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lars von trier the kingdom RIGET-EXODUS
Alexander Skarsgård in The Kingdom: Exodus, 2022 (Film Still)Photo by Christian Geisnaes

The best TV show of 2022 is Lars von Trier doing Twin Peaks

This year saw the return of the auteur’s cult supernatural series, The Kingdom – if you’ve not seen it yet, you need to

The best TV shows of 2022 were extra-long films by writer-directors more accustomed to cinema. Irma Vep was Olivier Assayas testing HBO’s budget. The White Lotus continues to be Mike White’s creative output after Brad’s Status flopped at the box office. And then there’s The Kingdom: Exodus, the third season of Lars von Trier’s Danish-language comedy-horror The Kingdom (also known, in Danish, as Riget). With a gag or jump scare every 10 seconds, the five hour-long episodes are von Trier doing a mash-up of Twin Peaks and 30 Rock but with an infuriating, grainy aesthetic that means you can’t tell if the blurred image is audacious artistry or just your slow internet.

If you didn’t know von Trier had a TV show, it’s probably because seasons one and two aired in 1994 and 1997, leaving enough time to be overshadowed by decades of von Trier-related controversy. However, the supernatural series has always been must-see viewing within the Danish director’s filmography, its lo-fi, in-your-face visuals setting the template for Dogme 95 and inspiring others – when I interviewed Ari Aster for Hereditary, he named The Kingdom as a piece of art he adored.

Each episode starts with a voiceover: the Kingdom is a hospital in Copenhagen built on an ancient swamp, and its scientists are arrogant for their “consistent denial of the spiritual”. What follows is a cheesy opening credits sequence that introduces the ensemble like a 2pm soap opera, the kind only viewed by people who are retired, unemployed, or freelance journalists.

In its original 90s incarnation, The Kingdom was a convoluted workplace drama that in one scene would stage a heated argument regarding stolen paperwork, then in the next reveal a woman has been impregnated by a ghost played by Udo Kier (who also plays the eventual baby sticking his adult-sized head out of the mother’s you-know-what). Declaring Twin Peaks to be an influence, von Trier and his initial co-director Morten Arnfred clearly thrived on sneaking their outré weirdness into Danish living rooms.

However, in a streaming age, The Kingdom: Exodus is playing to an audience already in on the joke. Whereas in 1994 von Trier was merely the director of Europa, he’s now so known for provocation that The House That Jack Built was deemed tame. So the show’s new register is to up the comedy, particularly with meta winks: season three starts with a woman watching the climax of The Kingdom season two on DVD at home, tutting, “How can they peddle such half-baked hooey?” The show-within-a-show gag is repeated so many times, it becomes funny, unfunny, and funny again.

The model for The Kingdom: Exodus, then, is Twin Peaks: The Return, another self-examining third season that brought back original cast members after a nearly three-decade absence to examine how everyone’s matured – or how, in The Kingdom, nothing really changes, even if the actors do.

After all, seasons one and two were led by Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegård), a Swedish doctor whose catchphrase was “Danish scum!”, and Mrs Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), a patient who investigates the dead girl haunting the lift. Tragically, Järegård and Rolffes died, respectively, in 1998 and 2000, putting pause on an already written third season. For Exodus, they’re reimagined as Helmer Jr (Mikael Persbrandt), who vows “to complete Dad’s mission to raise the Danish standards”, and Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), a sleepwalker who tries to solve the mystery of Mrs Drusse’s disappearance. (To complicate matters, a receptionist informs Karen that Mrs Drusse never existed and was created by “that idiot Trier” for “that bloody TV series”. If you thought Irma Vep was too masturbatory, then stay away.)

With Exodus introducing almost identical replacements, you wonder if von Trier and his co-writer Niels Vørsel reused their scripts from the 90s. If so, they updated the storylines to satirise dicey, modern topics like #MeToo and diversity in offices. That’s right, von Trier, who was accused by Björk of sexual harassment, has continued to prod and poke, and if more people join MUBI over the Christmas period, there could be another cancellation (of von Trier, not necessarily their MUBI subscriptions).

For instance, Helmer Jr is sued by a colleague, Anna (Tuva Novotny), after an email asking for permission to gently slap a buttock. As the subplot evolves, Anna gleefully gathers evidence. If von Trier is trying to make any point, wise or extremely unwise, it’s sacrificed for absurdist humour. Both parties share a lawyer played by Alex Skarsgård (“Swedish lawyers don’t grow on trees down here,” he deadpans), whose office is a toilet cubicle (just like the lawyer played by Stellan Skarsgård in season two), and Anna (her oversized trousers fall if she doesn’t hold them up) is a purely comic creation. “If we assume that the impulse is as criminal as the deed,” she remarks, “we could lead the entire male population of the world to the scaffold.”

Other additions include Willem Dafoe as a malevolent shapeshifter sent to Copenhagen by Satan, and Ida Engvoll (the star of 2022’s other great Nordic TV series, Love & Anarchy) as a hacker who joins Helmer Jr at Swedes Anonymous – there are, I would estimate, at least 15 jokes per episode about Danish/Swedish tension.

Most welcome of all, though, is that The Kingdom now exists in widescreen. In 1994, a year before Dogme 95, the sepia-stained ugliness and cheap, choppy editing of The Kingdom was supposed to add directness to the storytelling. While the mockumentary sitcom aesthetic predicted The Office and Parks & Recreation, it tested your endurance. With a tad more gloss, Exodus manages to be watchable while maintaining its underground values: the first few minutes are pristinely shot with a Stranger Things glow, then the show uglifies itself, like von Trier sticking a middle finger at anyone expecting a director-for-hire Netflix show.

(Incidentally, seasons one and two of The Kingdom were remastered and are streaming on MUBI. Originally shot on 16:9 and then cropped to 4:3 for 90s television screens, they’ve been rereleased in widescreen for the first time. They still look like garbage, but there are definitely more pixels to the garbage.)

Given the show’s meta nature, it’s worth mentioning that von Trier struggled with health problems during production and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. “I think I underestimated what horror really needs, which is time,” he told the New Yorker. “The reason there are so many jokes is because I could only work for about an hour and a half each day while I was writing.”

In the first two seasons, von Trier appeared at the end of each episode, dressed in a tuxedo, playing the role of a prankster showman who, on one occasion, carries a severed head while summarising the past hour’s storyline. In season three, von Trier solemnly delivers his closing monologue behind a curtain, leaving only his shoes visible. “I’ve retired a bit physically, so I won’t really appear on screen,” he murmurs. “Why, you might ask? Honestly speaking, out of vanity. The 24 years that have passed have left their mark, and I can’t compete with the unbearably cocky, young Lars von Trier.”

Then at the end of Exodus, von Trier adds an extremely memorable, is-this-actually-part-of-the-show? twist, asking you to rethink the previous five hours. I’m unsure if it’s hilarious, aggravating, or, more likely, both. Whatever you think of von Trier, it’s never dull in The Kingdom.

All episodes of The Kingdom: Exodus will be available exclusively on MUBI from 25 December