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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

JULY 13, 1998:  We put up with a lot of crap on television. We even convince ourselves that some of it is less crappy than the rest, that Veronica's Closet or Friends or The Drew Carey Show is classy entertainment just because it's marginally smarter than America's Funniest Home Videos. But TV shows don't have to be stupid and formulaic, any more than movies do.

For evidence, check out The Kingdom, a stylish, spooky, and sometimes silly Danish TV series about a haunted hospital. The writer-director behind the project is the metaphysical prankster Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Zentropa), who's shaping up as one of the most beguiling filmmakers of the decade. The two-cassette video package available right now contains only the first four episodes of the 13-part series; the next four are currently in theatrical release and should make it to the video shelves in the next year. Part of the fun of the show is its labyrinthine plot, so I won't give away much. But the characters include a megalomaniacal Swedish surgeon who may have committed a horrible mistake during a surgery; a spirit-chasing old woman who keeps getting herself admitted to the hospital so she can hold séances there; a doctor who's pregnant with a child that seems to be growing abnormally fast; and a transparent little girl who appears in elevator shafts and operating rooms, tinkling a small bell. The Kingdom has the grainy hand-held look of shows like NYPD Blue, which contrasts nicely with its fantastical subject matter. One warning: The final scene in this first installment is fairly grotesque. Be prepared.

The most obvious reference point for The Kingdom is David Lynch's Twin Peaks, another TV series made by a talented, visionary movie director. The first eight episodes of the show, all of which are available on video, still constitute one of the best things ever produced for American commercial television. Sure, Lynch couldn't sustain the show's mixture of mysticism, comedy, and horror. Sure, the "solutions" ultimately offered to the mysteries were incoherent and unsatisfactory. The point of Twin Peaks was to show you could take all the formula trappings of series television and make something original, daring, and subversive.

More down to earth than either of the above series are the Prime Suspect shows produced for British TV. Helen Mirren has the role of her lifetime as detective Jane Tennison, a hard-edged career woman dealing with sexism inside the London police department and serial killers outside it. The first four-part series is the best, although all of them are pretty good. With their unscrubbed look and sometimes brutal crimes, the shows are grittier and smarter than anything on American TV.


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