Zlatko Crnogorac, Ex Art Producer: Hyperproduction of Serbian feature series

If my impression is correct, last year 38 series were broadcast for the first time on TV stations that have national broadcasting frequencies and on cable, as well as post festum following the pre-premiere on Telekom’s channel Superstar.

If television production or feature series, as a global dominant narrative of a required reading list, were one of the GDP (gross domestic product) parameters then Serbia would have all the reasons to be satisfied with that primacy. On the other hand, apart from the Anglo-Saxon-American and British repertoire that forms the backbone of the content on the HBO platforms such as Netflix and others, in the decade behind us, Sweden, Denmark and Finland emerged as a third important player. The hypothetical question is whether Serbia is the new Scandinavia in the sense of this possible conditionality.

Zlatko Crnogorac, Ex Art Producer
Zlatko Crnogorac, Ex Art Producer

The 2021 autumn TV schedule, i.e. the second half of the hyper-production of the new Serbian feature series, brought a genre step forward from classic crime to the subgenre of oneiric and esoteric. As many as five series, viewed in parallel, were based on similar postulates, namely, the influence of supernatural elements in the thriller plot, the constantly present resentment of the former state security and the Scandinavian model of strong traumatic introspection of the main characters – detectives. Finally, instead of the so-called “sequel – prequel” of multi-seasonal introduction and development of the storyline, the parallel unfolding of timelines seems to hinder the final perception of motives and denouement as seen in the series ‘Beležnica Profesora Miškovića’, ‘Kljun’, ‘Pevačica’, ‘Crna Svadba’, ‘Dug Moru 2’, as well as in ‘Kalkanski Krugovi’, which aired early last year.                                 

‘Beležnica Profesora Miškovića’ (Professor Mišković’s Notebook) is a summary of mythomania and a combination of historical academic adventure and endemic propensity for conspiracy theories. It’s something between ‘The Librarian’ or ‘National Treasure’ and the domestic geopolitical mystification of the importance of the Balkans’ position, the complex of the God-given nation and the myth of Tesla. It is some kind of supranational entity similar to those from Bond’s films that is trying to get hold of the secrets of the time gates naively opposed by the former Yugoslav state security and today’s trio of enthusiasts led by Momčilo Otašević, a Montenegrin-Croatian actor.

‘Pevačica’ (The Singer), aired on the Pink TV, was announced as a dramaturgical unfolding of an end-of-the-decade police mystery – who killed the Zvezde Granda contestant, Jelena Marjanović in Borča? The problem with the reception of this series lies in the broadcasting vehicle and the casting – namely, the celebrity choice of the main heroine and the spent casting from the film ‘Dara iz Jasenovca’. Milica Pavlović, who is a real-life singer, failed to live up to the role, but because of the discrepancy between the uncertain interpretation and the role of an unsympathetic-unpromising character, she really had to be ‘killed’ here. ‘Pevačica’ is rife in superstition by introducing occult iconography of white and black wizardry while entertainment glamour and pop vanity paled into the background, with a vague and tense epilogue – who is the killer and who is connected to whom!?

‘Kljun’ (The Beak) is one of the very few United Media series that pretended to be different and better, by demetropolizing the storyline from Belgrade to the scenically and anthropologically cinematic town of Subotica. The story with a typological premise recognizable from Bron-Broen /True Detective, is localized in a psychological and police tandem. However, the so-called transcendence of the main character in which she and her daughter can predict the future, introducing such a subgenre, weighed heavy on the classic thriller, so the end result was a psychodrama of double trauma of two childhoods, similar to ‘Stranger Things’. Back in the day, there was a military security service that tried to exploit children and prevent certain events from happening, but now it has re-emerged as a kind of fictitious evil entity – an agency that recruits perpetrators and generates crime. The children of that time are opposed parties. However, the localization of current social paradigms (football hooligan phalanxes, reality shows, migrants) was too great of a challenge in both the factual and artistic sense.

‘Crna Svadba’ (The Black Wedding), produced by Firefly, otherwise successful producers of probably the best series last year – ‘Porodica’ (Family), had an enviable number of fans, left a good impression and entered colloquial jargon. The tandem of producers started from the infamous mass crime committed in the village of Jabukovac in 2007 when N.R. killed 9 of his neighbours. The reason for the mass murder was embellished with fiction about Vlach magic as authentic domestic voodoo mysticism. In such a template, two parallel storylines – one of a mass murderer from 1976 and the current one – both possessed by paranormal phenomena, are done strikingly well but the main opposing characters – a BIA inspector and mother of a child targeted as a medium of black magic – failed to live up to the storyline.

The series reaches its climax in the eighth episode, but the two episodes that followed were an anticlimax, as an additional outcome in the admittedly bold introduction of the Serbian Orthodox Church into the story as an institution, and not just a mere apology. However, the tentative end left the confused viewer in the deposit of doubt, which leaves enough room for the second season, an increasingly frequent occurrence of Telekom’s so-called television extortion.

After the first season that had a mild reception with the viewers, ‘Dug Moru 2’ (Sea Dues 2) migrated to B92, the only TV station with a national broadcasting frequency that had free weekend primetime slots to broadcast it. At the same time, this is the only series that was completely shot in Montenegro in the last few years, under a pretence of showing this neighbouring country which we often appropriate in the light of its private dysfunction beyond the expected comedy and scenery related to tourism and the sea. Despite the extraordinary depiction of the permanent atmosphere of depression and the environment of transition, such personal and social dramaturgy of this series was handicapped by the initial mythological plot, which led to it being even more unrelatable for the audiences.

On the other side of the dominant national dramaturgical framework is the epoch, i.e. historical fiction and so-called non-fiction contained in the series ‘Porodica’ (Family) and ‘Aleksandar od Jugoslavije’ (Alexander of Yugoslavia), aired in the spring, followed by the series from the last autumn – ‘Vreme Zla’ (Time of Evil’), ‘Nečista Krv’ (Impure Blood) and ‘Jovanka Broz i Tajne Službe’ (Jovanka Broz and Secret Services) – but also the inevitable documentary series ‘NDH’, aired on Croatian television, as probably the best series of the year.

The film adaptation of Dobrica Ćosić’s trilogy, ‘Vreme Zla’, that consists of novels ‘Vernik’ (The Believer), ‘Grešnik’ (The Sinner) and ‘Otpadnik’ (The Apostate), looked promising just like the series ‘Koreni’ (The Roots), depicting the story about the life of Adjim Katić, which aired on RTS. Goran Šušljik, another successful actor/producer, transferred the project to United Media – Nova S, opportunely misassessing the fact that TV was already oversaturated with the First World War discourse while skipping the middle phase – ‘Vreme Smrti’ (Time of Death). Such an omitted order will turn out to be a moment of misunderstanding of the basic storyline about how the Serbian society in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes covered the road from the loss of one-third of the population in the Great War to absolute decadence and collapse at the dawn of World War II. The series is in a dialectical conflict, portraying two sets of values rather than two timelines. It was politically and ideologically embodied in the paraphrase of the history of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, with passages of real historical figures.

There is also another, melodramatic, love triangle between the three main characters. The story and images oscillate from an extraordinary atmosphere of scenery and costumes, similar to that in ‘Downton Abbey’, to unnecessary banality. The challenge for the series was that its theme was recognizable only to older viewers at the unattainable standards of the Yugoslav film industry and completely foreign to new generations. This is the impression in the deficit of insufficient fiction about the short period of Serbian and Yugoslav civil society and the first half of the 20th century, despite the film’s fascination with the Montevideo era all the way to Dragan Bjelogrlić’s ‘Senke nad Balkanom’ (Balkan Shadows).

Riding on the global biopic trend (Jackie O, Spencer) about rulers’ wives, and parallel with the film ‘Toma’, RTS aired an excellent semi-documentary series called ‘Jovanka Broz i Tajne Službe’. Former military security general Svetko Kovač, as a screenwriter, already had a solid debut with ‘Jugoslovenske Tajne Službe’ (The Yugoslav Secret Service). In this kind of spinoff about the life and controversy of the first lady of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Tito’s widow in a clinch with the then state/political nomenclature for his legacy, through the process of dramatization, there is the chronological story about the Yugoslav military leadership for the first time. Moreover, the authentic testimonies of the timeless but vital centenarian General Ivan Mišković-Brko are a first-class, captured document about time and people that still intrigue the average viewer/reader stuck in Yugoslav nostalgia and with some empathy for Jovanka, the last wife of Josip Broz, at a critical moment of her significant influence.

Last but not least, I would like to mention the series ‘NDH’, created by the Croatian historian Hrvoje Klasnić aired on the Croatian Radio-Television, that the MTS subscribers cannot watch which is an indescribable handicap. The series is shocking considering its level of authenticity, recently discovered recordings in the Croatian Film Archive and the cathartic context and undivided judgment of Croatian and Serbian historians. This series is an ideological deconstruction of a historical mentality, a clash of the complexes of Zagreb’s suburbia and unreasonable religious behaviour of the rural Dinaric population, which this state temporality represented. It was not mere fascism per se, but a factual inversion of the fable of that infamous history, embodied in the once discreet fictional Yugoslav anticipations such were the series ‘Kuda Idu Divlje Svinje’ and ‘Nepokoreni Grad’. The fact that the series was tucked away in the bunker for five years, and was preceded by the premiere of the film ‘Dnevnik Diane Budisavljević’ (Diana Budisavljevic’s Diary), failed to achieve the effect that the Holocaust series once had in Germany, with some of the German viewers calling it ‘chamomile mild’. However, ‘NDH’ is a documentary histopathology of Croatia in the period from 1941 to 1945, with Serbia yet to make such a series following the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

If my impression is correct, last year 38 series were broadcast for the first time on TV stations that have national broadcasting frequencies and on cable, as well as post festum following the pre-premiere on Telekom’s channel Superstar. The New Year’s summary is dominated by the impressions from the second seasons of the anthropological crime series ‘Besa 2’ and a solid reception of the series of epochs about the temporal and spatial border period of Serbia and the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries called ‘Nečista Krv’ based on the book written by Bora Stanković. In January and February, we saw the fifth season of the police chronicles of the capital ‘Ubice Mog Oca 5’ (My Father’s Killers 5) and the first Croatian-Serbian feature co-production which was aired simultaneously on two state TV stations, the series ‘Područje bez Signala’, written by Dalibor Matanić and Robert Perišić. This is an emotional, unpretentious narrative about the ex-Yugoslav province that suffers from the post-war economic transition. Although 2022 has only just begun, I can confidently say that this is the best series of the year.

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