Sunday, April 17, 2011

Review of AMC's The Killing Premiere

AMC's new original series The Killing began two weeks ago, so I'm slightly behind not only in reviewing the 2-hour premiere, but in watching it at all. From the ad campaign I knew it was one of those shows for which I'd have to be in the right mood to embark upon. Seeing Scream 4 on Friday incited a desire to watch something that considers its audience slightly intelligent and endeavors to evoke some emotion without base manipulation.

Thus my mind began to drift towards more potentially rewarding horror experiences, or thrillers or mysteries, the idea being that if I felt strong enough (not always the case, for instance I've never been able to even try Breaking Bad) I might as well take the plunge. One can always find a repeat of Gilmore Girls to wash out the lingerings of a grim story. So, unable to sleep, and having found and re-watched a late night airing of Se7en, I found The Killing on my DVR list where it had been patiently waiting for the right time.

The show has a surprisingly gentle, methodical pace, akin to well crafted mysteries like the Prime Suspect series. The production is more comparable to a feature film than to the usual one-hour procedural littering the television landscape. For instance the body of Rosie Larsen, whose murder will form the arc of the initial season, is not found until the end of the pilot, and halfway through the premiere event. I was not surprised by the discovery, not only from seeing the marketing campaign beforehand or having a basic idea of the premise, but because the bleak tone of the writing and cinematography allowed no suspicion otherwise.

This tone is constant throughout, the setting of Seattle playing a huge part by providing rain, darkness and the manifestation of a somber, strangely beautiful, nearly hopeless world. (One can clearly feel the Scandinavian original's influence, a la Wallander.)

"Something's not right."
The main character, and clearly the heart of the story, is Detective Sarah Linden, played by Mireille Enos. Often she feels a bit nebulous, particularly when it comes to facial expressions that range from slightly pained to clairvoyant, and they certainly did a few too many dramatic close-ups of her to illustrate her keen hunches and intuitions of doom. Nonetheless she has a quiet intensity not to be ignored, and a focus and intelligence that has your affection and respect by the end. (Competence is always a pleasing characteristic in crime dramas--think Frances McDormand in Fargo.)

Her replacement slash partner, Stephen Holder (actor Joel Kinnaman) is a different story. He is incredibly off-putting and only slightly original. An ex-undercover cop, he is clearly a bit addled by excessive drug use and out of touch with Procedure, compassion, and basic human civility. He begins by being unnecessarily crude when questioning people, standing far too close for comfort and generally creeping people out. This behavior continues until a very awkward scene where he gets some information from two young high school girls by getting them high (he's been loitering by the soccer field, looking mysterious and smoking a joint) and flirting with them by being both explicit and sleazy as hell.

However this bizarre tactic, awkward as it is to witness, proves his persistence, his own ability to sense where a lead may be, and his first personal contribution to the case, by uncovering a twisted crime scene in the basement of the high school.

Perhaps it was merely the fact that I watched Se7en (again) before viewing The Killing, but there are a few similarities that come up. Certainly the coloring of the scenes and the tone, that of a hostile world with little hope, is familiar, but mostly the personalities of the lead detectives. One is calculated, cautious, experienced, emotionally controlled, observant and intelligent. After many successful, respected years on the force, she is quitting to build a new life far away and devoid of homicide. (One half expects her to quote Freeman's famous line: "Ernest Hemingway once wrote, 'The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part.")

The other, younger cop is cocky, impatient, ambitious, and possessing a more limited, slightly unrelated skill set, though he has a promising albeit different intelligence as well. Invariably a connection will grow, mutual admiration and affection will blossom, and their abilities will begin to complement each other. Again, not terribly unique, but well done so far, and if you're going to borrow from Se7en for your murder mystery drama, at least it shows good taste.

The story also follows the family of Rosie Larsen from their happy normalcy through the anxiety of the search for their missing daughter and ultimately the intense grieving process when their worst fears are confirmed. The acting of the entire family (parents, aunt, younger brothers) is certainly effective, but in the end we are shown maybe ten minutes too many of their sorrow, clipping the tenuous and deliberate momentum unnecessarily.

Michelle Forbes as the mother, Mitch Larsen, is particularly good, which brings me to point out an always promising (except for Dollhouse) Battlestar Galactica connection, both her and Det. Linden's fiance, played by Callum Keith Rennie, being BSG alumni. (Admiral Cain and Leoben, respectively.)

"Vote for me. I am a hero of the 4400."
The other main storyline focuses on City Councilman Darren Richmond, played by perennial guest/co-star Billy Campbell, as he runs for mayor. This part of the show feels more forced than any other, as well as derivative. (Political campaigns are morally gray and handsome politicians can be mysterious and suspicious? I've never heard of such a thing.) It feels like an attempt at mirroring the intricacies of high school that Rosie Larsen was enmeshed in by displaying the infighting, conniving and manipulation of an election.

In the end, the points they are trying to make are too simple: Life is complicated. Relationships are invariably messy and dangerous at any age. Even happy relationships (the Larsens) will be shaken if not destroyed by tragedy.

Like most cop shows it tells us that people are cruel, twisted, secretive and often conscienceless. People are bad and thus we need the police as a force of good to catch wrongdoers (though rarely to prevent the wrongdoing), pursuers of justice who are interestingly human, and therefore as jaded and vulnerable in their own way as the criminals and victims they are surrounded by.

The Killing is not groundbreaking stuff. There are no innovations, no flashes of heretofore unseen brilliance, no unexpected paradigm shifts. But change is often overrated. This is a solid, well-made genre piece, perfect for mystery fans, and I recommend it.


  1. Wow. Just…wow. Blown away by this week’s revelation. The teacher? Stan is going to go nuts on this guy, and from what we learned (or didn’t learn) about Stan’s past, I don’t think he’s a guy you want on your bad side. I don’t wanna wait til Sunday! That’s really my only complaint with the show is that it’s only an hour long and it’s a week between episodes. Unfortunately this week’s episode was on right when I was trying to get the kids to bed and by the time they went out I was too beat to stay up. This is why I have the TV Everywhere app on my iPhone…as a DISH customer and employee it let me pull my DVR’d episode of The Killing off my hoe receiver and watch it on my phone during my lunch break at work, or anywhere, as long as I have 3G or wifi connection. Cannot WAIT for next week’s new episode!

  2. Yeah I just saw it last night and the scene that was particularly anticipation-building was watching him comfort Rosie's mother as our two cops discovered his connection to Rosie at the same time.

    I had some vague suspicions about him, to be honest, but that just comes from my fool-proof theory that anytime there's a minor character in a mystery/cop show that you recognize, and they seem to have only a tiny part, expect them to come back.

    Otherwise the episode didn't feel as good as the premiere. Linden says some cheesy cliche lines ("Tell that to her."), I really don't get why we should care about the election stuff at all until they tell us how one of them was involved in the murder, and the whole ending-with-a-big-revelation thing has clearly been set up as a red herring, so we know the teacher had a thing with her but will turn out to be innocent.

    Anyway, thanks for reading! And for the...technological advice. Have a great one, let me know what you think of next weeks. Ill try and put up anoter review before the series ends.