before, but they also took another book, Danish TV Drama: Noir Edition, and layered those recepies on top of the already overdesigned base.

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Let me give examples: The actual story in the movie is not about teens going to school and having various problems. It’s not a “monster of the week” type of series, I’ll give them that. The story is about a brother and a sister who wants to find out about their background, their roots, their parents. That sounds commendable, but when Sofie and Sebastian repeatedly shout “we need to find out who we are!” the story is immediately reduced to the average confused teens who don’t understand the world, their puberty, their parents and why they need to get up at 7 in the morning to study because who needs knowledge when you can just google it. More or less what every teen supposedly is going through. As the writers struggled to find something that young viewers could identify with, and apparently failed, they chose the most basic of all teen troubles. This is reinforced by the side-story of sexuality; the two girls flirting and kissing are obvious attempts at zeroing in on a topic that young adults are concerned about (and maybe trying to add a little pizzazz). Had this been the 1970s, choosing these themes in a teen drama series would have been innovative. Today audiences demand a bit more. Maybe “more” is the suggested layer of rape; the energy-sucking procedure is a type of spiritual rape where the victim sometimes survives and lives on, and sometimes goes down in a blaze of fire if the sucker isn’t careful enough. Rape (or rather avoiding it) is important to discuss with teens, either in school or in TV drama, but when one of the girls who got date-raped voluntarily goes back to her molester, that entire premise falls through. What message does that send?

But all is not negative; a flashback story about Danish aristocracy and witch processes in the 17th century adds a slightly interesting backstory. While I find it hard to believe that the son of a nobleman could not make a peasant girl pregnant without getting her burned, it’s for the better like that because the witch burning scene was good. She was a good screamer! She screamed of pain, not fear!

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Have you watched the the Danish The Killing? Or The Bridge or Borgen or any other recent Danish drama series about serious things? They’re known for their dark images and dark themes, and is referred to as Nordic Noir. Heartless continues in that tradition; bleak, almost colourless images (they go with the colourless story) with lots of dust, brick walls, gravel and an old car. Colour grading and the visual representation of the characters’ state of mind can be useful techniques, even beautiful sometimes, but here it is overdone in a way that limits rather than expands. I’ll admit that the gothic atmosphere is better than setting the story at a brightly lit modern day urban high school.

One thing the writers did succeed in after all, was creating overly one-dimensional character sets. Throughout the series, all the male characters are either bullies or authoritative, and the females are either sweet or victims (including Sofie, the heroine). Good job! I really, really hope that is a reflection on the state of gender equality in the 1600s and that it mysteriously infected everyone at the boarding school as it lived on in the ancient walls, and not another script goof. The individual characters are fairly well written with ample depth and variety of emotions, motivations and triggers, but the extreme separation of gender roles overshadows that.

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The final nail in the coffin is of course the ending of the season’s last episode. Kanal 5 was quick to inform viewers that they had no plans for a second season, which only tells us that either was the seasonal finale handled very clumsily, or they did in fact have plans for a second season during production. It’s no secret that viewing figures fell heavily, from 112.000 for the first episode to 39.000 for the fourth, and that is akin to a kick in the balls for a channel like Kanal 5. Keep in mind, this was their first ever drama series – that says a lot about their audience. If they were unsure of the outcome, they could at least have wrapped the story up in a nice way. Thanks for nothing, Kanal 5. We have nothing left than trying to enjoy the good sides. The actors all do a great job. They manage to project nuances and personalities. I’ll let it slide that the characters are clichés, and as mentioned separated into two groups, but that’s the director’s fault and the actors perform well with what they are given. The show’s technical qualities are also pretty good, from (the few) special effects to set design and locations. Even if it is produced at a cost of around 240.000 euros per episode (which is low – Scandinavian TV drama range from 500.000 to 1 million euros per episode), production values are quite high. Perhaps a result of the small scope of the series. The story rarely unfolds outside the school, so filming must have been focused, with many set-ups per day.

I need to suck!

Apart from the above problems, Heartless may also have hit the market a few years too late. It was conceived at the height of the teen vampire craze, but pop culture moves fast and while Heartless is not technically about vampires, the feeling that thousands of viewers must have had was that of stale bread. The supernatural trend in young adult drama is not over, but Heartless is a combination of yesterday’s news and writers without a vision. I can also see how audiences might drop the series because it isn’t spectacular enough on a superficial level. The “sucking” is blood-free, for example, and visually there is nothing new at all here. It is highly commendable that these homegrown productions are made, and kudos to Kanal 5 for taking the risk, but genre productions need nerds behind the wheels, and Heartless seems to miss that in all its tailor-made glory.

Directed by Natasha Arthy and Mikkel Munch-Fals.

Rated 3 of 10.

Denmark, 2014.

This review is based on all 5 episodes, not only the 3 first which many other reviews were based on.

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