Sometimes things can be just fun even if, possibly they’re aiming for a higher brow than that. And sometimes you might find yourself watching because the subtitles lend a veneer of smarts that the programme itself doesn’t really have. And, in the end, you might have to admit that that programme you watched all ten episodes of really didn’t make any sense at all but that the ride was more than enjoyable – and, at times, emotional – enough to compensate. Such was Cordon, one of BBC Four’s most recent “Saturday night is subtitles night” offerings.
Let’s get the plot out of the way nice and quickly. A chunk of Antwerp is cordoned off (the Flemish for this being the oft-repeated “cordon sanitaire” intoned at the start) because of a virus of apparently unknown origin that has the potential to wipe out anyone who comes within snot range of a sufferer. It can’t survive in dead people though – which is just as well as there are a lot of them very quickly. Cordon thus follows a bunch of people inside the cordon and a handful outside. They range from the cheerfully wacky – the sweet rat-breeding couple Bert and Micheline for example – to the downright disturbed, such as the escaped convicts who ‘guard’ the supplies dumped in to keep the populace fed. You might recognise one of those convicts from such equally batshit loopy Flemish fare as Salamander. And over ten episodes a lot of those people died, whilst the programme never really settled in to being about anything.
At times it was a paranoid dystopia as maybe the virus was released by an all-knowing mulit-state operation. At times it was like a zombie film without the undead as ‘survivors’ strode threw rubbish strewn streets looking for food. But what let both these down was that the politics was naive and the science dumb. When the supposed experts don’t even pretend to use technical terms you’re left with that Mitchell & Webb sketch where the writers don’t do research. When Lex and his journo contact don’t have any ideas about how a remote source might delete files from their computers you do hear the echo of, “This medicine has made this man poorly.” The less said about how the supposed tip top folk of the labs around the world were dealing with the virus the better. Something about antibodies and blood samples and other such things that people like me know the words for.
But in spite of this the way the characters spun around and interacted made Cordon and it really did rise above everything I’ve said above. The relationship between Jokke and Katja, two good people trapped inside and trying to do the right thing, really was surprisingly touching. Even though touch was the one thing they couldn’t do. I also enjoyed the interplay in the data recovery lab where lots of people who believe in clean living get caught in the midst of a set of very messy circumstances. Over ten episodes it did all get a little stretched but the characters and acting meant you didn’t really notice. I also liked that Cordon was very even-handed in who got the virus: with only a couple of exceptions there was very little divine intervention. Good and bad die (and survive) equally.
There is a remake on the way. The US will set their version in Atlanta. I suspect they will need to hi-tech it up a bit and address some of those gaping holes in the plot. But it will lose a lot of charm in translation. Cordon was not perfect but it had the courage to have an idea and run with it, and you have to admire it for that.