Scandinavian crime dramas getting you down? Oh, they’re good, no doubt. But Wallander, The Bridge, The Killing; all of these are as miserable as their constantly overcast weather. How about some laughs while walking through all of those tombstones? Maybe something with a more chocolatey or waffley flavour? Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, The Out-Laws. Belgium’s attempt to spread a little sunshine at the funeral.
Once upon a time, there were five sisters. Eva, Veerle, Birgit, Rebekka and Goedele. They lost their parents at a young age and it was up to Eva to look after them. One day, Goedele married a right prick, and all the sisters called him so. Behind his wife’s back of course. He was a prick because he was a selfish git, a cruel prankster and he would publically berate his wife for what he perceived as her failings. Keeping Goedele eternally under his shadow, he keeps her in what he thinks is her place, as a servant. Disturbingly, his pet name for her is ‘Mummy’.
One day, the sisters decide to kill ‘The Prick’. Killing is not as easy as it sounds, however. Their plans are dangerous and many people get caught in the crossfire. After he finally perishes, apparently in an accident, two insurance investigators, a pair of brothers who have inherited the business from their fraudster father, investigate the widow’s claim, much to the dismay of the four guilty-looking sisters. The plot switches back and forth between before and after the funeral, when the sisters are trying to untangle themselves from a web of deception, lies and betrayal.
It works really well as a structure for the series to follow. The brother’s investigation is always posing questions, dropping hints and foreshadowing tragedy. The questions get you engaged in the episode until all the answers are revealed. The Prick’s method of demise, kept a deliberate secret until the very end of the series, is an especially good example of this show’s use of mystery taken to a satisfying and shocking conclusion. The kind of thing that makes you want to watch the whole series again.
With all this dread, the tension they rack up is palpable. Fortunately, there is plenty of release for that tension in the series’ signature comedic exploits. The Out-Laws is terrifyingly funny. The opening credits are a great example of this, one of the best examples of a credit sequence explaining the tone of the series since Dexter. It is a showcase of photographic embroidery. A technique to add some bright and cheery colour to a medium that can be a stark portrayal of the mundane. Here, it is used in that exact same way, except the underlying tone behind all of the cute and fluffy knitting is one of deadly intent. This combination of the merry and the macabre makes The Out-Laws play out like a Christmas card which you open to find the choir has been slaughtered.
Now, I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about the state of Belgian drama, but I can only assume that this series was written specifically to get the five best actresses in Belgium in one programme. Eva, the eldest is competing with her unwanted brother-in-law for a promotion. She carries a quiet intensity to her and an authority that is never in question, sort of a Belgian version of Paulie from Goodfellas, only I don’t remember his vulnerability ever breaking my heart. Veerle is the most normal of the four budding murderesses, but that makes her extra-marital affair that much more scintillating. A hardworking nurse, wife and mother on the verge of self-discovery, her exploits make us all yearn for a fresh start.
Brigit, or ‘Bibi’ as the others call her, is a natural badass, made even more intimidating by her Elle Driver looking eyepatch. She is a no-nonsense doer who does not take fools gladly. This often puts her in conflict with the bohemian Bekka, who’s carelessness makes her accident-prone. She also just has a run of understandable bad luck which makes Bibi’s harsh criticism of her that much harder to swallow. When Bibi starts to get in Bekka’s face towards the end of the season you want to jump in and defend her.
Bekka also finds her luck lacking in her choice of men. She starts a romance with someone she believes to be an undertaker, only to find out later it is one of the insurance investigators. Bekka has a free-spirited attitude that makes her the most endearing sister. If you’ve ever been called useless (and god knows I have, although it’s been mostly myself screaming it in the mirror) then you will find plenty to relate to. And despite her romance being so forbidden, it’s just adorable to see her break down in tears over such an impossible situation, only she could find herself in.
But the star of the show is Inge Paulussen who plays the put-upon wife of ‘Das Kloot’ (The Prick). Just seeing her have to swallow her husband’s criticism with grace is difficult to watch. You can see her contain it, but you can also see it bubble underneath the surface. It is a deep and layered performance that puts you completely on the side of the murderous conspirators. If she couldn’t deliver the goods here then you would simply be disgusted by the actions of her sisters.
The Prick himself plays the role with relish. Like a true manipulator, he’s only truly terrible when behind closed doors, revealing his true nature when he thinks no one is looking, and justifying taking out his frustration for his own inadequacies on Goedele by using twisted righteous moralising.
The Out-Laws is one of the best and most complex family dramas I’ve ever seen. The sisters weave a tragic tapestry to rival the Sisters of Fate in Greek myth. Textured, layered, dripping with malicious and often hilarious irony, brazenly un-PC, with characters you can project yourself onto, The Out-Laws is perhaps the most potent combination of charming and vicious I’ve ever seen.
Dir: Nathalie Basteyns, Kaat Beels
Scr: Malin-Sarah Gozin, Bert Van Dael
Starring: Barbara Sarafian, Kristine Van Pellicom, Ruth Becquart, Maaike Neuville, Inge Paulussen, Dirk Roofthooft, Geert Van Rampelberg, Robbie Cleiren
Music: Kieran Klaassen
Number of Episodes: 10
Episode Runtime: 43mins
The Out-Laws is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday