TV: Signs (Seasons 1 & 2)

February 13, 2021

If there’s one thing the past several years of binging international drama has proven to me, it’s that Twin Peaks is far more influential overseas than here in the States. Immersive tales of small-town evil, conspiracy, supernatural horror, and procedural mystery practically litter the streamingscape these days, and anyone familiar with my website knows that these types of series — Fortitude, Trapped, The Kettering Incident, Dark, The Returned, Midnight Sun, and more — are totally my jam, whether they possess speculative content or not.

Add to this list the gorgeous, intriguing, and over-complicated Polish series Signs. Set in a quiet, beautiful village in the Owl Mountains of Poland, Signs is — make no mistake — a hot mess. Its sixteen episodes are jam-packed with characters and mayhem, plots, subplots, red herrings, left turns, dangling narrative threads, unexplained mysteries, and random stylistic flourishes. But underlying it all is a baseline sense of unsettling, creepy menace that makes its stately, cynical rhythms compelling. It’s all over the map, but it’s definitely my kind of all over the map.

Before it spreads its wings and flaps frantically in other directions, Signs possesses the familiar walk-on beats of Nordic noir in a remote locale. There’s a new police commissioner in the town of Sowie Doly: Michal Trela (Andrzej Konopka), a terse and impulsive officer who arrives just as a woman is shot to death in a manner that may tie the crime to an unsolved murder from years earlier. Michal lives in a remote bed and breakfast with his daughter Nina (Magdalena Zak), his police colleague Ada Nieradka (Helena Sujecka), and Ada’s no-good husband Blazej (Michal Czernecki). Turns out Blazej was having an affair with the victim, complicating the small-town investigation to no end, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in an outwardly bucolic community secretly charged with criminal ambitions, religious zealotry, and a dark, chilling history.

Cue Bill Hader as Stefan: this show has everything. A semi-religious commune, led by the cultish Jonasz (Andrzej Mastalerz), that spikes its holy water with methamphetamines. A haunted new priest (Rafal Cieszynski) with skeletons in his closet. A sleazy mayor, Antoni Paszke (Miroslaw Kropielnicki), who conspires to hide the an uncomfortable truth about his lucrative melaphyre mine. Women half-mad with grief. Hallucinating drunkards. Teenaged fight clubs. Treasure hunts for Nazi secret weapons. Mysterious burn scars. Meddling American business interests buying local elections. Cryptic symbols. Obelisks!

If this all sounds like an unfocused show without much of a strategy, well…that certainly seems to be the case. Even so, it manages to be this chaotic in its details while also possessing patient, slow-burning European rhythms, which disguise the slapdash construction. Murders get solved, but not before new ones are committed. Crimes are revealed, but are overshadowed by kidnappings and fatal accidents. Through all this dark turmoil, Konopka and Sujecka provide stoic but accessible investigatory eyes onto the constantly escalating awfulness of Sowie Doly, reinforcing the police procedural aspect of the series. But there are also constant, vague hints of supernatural phenomena tied in with the cult, the church, the woods, and the region’s Nazi-marred past, that add unnerving doubt to your belief in the mundanity of the show’s world. Thematically it may not add up to much, but the tantalizingly cryptic diversions and tangents succeed in painting a gripping portrait of Sowie Doly as something as a central European hellmouth town, a Sunnydale for tortured adults. An American show with such a scattershot approach to structure would probably frustrate the hell out of me, but in Polish it all somehow works, aided by its impressive scenery, professional look, confident production style, and charismatic rogue’s gallery of a cast. At the end of the day, Signs may not entirely know what it’s doing beyond conjuring a wildly inventive narrative sprawl and establishing a bleak, bleak worldview, but it doesn’t seem to matter: I’m totally into it anyway.