The Killing

The Killing

Starring Mireille Enos, Joel Kinnaman, Michelle Forbes, Billy Campbell,
(Sundays @ 10 on AMC)

It’s hard to argue that the title of AMC’s new drama The Killing is, at best ill-conceived.  Raise your hands if you thought that it was some sort of Horror show, perhaps a sequel to The Walking Dead.

But if the title is an errant step, it’s the only one.  I watched the Premiere Sunday night (the first two episodes, which serve as the Pilot) and was utterly blown away. This is Drama the way it’s supposed to happen.  AMC has recently become the “it” place for serious TV shows. Think Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Rubicon and The Walking Dead.  

They may have outdone themselves.

The Killing starts off rather conventionally, as if to remind us how (sadly) mundane murder feels these days, if only because we’re so used to it as a staple of our TV viewing. We open on Rosie Larsen, clearly in peril, running for her life.  We’ve all seen CSI or Law and Order or any of the dozens of other crime procedurals, so it feels very familiar, right up to the point where we don’t actually see the murder.  (It should also be noted that, belying the title, this opening scene will likely be the only violence in the entire series, as the whole Season focuses on this one murder.)

Next we meet a Detective on her very last day with the Seattle Police Department. She’s supposed to show a new guy just in from Vice the ropes.  He’s all street-cred and zero tact, or for that matter, manners, but he has instincts and....

It all seems so familiar. We’ve seen these plot-lines how many times?  Would you be surprised to know that the victim seemed like the perfect 16 year old girl but was actually hiding many secrets? Or that a youthful teacher at her high school might know more than he should?  What’s her best friend hiding?  And try not to be shocked when you learn there’s a connection to a politician running for mayor and (wait for it), the election is less than a month away.

If I seem like I’m mocking The Killing, I’m absolutely not. What I am doing is backhandedly giving the biggest compliment I know.  The Killing doesn’t tread any new ground that I could see in the first two episodes. We have the murder, we have the family who will be devastated by this, with their various reactions of grief. 

We have lots of other people who are hiding things who may or may not be connected to the murder, and we have two cops forced to work together, one on her way out the door (repeated throughout the first episode: “don’t you have a plane to catch?”) and another not yet with his toe in the water.  

I cannot stress this enough: no matter how conventional the plot sounds. I promise promise promise you the execution was anything but boring. I was riveted to watch the cops go through their routines. I was deeply moved by the family, and suspicious and engaged with every side character.

This is drama at its absolute best.  

The main character is Detective Sarah Linden, and the producers go in the exact opposite direction than normal TV fare. The actress (Mireille Enos) is a beautiful woman, but here she is plain plain plain. There are scenes where you could SWEAR she wasn’t waring any make up, and her hair never deviates from a functional but decidedly horsey-like ponytail.  

When we meet Linden we find out she’s leaving police work.  We quickly discover there is a fiance, a planned move to San Diego (leaving that night!) and one sullen pissed-off fifteen year old son who does NOT want to go. Linden seems young, mid-thirties at most, so it’s strange she’d be burnt out so quickly. Most homicide cops can’t ever let go.

And it may be in Linden’s blood too.  Throughout her last day we see her instincts, her drive, her professionalism kick in.  She has a way of talking to “civilians” that doesn’t push and shows empathy but without ever being weak.  On the other hand, this isn’t  Columbo.  We’re not going to see Detective Clouseau or Goren or Andy Sipowicz or any of the other nearly super-cops we’ve come to expect from police on TV.  She’s quiet and effective, but human.  The pacing of the police part feels like The Wire in the sense of realism.  A lot of cop work is boring, methodical. Checking stuff over. Checking again. Linden gets the only stage-y line of the show when she tells her ersatz new partner (who wants to give up a seemingly-fruitless search and get in out of the rain): “This is Homicide.  There is no clock.”

Speaking of that partner, he’s Stephen Holder (played by Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman), and if Sarah Linden is the personification of tough, quiet professionalism, Holder is the exact opposite.  It’s not just that he’d bend the rules, he doesn’t seem to know the rules are there.

I read what I’ve written and it sounds like I’m describing Dirty Harry or Jack Cates.  I am so not.  Holder comes across like a mixture of geeky actor D.J. Qualls with the street-edge of Eminem. He seems exactly like a guy who just spend six years in vice working as an Under-Cover, and is still soaking in Street.

If Sarah Linden is the lynch-pin character that makes a show like The Killing work, Stephen Holder is the one everyone will be talking about.  You can’t take your eyes off of him.  He’s always up to something, and not always in a good way.

I’ve talked a lot about the main characters, but the threshold of a drama like this is how well it’s cast, and again the producers hit it out of the park.  Rosie’s mom and dad are played by Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton, whose names may not be familiar but I bet you’ve seen them in supporting work for years. In particular I’m a fan of Forbes for her work on Battlestar Galactica, 24, Homicide, In Treatment, True Blood and even all the way back to Kalifornia.

When we meet the Larsens we know more (or think we do) about what has happened to their family than they do.  Watching the dawning tragedy take hold in the family is at times chilling, at times incredibly sad and always very moving. This is Tony and Carmella Soprano-caliber work we’re seeing. I look forward to learning more about the family in the episodes to come, as well as watching them deal with a blow I cannot even imagine, let alone relate to.

I’m skipping so many quality supporting characters for time but one other subplot I have to mention is Mayoral candidate and his staff. Councilman Richmond is played by Billy Campbell, whom you may remember as Jennifer Lopez’s husband in Enough.  Campbell has that perfect genial face that makes him totally believable as a politician who cares, but could easily have been mixed up in a murder.  

If I seem like I’m gushing maybe it’s because i get so tired of the crap we’re generally forced to watch.  Great actors are important but great casting is more important - the right person for the right part.  High-quality production is always a plus but it’s like special effects - it cannot augment an already weak story. It can add to a great story; otherwise it just sits there showing off.

Most importantly - and no matter how many times you hear it, it’s worth saying again - the greatness of a story, whether in book, television, play or movie - is not WHAT the story is, but HOW.  In the case of The Killing we have a plot motif seen hundreds of times before, and familiar-sounding characters.  We even have a dumb-ass name.  But none of that matters.

The Killing is effective, gripping, first-rate drama that you shouldn’t miss.

(There’s an Encore presentation of the two-hour pilot on Thursday, or you can watch it online any time at  Regular episodes are Sunday at 10:00 on AMC.)

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