I want to recommend pilot the pilot episode of Rita because there’s so much to learn from the fantastic writing on this show.
Rita is an award-winning TV series from Denmark created by Christian Torpe about a school teacher named Rita Madsen who is a difficult woman (of the kind we don’t see enough of in American TV). She is prickly, headstrong, and difficult; she does her own thing and isn’t hobbled by a compulsion to be “nice” or make things easy for other people; and, most of all, she is interesting.
Why Writers Should Watch Rita
If you write narrative fiction for any medium, not just TV, I can’t recommend Rita highly enough.
(I’m going to a do a little dance of trying to discuss the show without revealing any spoilers, in the hopes you’ll watch it yourself, but feel free to write as may spoilers as you want in the comments.)
Great Characters: The characters in Rita are individual, quirky, multifaceted, and often surprising, very much not hoary old stock characters (at least by my non-Danish standards; Danish TV viewers are welcome to correct me if I’m wrong). I especially love that the title character is difficult, flawed, and not a door mat: she’s a wonderful antidote to the American tendency to water down female characters in TV and film into being fungible Stepford Wives in the name of “sympathetic characters” and “likeability”. The American TV character most like Rita that I can think of is Mary Shannon, the strong-headed U.S. Marshall main character of the Witness Protection Program crime drama In Plain Sight created by David Maples. (Notice how both of these shows were created by men? Despite rumors to the contrary, it’s perfectly possible for men to write great women characters.)
Specificity: This show doesn’t aim for a bland universality: it’s grounded in the specificity of Denmark. Two great specific choices that stuck out in the pilot for me (this shouldn’t spoil anything for you) were the troll dolls and the aspiring bard.RITA is a master class in set-ups and pay-offs Click To Tweet
Set-ups and Pay-offs: We haven’t talked about set-ups and pay-offs here yet but I’ll get to them, I promise. In the meantime, if the idea of set-ups and pay-offs are already part of your writing framework, drop what you’re doing and watch this show. Rita is a master class in set-ups and pay-offs. For example, here is a moment of genius around the 3/4 mark in the pilot (I’m guessing the timing; I didn’t think to check the time stamp when I was watching it) that involves a “wave”–I don’t want to say more and spoil it for you, but if you watch the pilot you’ll know exactly the moment I mean. That little moment pays off a chain of set-ups and pay-offs that runs throughout the episode and eventually pays off yet again in the final scene. When you watch it, pause at the wave and back track all of the beats it took to get there: they’re like clockwork. I can’t recommend the pilot to writers strongly enough on the basis of that moment alone.
Who Will Enjoy Rita
If you’re a fan of Sally Wainwright’s UK TV shows, or if you’re enjoyed the American show In Plain Sight, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy watching Rita.
Where to Watch
Rita is available through Netflix in the US, the UK, and France. Season Three is also about to air on Danish TV. If you’re aware of other (legal!) ways to view it, especially in other regions, please share in the comments.
What did you think of Rita?
I’m struggling to find the right word to describe Rita and for the moment I’m going to settle on “raunchy”: I found it much rawer and raunchier that most mainstream American TV, or the British TV that I’m familiar with. (Okay, it’s not quite as raw as the British series Misfits, but it trends in that direction.) It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But, regardless of how you respond to Rita subjectively, I would love to hear what you think, objectively, about the writing. If you have access to the pilot episode, I hope you’ll watch it and get back to me.