Screen Grab: A big sting in the small tale of Undercover’s confined setting

Don’t look now, but the low countries are getting the world high — and not on weed. By some estimates, ecstasy and methamphetamine production in the Netherlands is worth about €18-billion a year — more than the revenue of Philips, the country’s giant technology conglomerate. 

And in Belgium’s rural Limburg province, bordering the Dutch drug-cooking heartland of Brabant, the forests and farms are rife with hidden laboratories. The resulting tide of pills floods out to every continent and the by-products are seas of laundered cash and regular gobbets of internecine bloodshed.

That’s the backdrop to Undercover, an absorbing Dutch-Belgian crime series on Netflix, about a sting operation targeting Ferry Bouman (Frank Lammers), a slovenly Dutch druglord who spends weekends in a bungalow on a Belgian campsite. 

Two agents, Bob Lemmens (Tom Waes) and Kim de Rooij (Anna Drijver), are assigned to settle on the campsite, infiltrate Ferry’s social circle and find the evidence to shut down his racket. The pair pretend to be a couple, which deepens the hazards of their simulation. They soon identify Ferry’s lonely wife Danielle (Elize Schaap) as the soft underbelly of the operation. Cue cynical manipulation, profound regret and all that lovely stuff.

The undercover assignment is a surefire filmic engine of inner and external conflict: if the two are any good, they become genuinely close to their targets, and soon get torn between competing moral imperatives. Betray the human criminal or betray the inhuman force of the law? And anyone who has ever suffered from impostor syndrome can get emotionally involved in an infiltrator’s slowly ratcheting fear of exposure. Donnie Brasco and The Departed are the high-water marks of the genre, and Undercover is not in that league. But it’s an assured and muscular show, digging a dark niche and dragging us in.

What it gets particularly right is the smallness of its scale: most of the action happens on the cramped stage of a few holiday homes. Such confined settings have often made for weapons-grade storytelling — from the deck of the Pequod in Moby Dick to the Stanley Hotel in The Shining. When the story world is tiny or isolated, the narrative pressure builds and the action gets huge. The spatial constraint adds creative voltage in the same way a formal constraint does — a great haiku or sonnet can be perversely easier to write than a great piece of free verse.

This effect may also explain why Nordic noir has travelled so well over the past decade. It intensifies the disorder of crime by using a frame of systemic order. In the placidly regulated world of real-life Scandinavia, an eruption of fictional violence wields a percussive potency by sheer force of contrast. So we pay attention. Take the extreme case of Iceland, a nation of 300 000 souls and the scene of all of three murders a year, which somehow gave us Trapped, one of the finest murder mystery shows ever made.

 If we happen to be looking at Nordic noir from catastrophically blood-soaked societies such as South Africa, such attention can amount to a strange kind of escapism; an addiction to the cosy spectacle of distant and improbable violence. We can handle the blow because it’s not too close to the bone. It’s possible that a similar emotional insulation is at work even for Danish or Icelandic viewers; the killings are so outlandish as to be digestible, even when consumed at the scene of the crime.

Even so, where is the noir masterpiece of South African TV? Why can’t we plug into the creative mains of our own pain? Maybe the lack of focus — and restraint — is the problem. Recent local thrillers have tended to go large, spatially and emotionally: the temptation is always to burden the story at hand with the oppressive psychological wreckage of the whole country. 

The new M-Net production Reyka, is propulsive but overwrought: the show’s criminal-profiler heroine, the intense and emotionally damaged Reyka Gama (Kim Engelbrecht) echoes Saga Noren, the autistic sleuth in The Bridge. But Reyka lacks Saga’s leavening comic appeal. Keeping it funny is just as valuable a formal challenge as keeping it small, even when the crime itself is no joke.

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Carlos Amato
Carlos Amato is an editorial cartoonist, writer and illustrator living in Johannesburg, with a focus on sport, culture and politics. He has degrees in literature and animation, used to edit the ‘Sunday Times Lifestyle’ magazine and is the author of ‘Wayde van Niekerk: Road to Glory’ (Jonathan Ball, 2018).

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