Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Brief Review: "The Killing"

AMC has more than earned my trust.  Its first foray into original drama was Broken Trail, a pretty good two-part western starring Robert Duvall, who really ought to be in every western (including The Dark Tower, for which he would make a great Pere Callahan).  Next, they dipped their toes into the weekly-series waters, and brought that toe out flinging from it Mad Men and Breaking Bad; that, ladies and gentlemen, is THE best anyone could hope to do with their first two series.  After that, they had Rubicon, a little-viewed but nevertheless excellent show about the intelligence community, and The Walking Dead, which, if you are enough of a Stephen King fan to be reading this blog, you undoubtedly are already familiar with.

With an output like that, you're bound to inspire some serious brand loyalty, and that's exactly what AMC has earned from me so far.  Therefore, it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to be tuning in to see how they fared with their newest series, The Killing.  It premiered this past Sunday night with its first two episodes, and if those episodes are any indication, AMC has another winner on its hands.  I don't think it's up to the level of either Mad Men or Breaking Bad yet (few shows are), but it's better than both Rubicon and what I saw of The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead is actually a decent comparison, at least in terms of gauging my reactions to the shows.  I only saw the first two episodes of The Walking Dead, and while I do want to see the rest (I'm planning on buying the DVDs at some point in the next few weeks), I felt no real urge to continue.  With The Killing, after seeing the same number of episodes, I'm already looking forward to the next one, and quite keenly.  That says all that needs to be said, really.  And yet, I'm going to continue typing away.

Here's a brief summary of what The Killing is about: it's the story of the investigation of a high-school girl's murder.  Sounds simple, right?  Well, in terms of describing it to your parents or friends or coworkers, it is.  In terms of its execution, it's anything but: it has the deliberately-paced immersiveness that is becoming AMC's calling card, as well as excellent performances, gorgeous cinematography, an effective musical score, and conveniently-placed commercial breaks (you know, so you can get up and go pee and therefore keep yourself from getting a bladder infection).  On the one hand, yeah, it's just a murder mystery; but that really doesn't get across much about the show, any more than it would to describe Chinatown as a detective tale.  The Killing may be no Chinatown ... but I wouldn't discount it just yet.

I was also reminded at various points during the first two episodes of Seven, Millennium and The X-Files, and 24, and there are probably other forebears which aren't immediately evident.  The constant rain is straight out of Seven, as is at least one scene (it's lifted straight from that movie, and beautifully so); the Vancouver locations and actors, and to a lesser extent the female-male pairing of detectives as partners, are redolent of a non-supernatural X-Files; the promise of a single story unfolding over an entire season is like a less-frantic, more emotionally resonant version of 24.

In some ways, though, I am most reminded of a non-supernatural version of Millennium.  That's partially due to the Seattle setting, but it's also due to the offbeat nature of the main character.  In The Killing we have Sarah Linden, a somewhat laconic, somewhat downbeat, somewhat harried and world-weary homicide detective who, in fine pulpy tradition, is literally in the process of finishing out her last day on the job when a whopper of a case lands in her lap.  Linden is played by Mireille Enos, who is an unconventional choice for a lead on a weekly series.  She's not beautiful, in the traditional Hollywood sense of the word (she'd almost certainly be the most beautiful woman in the grocery store on most days, though, provided that grocery store wasn't in California).  You can be not-quite-Hollywood-glamorous and still star on a show if you're an established star, of course (witness Glenn Close and Kathy Bates, amongst others) ... but Enos is also not an established star; the only thing I know her from is her role as twins on Big Love

She was great on that show, and she's great here.  The best thing about her performance -- and she shares this somewhat with Millennium's Lance Henriksen -- is that she doesn't play it simply as a one-note thing, nor does she go the route of deliberate kookiness.  Many actresses would invest Linden with all sorts of quirks and tics, but Enos plays it straightforward.  Her tic is to never quite let you in; you never (so far, at least) gain full access to Linden as a character, and while some people might find that frustrating, I found it to be mesmerizing.  The show is a mystery, and so is Linden, in the best possible way.

I think it's pretty wonderful when a series offers up a lead actor like Enos.  We've never quite seen anyone like her before; there is a little bit of Lance Henriksen's wearied stillness, and a little bit of Gillian Anderson's cool distance, but Enos is also doing her own thing, and doing it quite well.  If the show is a hit, which I suspect it will be, she will be landing good roles for years to come as a result.

Along similar lines, Linden's new (and, ostensibly, temporary) partner, Holder, is played by Joel Kinnaman.  Kinnaman is an actor I had never even heard of, and since he's apparently Swedish, that seems less like a fault in my knowledge and more like a case of AMC finding another new star for Hollywood to play with.  Holder is a bit like Seven's Brad Pitt mixed with Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul, but lankier and creepier.  Holder comes from a background as an undercover cop, and he's got at least one terrific scene in the second episode in which he gets to put the skills he learned there to great use.  Holder is automatically my favorite character on the show: he's funny, off-putting, awkward, and possibly a much, much better cop than first glance would indicate.

If there is an element of the show that I'm hesitant about embracing, then it would have to be the subplot involving a mayoral candidate whose campaign become embroiled in the murder investigation.  He's well-played by Billy Campbell, who will always have my loyalty for having starred in The Rocketeer, and I'm sure the show's writers have a good plan for the character (the show is adapted from a Danish television series, so this is likely a holdover element); however, I was not immediately very interested in this particular part of the plot.

More alluring by far -- "alluring" is probably the wrong word, but it's the only one that's springing to mind -- is the subplot involving the parents of the murdered girl.  They are played by Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton.  Forbes you may remember from a too-short stint on Battlestar Galactica and a too-long stint on True Blood; she was great on both, and I've been a fan of hers since another too-short stint, on Star Trek: The Next Generation, so I'm pleased, as always, to see her getting a great role, which this definitely seems to be.  Sexton is also good; he had a recurring-but-small role on the awesome Deadwood, and has had small roles on all sorts of other shows.  This might finally be his breakout.

With Forbes' and Sexton's characters on The Killing, we get the hint that there is more going on than meets the eye, which is exactly what we also get with both Linden and Holder.  In fact, one of the best things about the show so far is the way the mystery elements are not restricted merely to a whodunit-type plot.  Instead, there is just as much mystery to be found behind the eyes of the characters.  A lot of this is designed to keep you in suspense regarding ... well, regarding whodunit.  But there's more going on than a string of red herrings, and this, I think, is where the show may truly excel.

Presumably, only one of the numerous characters the show introduces in its first two hours will end up being the killer.  What The Killing seems to be driving at is the implication that we're all mysteries of one type or another. 

Strewn throughout the first two hours are small scenes in which the major characters behave oddly.  Linden has a marvellously complicated reaction immediately following a scene with her boyfriend; Holder has an amusing interaction with a woman he sees on the street while he passes in a car; and Rosie's parents, both individually and together, have moments that might make ole Spock raise an eyebrow.  Moreso even than finding out whodunit, I'm looking forward to finding out something about why those characters behave in those fashions.

And the best thing of all...?  In most cases, I bet I will never find out. 

This is good stuff.  Tune in, won't you?


  1. By the way, speaking of AMC, their next series is "Hell on Wheels," and no, that is not a "Sons of Anarchy" ripoff. Instead, it is a western set post-Civil War, about a former Confederate soldier who, seeking vengeance, moves west and ends up working on the first transcontinental railroad.

    Sold. Very fucking sold.

  2. I saw today on Dark Horizons that Mireille Enos has been cast as Brad Pitt's wife in the upcoming "World War Z" movie. Also, Joel Kinnaman has been cast in a role in "Safe House," which is a flick starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds.

    So things seem to be going pretty darn well for Enos and Kinnaman, which is awesome. I also read that this past Sunday's episode apparently did even better in the Nielsens than the premiere episode did. That indicates that the show has built a solid audience that isn't going away, and probably means that the show will get a second season.

    Woo hoo!