Why you should care
It’s so hilarious and compelling you won’t care that it’s subtitled.
A middle-aged woman clad in tight jeans, checked shirt and black leather jacket, lounges on the toilet in a graffitied cubicle. After glancing at a few saccharine (CHARLOTTE AND MIKKEL 4-EVER) and offensive (CHARLOTTE IS A WHORE WITH A SLUDGY PUSSY) messages, she takes out a whiteboard marker to correct the spelling error in RITA IS FUCKING THE PRENCIPAL. The next scene she’s bumping uglies in the principal’s office, his tailored shorts around his ankles.
All this happens in the first two minutes of the first episode of Rita, a Danish comedy-drama that tracks the many ups and downs of a teacher who’s inspired in the classroom, but far more hit-and-miss out of it. At its core, Rita is a subtitled “love letter to the Danish public-school system,” where the poorest and the richest go to the same school, says producer Jesper Morthorst. Good thing, then, that the show is also hilarious, abrasive, thought-provoking and voyeuristic.
Rita was always intended to be “very local,” explains Morthorst. But the four-season show by award-winning creator Christian Torpe has taken on a life of its own. It’s been available on Netflix from season 1 (they have co-produced since season 3), has received international accolades and is being remade in France. A U.S. version, starring Lena Headey (Game of Thrones), is now also in the works. Why? “Audiences love this not perfect, politically incorrect main character,” says Morthorst. “She says the things we all wish we could say.”
Rita’s life’s work is “protect[ing] children from their parents” — like in season 1 (2012) when she feeds a child sugar against his parents’ wishes. “Sugar is poison. Would you poison a child?” asks the dad. “If it was an annoying one,” deadpans Rita. All this from an actor — Mille Dinesen — who used to be known as “the Danish Bridget Jones,” says Morthorst, before clarifying that Dinesen is very different from Rita in real life. “She really cares what people think.”
Once the main ground rule — Rita gives zero fucks about what adults think — has been established, viewers are introduced to the core cast. The outspoken protagonist has surprisingly well-adjusted children (dad emigrated long ago), but that’s not the case at work. There are Rita’s colleagues: Hjørdis, the role-playing, ork-
She loves conflict, she uses men for sex, she doesn’t talk about emotions, she doesn’t care how she’s dressed …
Producer Jesper Morthorst
Season 2 explores Rita’s doomed attempts to settle down in a romantic relationship, while season 3 sees her battling her fear of becoming an authority in a new role at school. Season 4 goes darker, exploring Rita’s traumatic past, and may somewhat explain how she became such a conflicted adult.
The show is filmed in a real Danish school, and there’s nothing made up about the airy common rooms, the piles of beanbags or the fact that students call teachers by their first names, says Kasper Kilde Rasmussen, who teaches at a real Danish school in the town of Kaas. Yet Kilde Rasmussen admits he’s “never met anyone like Rita” at work and he also says that the show paints a very glamorous picture of his profession. “I work for my salary,” he explains.
To both accusations, Morthorst pleads guilty as charged (“It’s entertainment”) before letting me in on a secret: Rita is based on a man. Think about it, he says, “She loves conflict, she uses men for sex, she doesn’t talk about emotions, she doesn’t care how she’s dressed.” For the show’s creators, this isn’t just a clever trick, it’s also a message of empowerment. “We avoid the trap of saying ‘she just needed to settle with a good man,’” says Morthorst. She “tries that” in season 2 but “isn’t cut out for it.”
The show also tackles some of the biggest local issues in contemporary Denmark. Some of Rita’s tactics for assimilating special-needs students into the mainstream system are a tad unusual (she does seem to spend a lot of time ringing their doorbells). But the problem has been a daily reality for all teachers since the government shut down scores of special schools a few years ago, says Kilde Rasmussen — himself a designated inclusion teacher. “It is very much up to the schools to find a way to deal with it,” he says. Attitudes toward immigration are also given the treatment when Rita sleeps with the shady elder brother of Hassan, a Middle Eastern student. Such hospitality.
While the official word is that the show has run its course (so soon?!), the final episode of season 4 does culminate with Rita vowing to open her own school. When pressed, Morthorst would not deny that this may be the case.
So you’d best catch up on the first four seasons — you’ll want to be there to see it if she gets her way.
You can watch Rita on Netflix.