Sunday, April 12, 2015

Streaming tip: RITA, the must-see, Danish TV series about a memorable -- whew! -- teacher

Forget Our Miss Brooks. Forget Good-bye Mr. Chips. Forget Dead Poet's Society and Mr. Holland's Opus. Forget even the likes The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. In the annals of entertainment about school teachers, you will never have encountered anything quite like RITA, the Danish television series begun in 2012 and now available to stream via Netflix. In it (and I admit to having seen only the first four episodes, each lasting around 40 minutes), we meet Rita Madsen, a very attractive middle-aged woman who is simply terrific in the classroom but has some trouble family-wise, love-wise, any-wise whenever she leaves that class behind.

What makes Rita so memorable are a number of things, beginning with the Scandinavian openness about sexuality -- in all forms and venues (the bedroom, the kitchen, the office of the school principal: Mr. Conklin never offered anything like this). The Danes treat sex as an important part of life that deserves attention and understanding (and they don't underestimate its comic potential, either). And then there's that terrific performance given by star Mille Dinesen, whom we've seen previously (in Borgen, for instance) but who here has perhaps the role of her lifetime, of which she makes the most.

Created by Christian Torpe (who also wrote a number of the episodes), the series seems bent on being as much a drama as a comedy, and -- so far -- it manages to simultaneously do both genres proud. It's light, lively, and serious, too.

The Danish poster (top) should give you a fine sense of the character of Rita. She smokes -- which is a very bad thing -- yet the smoke rises to form a halo 'round her head. Talk about a conflicted, conflicting character: Rita's the real thing. And the series seems bent on not making her some spectacularly wonderful heroine. As good as she is with the kids, the has her own problems with her immediate family -- including a just-coming-out gay son, a daughter with self-image problems, and an estranged mother, played by the beautiful senior actress Lizbet Lundquist, below). The series shows us how, sometimes, those whose job it is to help others -- and who do this very well -- can't seem to keep their own house in order.

This constant tension between job and family and Rita's need to control and keep everything in line makes for some wonderfully comic and thoughtful situations. Also on hand is a fine supporting cast, including a delightful Lisa Baastrup (below) as the new teacher in town and Carsten Bjørnlund (at bottom) as the very hot principal. No one in the large cast is overdone with either good or bad qualities; consequently each exists as a surprisingly full character.

But it remains Rita, together with Ms Dinesen's crack performance, that gives the series its hook. Rita is as much a problem as she is a solution, and it's this tension that carries everything along. The show is alternately funny and scathing, sweet and sad -- and always somehow believable. This is quite an accomplishment, but one I fear that will shock and dismay viewers who cling to America's oft outmoded ideas on sex and sin, education and family values.

For anyone else, however, Rita is a breath of fresh air. You can catch it -- two full seasons' worth -- on Netflix streaming.


Monica Foshaug AK USA said...

More than knowledgeable, Rita is unique, poignant and awe inspiring. Great job. Each actor is so believable and perfectly cast. More than accolades. Bravo.

James van Maanen said...

I completely agree with you, Monica -- thanks for posting!