What I’m Watching: Rita 6 comments

Mille Dinesen as the title character in the Danish TV series 'Rita', sitting in a graffiti-covered bathroom stall, smoking

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.)

Quality: The writing, at least in the pilot, is in the same league with Sally Wainwright’s shows Happy Valley and Last Tango in Halifax. (That’s some of the highest praise I can give to TV writing.)

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.

6 thoughts on “What I’m Watching: Rita

  • Sabina Giado

    I watched the show, Shaula, based only on your recco. I can’t see I agree with you.

    Here are my initial thoughts (HUGE spoiler alerts for Season 1 and 2):
    She’s skinny.
    Wears the same kind of clothes everyday and looks fantastic in it.
    Smokes in the bathroom.
    A role model for kids – a ‘bad’ role model (uses bad language, exposes them to adult concepts) – but perhaps an inspiring one.
    Very direct always tells the truth to everyone else – other than herself.
    Makes people feel like she doesn’t need them – especially her family – but she does.

    Introduces three overarching arc (as it’s an ensemble piece)
    How will Rita handle her love for her son’s future father-in-law?
    How will Jeppe handle his homosexuality?
    And how will Molly handle her heartbreak?
    Problems basically for them to handle.

    Why did I not like Rita?
    I was expecting a comedy and got a drama.
    I was bored with her sexual exploits.
    I found her stupid decisions grating. Not at all likeable or sympathetic.
    Maybe I am very conservative. I do not find sexual promiscuity cute.
    And Hjordis was so obviously the comic relief. Very grating. Very fat-shaming too – portly and awkward (obviously).
    And I don’t think Rasmus is right for her at all. Another dumb decision in worship of some ideal of adulthood.
    Tom was right for her. Somehow I’m okay with her making a ‘selfish’ decision – or one she thought of as selfish. Yes. It might have ruined her relationship with her son and his family. And perhaps her other children as well. But she might have been happy. Actually that might have been not so bad a decision – not getting with Tom that is.
    Just found it boring and not amusing really.

    • Shaula Evans Post author

      I’m sure you’re right that viewers with conservative tastes may not enjoy the show. As I said. I don’t think the show is for everyone. I also feel like the show really took off after the pilot–once it was past the burden of the initial world building and establishing the premise, it comes into its own.

      Hjørdis is a fantastic character and the way she grows and develops through the course of the series is brilliant: there’s much more to her than her brief appearnce in the pilot indiciates. She winds up with her own four-part mini series (called “Hjørdis“), about bullying at the school (which the character of Rita isn’t part of), with a wonderfully diverse cast. Lise Baastrup who plays Hjørdis is such a talented actress: I was really happy to see her shine in a lead role.

      I’m sorry you’ didn’t enjoy it: I didn’t mean to give you a bad recommendation. To be fair, my goal in writing about it here wasn’t to say that I thought all of you would subjectively like it (I don’t), but that if you can objectively assess the writing (not the story, but the mechanics of the story construction), there’s a lot to learn from. Sometimes our subjective reactions to a show can be so strong that there’s not much room left for objective analysis. It’s hard to anticipate how someone else will react to a work, but again, I apologize for the bad steer. (I probably wouldn’t have recommended this one to you personally!)

      PS Please drop me a note sometime and let me know you’re doing. I miss you!

    • Alex

      Completely, whole-heartedly disagree.

      Especially the part about Hjørdis. The actress is a well known Danish comedic actress. Her weight is never an issue in the show, ever – so what you have there is your own (and arguably understandable) disgruntled notions of someone who is heavier and funny. She’s got a heart of gold and is endearing first and foremost. She is hilarious – but then so is Rita, just in a sardonic, deadpan way. Just because she is heavy, she shouldn’t get to play that role? The role as I understood it from Torbe’s interview was given to the actress because she was simply good at it.

      One of the shining beacons of this show is the coming of age relationship her youngest son Jeppe has with boyfriends, school, his mother and his absent father. It’s truly a wonderful branch off from Rita and the goings on within the school. I also love how frustrated Scandi liberalism and maturity towards relationships, affairs, sex, marriage etc affects me. So many incidents have arisen and been delt not in ridiculous dramatic ways, but realistic yet calm approaches.

      It’s refreshing to see how and why Scandinavians for the most part are some of the happiest people on this planet – nothing is overtly constrained, and when shit does hit the fan, they more or less seem to shrug it off and move on – which can be a hard pill to swallow if you’ve been conditioned to think that revenge is the best form of justification and resolution.

      Everything you didn’t like from watching the pilot, actually has been disproven since. Such a shame too. Brilliant show, with a mix of drama and comedy. Much like Teachers (UK show), Bad Education (UK show) and House MD.

      • Shaula Evans

        Hi, Alex. Thank you for commenting.

        I adored the character of Jeppe and his storyline, too.

        You’re correct of course that Sabina’s fears for the character of Hjørdis don’t play out as the season develops, but I also understand where those fears stem from: if this was an American TV program, Hjørdis would have been treated badly and made the butt of jokes.

        One of the reasons I love watching TV and films from a range of countries is that what one does poorly, another will often get right–reminding me as a writer that there are better ways of writing and storytelling out there and raising my standards.

        Fortunately, there’s room for us to all like different things. ;)

  • Mare

    I found Rita one of those shows that was very addictive. Which is probably one of the markers for good TV writing. (It doesn’t help that I lived in Denmark for a while & used to speak Danish.) As a character she’s an angel/devil which plays into peoples fears and desires. It’s also a bit like looking at platypus–like how do all those qualities fit together exactly? I also loved how her son’s sexual orientaion was handled–basically as a part of life, which it is. Lastly, I liked how the show gets a little meta, maybe even breaking the fourth wall a bit at certain instances. One of the scenes I laughed hardest at involves one of those moments of metacommentary in the 3rd season when the actress who plays Hjordis lets her true comedic skills leak out a bit. :) Don’t want to spoil the moment for anyone who’s working their way through the series.

    • Shaula Evans Post author

      Hi, Mare. Thank you for jumping into the comments here.

      > It’s also a bit like looking at platypus–like how do all those qualities fit together exactly?

      Yes! That is the perfect description.

      Re: Hordis’s big reveal in Season Three: Wasn’t it fantastic? I marvel at Christian Torpe’s writing.

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