Exploding in Danish pubcaster DR’s prime time slot on Sunday Oct. 2, “Carmen Curlers” attracted more viewers for Episode 2 than a political debate with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen in the run-up to general elections, according to the Nordisk Film & TV Fond Newsletter.  

Little wonder. Politicians promise to better their country. Inspired by the true story of Dane Arne Byborg’s launch of electric hair curlers, “Carmen Curlers,” set over 1963-69, shows how it really happened, as women began to enter the workforce and earn their own money and independence. 

The two events are embodied by the series’ lead: Axel Byvang, played by Morten Hee Andersen (“Ride Upon the Storm”), who bears a striking resemblance to the real life early-thirties Byborg, and farmer’s wife Birthe Windfeld (Maria Rossing, “Splitting Up Together”). 

In the series’ early going, Axel happens on a newspaper advert appealing for financing backing for a new electric hair curler. Allowing housewives to style their own hair in 10 minutes, it is, Axel realizes, a revolutionary invention. Meanwhile, in events held in parallel for the series’ first two episodes, Birthe Windfeld lives a happy enough life as a farmer’s wife with two teen children, until husband Jorgen falls gravely ill. 

The key to “Carmen Curlers” success lies in the huge way viewers invest in big characters as they battle deep social injustice. Cruelly bullied at a posh boarding school school as a poor kid from the sticks, Axel seeks social recognition. Birthe has to pay for a very expensive operation if she is to save Jorgen’s life. Her only hope, viewers sense, is for her to meet Axel and team on an invention which will help revolutionise women’s downtime in Denmark and beyond, becoming one of the fastest growing companies in the world. 

Backed by Danish public broadcaster DR, behind “The Killing” and “Borgen,” and produced by Stinna Lassen (“When the Dust Settles”), “Carmen Curlers” is lead written by Mette Heeno (“Snow Angels,” “Splitting Up Together”), representing Denmark at the Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize for best TV screenwriting. Carrying a €20,000 ($21,000) cash endowment, the Prize will be presented on Feb. 1. to the winning series’ main writer at TV Drama Vision, the Göteborg Film Festival’s conference event and series market. Variety talked to producer Lassen and  screenwriter Heeno in the run-up to the Award.

Carmen Curlers

What were the final ratings for Season 1? 

Stinna Lassen: The reception for “Carmen Curlers” has quite frankly been overwhelming, and we are so happy with the ratings. The eight episodes in Season 1 have had 1.2 million viewers on average, and we have to go back six years to find ratings like that for a DR Drama prime time series. Episode 1 is the biggest Danish program of 2022 only surpassed by one World Cup soccer game, and to this date the episode has been seen by 25% of the Danish population.

The key to success, I think, is the huge emotional investment that viewers make in the characters of both Axel and Birthe as they battle social injustice – Axel’s bullying, the financial challenge for Birthe of saving her husband. I sense that creating this empathy was one of your main objectives in the series’ set-up. But maybe I’m wrong?

Mette Heeno: I always try really hard to create empathy for all my characters. Even the ones that seem like the villains at first. I think that if I (as a writer) can provide the characters with relatable flaws, dreams and challenges, then the audience will hopefully cheer for them. “Carmen Curlers” is a very character driven show so in this case it’s extra important that they keep on fascinating and surprising us.

Early on, Birthe, as an omniscient narrator, calls Axel “the fellow the story is about.” But she’s being modest. This is her story and that of millions, maybe billions of women as they access the workforce and economic independence, Could you comment?

Heeno: Yes, Birthe is being modest – that’s one of her character traits. But she is right when she talks about Axel as the “fellow of the story.” It’s his dreams, plot and factory that the entire Season 1 evolves around. He is the engine of the story and all the characters we meet are a part of his world.  In Season 2 and 3 we focus more on the consequences of women gaining economic independence.

In this sense, I think “Carmen Curlers” exemplifies a trend in recent series: Relevance. Yes, it’s a period piece, but it’s a recent period portraying the forces forging contemporary Denmark.  Again, could you comment?

Lassen: I definitely think this is a key element of why our show has been so successful. Our setting and arena is nostalgic, colorful and fun and has an element of escapism. But then the stories and characters deal with problems that are both very existential and very current. Big themes of gender equality, work/life balance and believing in yourself and your ideas when nobody else does.

As the series’ lead writer, Mette, what were you main challenges and concerns?

Heeno: Our main character is inspired by the real founder of “Carmen Curlers,” Arne Bybjerg, who was still alive when we started writing. At first we kept his name in the story but it soon became really hard to give his character both edge and darkness because I wanted to respect him and his family. I also wanted to have the freedom to pick and choose from reality. So we changed his name and made all the characters around him pure fiction.

Is the series now greenlit for three seasons and when will Season 2 be broadcast, if there is a date?

Lassen: We are in full production on Season 2, which will be broadcast in the fall of 2023. Season 3 will air in 2025.

Mette Heeno and Stinna Lassen Credit: HEIN Photography / Stine Heilmann