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Burden of the past: Sins of the Fathers is both thriller and filler

A new Polish crime thriller is riveting - but also stressful, banal and not a great deal of fun to watch

Artur Żmijewski as Sikora and Joanna Balasz as Lidka in Polish crime thriller Sins of the Fathers (Photo: Maciej Hachlica/TVN)

There is a somewhat indefinable emotion which characterises Joan Didion’s essays about life in California as a writer in her 30s and 40s, which has something to do with regret without being exactly that.

It’s to do with the feeling of having been young and living as though your actions and decisions bear no meaning or consequence, and the slow realisation later that everything you had been doing, each ill-advised drink and missed work day and reckless heartbreak, had mattered all along. Without your permission or knowledge, all these apparently immaterial choices had been stacking up and waiting to inform the rest of your life, and it is clear suddenly that how you spend your days is how you spend your life.

Sins of the Fathers, a Polish crime thriller available via Walter Presents on All4, is predicated on this feeling.

It tells the story of two men who were once embroiled in one another’s
lives – one, a retired police commissioner named Pawel Sikora who was instrumental in disbanding the once-powerful Warsaw mafia. The other, a former gangster named Blacha, whose testimony bought him out of jail time and who has since become a legitimate businessman.

Both believe they have successfully left their pasts behind and become new men – Sikora is a loving grandfather, and his daughter is busy following the family tradition of law enforcement. Blacha’s daughter, meanwhile, is a troubled law student who is desperate to formally vindicate her father of his crimes. Soon, though, the mysterious events of their shared past begin to resurface. The ostensibly reformed Blacha is accused of involvement in an infamous murder, bringing Sikora into disrepute too. The resurgence of their troubled history threatens not only them but their respective daughters. To protect them they must confront the past they share and open old wounds.

It’s an interesting emotional starting point, the question of legacy and inherited burdens. Many of us bear the marks of our parents’ historical
trauma or ingrained positions. I remember that once, as a child, I had the tendency to immediately clean my plate and wash it within seconds of
finishing eating, regardless of whether other people were still at the table
eating. After he noticed this, my father commented that it was a habit he had
picked up from his own mother, who had learned it from her time living in a
punitive Catholic institution where you had to be finished and cleaned up in a matter of minutes after being served.

Here, both daughters have been imprinted not only with loyalty to their flawed fathers but also with their particular sensitivities, loyalties and fears. Part of the horror is not just the danger they are being put in but the exposition of the already existing conditioning which had gone on for their whole lives.

Like many of the European thrillers you’ll be familiar with and some of which I have written about for this column, Sins of the Fathers is often a
grim slog. There is a part of me that sometimes longs for the sugary brainless freedom of Emily in Paris or Gilmore Girls when I am getting a little
burned out on bracing, grimacing drama whose tension is the most crucial ingredient and yet also something of a drain after a while.

Was I riveted by Sins of the Fathers, as promised by its accompanying advertisement copy? Undeniably. But I couldn’t say I enjoyed watching it, nor even that I particularly admired it. There is something about the
ruthlessly efficient techniques which have become so thoroughly honed
over the years, from the first burst of buzzy Euro crime television to the
present day, which can feel overly calculated and cynical, even when the
performances and writing are as good as they are here.

This is not to say that it is made cynically, of course – or rather no more cynically than any mass cultural product – but only that as a viewer you are sometimes all too aware of the writers’ room professionalism that lends itself to familiarly formatted shows like this one.

What I have been thinking about television lately, as someone who watches more than most, is that I would like what I watch to either productively add something stimulating and new to my mind and my perception of life, or to be profoundly relaxing. There’s nothing wrong with the mindless stuff, we all need our bristling brains wiped smooth every now and then, which is when I turn to my saccharine aspirational American trash. But less appealing to me at the moment is a show that is stressful and banal at the
same time, which is firmly in the filler category without being, really, any fun to watch at all.

Sins of the Fathers is streaming on Walter Presents via All4

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