A look at loss

Like many detective shows, Netflix’ Belgian drama Unit 42 does not shy away from gore, and each episode includes gruesome crime scene snapshots. However, Unit 42  is actually very delicate when it comes to grief, often highlighting the raw emotion of victims’ families as well as the pain suffered by the victims themselves. In fact, grief is a large theme of the show because its two lead characters are working through it. Sam, a stoic, rule-abiding detective, is assigned to be in charge of Unit 42—which investigates cyber-crimes—after he returns to the force following his wife’s death from cancer. The unit’s resident tech whiz, Billie, a sarcastic moped-riding hacker who is Sam’s opposite in almost every way, is wading through feelings of guilt and denial after the disappearance of her hacker boyfriend Antoine.

Tech and Ethics

Humanistic elements aside, this is a show about the cybercrime, a concept Unit 42 explores with endless creativity. One of this season’s most goosebump-inducing introductions is a woman’s dead body at the wheel of her self-driving car as it cruises down the highway, remotely programmed to head into the nearest body of water. The show is thorough in its explanation of the ways that technology can be used and abused, but Unit 42 does not possess the nihilism that other shows about tech, such as Black Mirror or Mr. Robot, do. While Sam is pretty old-school and paranoid about technology, Billie’s excitement around innovation and good coding is so intense that she sometimes gushes over the very hackers they are supposed to be taking down. Throughout the season, their viewpoints are challenged, with Sam realizing the temptation of electronically surveilling his kids, and Billie gaining a conscience about hacking because of the consequences she sees in her cases. I could nitpick about dated memes and TV tech tropes, but when it comes to society’s dependence on technology and all the psychological drama and power struggles that stem from that, Unit 42 is spot on.

The same but different

Unit 42 is largely formulaic: typically, each episode starts with a new case, usually murder. Cue the crime scene photos and the beginning of the investigation as the team engages in repartee while doing research. Though the episodes feel fresh and interesting simply due to the fact that every crime is different and explores different topical themes—from surveillance technology to the ethics of animal testing, the show’s approach to the personal lives and professional clashes of its protagonists, Sam and Billie, can get predictable. However, there are enough unexpected developments to keep it interesting. The supporting characters are fun, but underutilized, even though they each get a featured episode. These particular episodes are riveting, and without exception, every actor behind a recurring character has some serious chops, although Constance Gay’s portrayal of Billie is definitely the clear standout performance of the show. Season 1 ends in a cliffhanger, so I’m looking forward to season 2, and I hope they develop the supporting characters a little further.

Looking for more of the best in foreign TV?  Don’t miss our other great reviews HERE!