Shortlisted for the upcoming Independent Television and Film Festival Awards, Stockholm is a 7 episode dark comedy about the love that can blossom when being held prisoner in a basement.
There really isn’t any way to describe the central premise of Stockholm without it sounding uncomfortably creepy. Jessie is young woman who isn’t sure of her way and is losing patience in looking for love. So her life is understandably turned on its head when she gets shoved into the trunk of her car and thrown into the concrete prison of a serial killer: the Heartbreak Strangler (“they break his heart – he breaks their necks”). The series’ name derives from the well-known psychological condition known as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ whereby captive and captor begin to identify with each other.
Stockholm isn’t trying to be edgy or controversial with this plot line which, taken out of context, is the sort of set-up that could be plastered over some moral outrage piece. Believe me when I say that when you watch Stockholm there isn’t a single hint of it using what in reality would be a horrific situation for some kind of macabre kick. Rather, Stockholm uses the device of a forced closeness in order to fuel one of the oldest comedy fires: that of people stuck together in a single room and letting quality dialogue do all the work.
Stockholm is the creation of writer / director Scott Brown. Brown has previously directed drama in the form of Asylum (a ‘procedural’ show set in mental health institutions, currently hosted on Hulu) and is also the writer / director behind the Streamy Award nominated ’30 Rock meets Boogie Nights’ comedy, Blue Movies (for ‘best director’).
For even more of a contrast, we recently covered the Glee-parody musical web series Destroy The Alpha Gammas which was also directed by Brown. If DTAG was the work of a developing web series professional spreading his wings then Stockholm, filmed and released late last year for next to no money, showcase what happens when those wings are cramped into a soon to be outgrown box; acting as somewhat of a showreel or promo CV for what Brown is capable of. The production of Stockholm was an ultra-low budget affair. Almost all of the show is shot in one dingy little basement (which Brown ‘borrowed’ by finding an unoccupied suburban house and secretly filming inside) on a single camera set up. The cast is entirely made up of Danny (played by Zack Gold) and Jessie (played by Brittani Noel, who also had a small cameo in Blue Movies).
A show that is set in one small room will naturally live or die by the ability of the leads to carry the comedy. Good thing then that Noel and Gold are both stunningly superb. The emotional journey of Jessie through the 7 short episodes of Stockholm is skilfully imbued with complete believability. At first she’s terrified for her life. Later she becomes sullen and sarcastic towards the strange behaviour of her captor, and when she finds herself developing real feelings for him she acknowledges the ridiculousness of the situation before shrugging her shoulders and going for it.
Stockholm works much like the Showtime hit, Dexter (about a serial killer who specifically targets murderers) in that the show takes its potentially distasteful subject matter and gives it such strong character performances that we can be eased past the set-up and just enjoy the expertise on display. Noel’s role is hugely important in selling this to us, and she not only delivers, but shines.
Similarly, Gold kills it as the Heartbreak Strangler. He makes the character charismatic without detracting from the psychosis bubbling away just under the surface, but equally he doesn’t allow his performance to go all goggle-eyed crazy. Instead Gold’s Danny is a man whose dialogue could easily be placed in the mouth of any put upon love interest you’d care to name. He performs a poem to Jessie entitled, ‘Girl In The Basement Of My Heart’ and sets up a lovely dinner date for them to enjoy – even if he is using a huge cleaving knife for cutlery. He complains about how compromise should work in a relationship by citing the example, “I start putting the toilet seat down and you assume that I won’t murder you!” Every frustrated tick and snarl is tempered by almost clichéd relationship talk and the juxtaposition always falls on the right side of hilarious.
Once we are sold on these characters the setting for Stockholm provides a wealth of further comedy to enjoy. My personal favourite was the turning point for Jessie when she lambasts Danny for leaving her alone for days before seething “I think you’re stalking another woman!” at him. Jessie’s descent into atypical relationship dialogue spins the show into a deft twirl away from the psycho / prisoner route and instead it dances gleefully into the surreal; like when Danny and Jessie snuggle in front of slasher movies or play a doomed game of Pictionary even though it is apparent that their minds operate on different wave lengths.
Brown has clearly come along in leaps and bounds since the guerilla approach to production I talked about earlier. The constraints on Stockholm are also evident in that fact that it feels more like a single piece that has been roughly cut up in order to appeal to the short attention span generation. There are constant flashcards showing the amount of days that Jessie has been held captive which act as efficient enough scene breaks without the need to artificially manipulate the material into 7 episodes; staggering things to an unnecessary level in the process. Certainly the first and last episodes are almost completely pointless and ineffectual as stand alone affiars and would have been much better suited to an intro and outro of a longer piece. The kidnap / Stockholm Syndrome element clearly lent itself to a single three act structure, and come the climax of Episode 6 (‘The Day He Proposed’) I was on the edge of my seat as to which way things would turn out. As it turned out the chopped up feel of the episodes meant that the flatness of the ending was a bit of a disappointment for me; I would have preferred a braver finale – or maybe just a more surreal one; certainly a more fleshed out coda would have been preferential.
Although it arguably detracts from the comedy, full credit must also go to Brown for the direction of Stockholm because the cinematography has an experimental edge to it which elevates proceedings. Everything is shot with a clever mixture of horror and familiar; suspense and gooey-eyed wonder. One moment gives us a John Carpenter-esque close-up of a dirty swinging lightbulb and ominous creaking staircase, whilst the next could be the couple squabbling in a nicely decorated bedroom, not the cold cell of dank basement. This serves to again strike the balance just right: the horror and the ordinary complement each other and maintain a much-needed equilibrium. Come the danger-fuelled climax the very real tang of danger meant that I was much more hooked than had this been an out-and-out comedy because the preceding unsettling direction had given me no indication of whether the horror or comedy would win out.
Important salutes go to Chuck Graff who is credited with ‘original music’. The panic stabs of sound accentuate the slasher moments with each screech and lend a carefully measured disquiet into the mix. When this is combined with such classical pieces as Beethoven’s 5th Symphony opening each episode (and a truly terrifying and the guffaw-inducing use of the composer’s ‘An Ode To Joy’) it is clear to see that every aspect of Stockholm, from sound through to script, has been created with raw talent seeping into every bloodstained pore. Brown has clearly been growing with each web series he becomes involved in but even though Stockholm is a little rough around the edges (and more suited to one continuous piece) any intention to use it to showcase ability was certainly achieved
There is no mystery then as to why Stockholm has been shortlisted for an ITV award (the event will take place between September 26th and 28th), nor that was also nominated for a LA Weekly Web Award this year. With each episode averaging around 4 minutes you can watch the whole thing in around half an hour and I highly recommend that you do (indeed, watch it on the Stockholm website – link below – and you can enjoy each ‘episode’ streaming directly onto the next).
Stockholm has a Twitter account you can follow, a Facebook page you can like, a YouTube Channel you can subscribe to (which also has some great in character vlogs from Danny), or you can go check out the very pretty (although a little NSFW) Stockholm website. Lastly, there is Blip, for the ‘all-in-one’ viewing experience.