Wednesday, September 7, 2011

TV Review: The Killing (2011- )

By T-Rav

The Killing is an interesting show, though not a great one. It started strong and I give it credit for breaking with the typical format of today’s crime procedurals. But it does have serious flaws, which can be attributed partly to sloppy writing and partly to the limitations of reflecting reality too closely in TV programming.

The Killing’s debut was promising. Rather than being a crime-of-the-week show, its first season focused on a single homicide—the murder of Rosie Larsen, a Seattle teen—and how it affects the people caught up in her death. This was an effective choice as it made the show stand out from other crime dramas, such as CIS, which I think have grown tired.

I actually liked CSI for a long time; it had interesting stories and a good cast. But there were always a few things that troubled me, such as the tendency to elevate these glorified lab rats to detective status, or the increasingly predictable murder-of-the-week plots. My main problem, though, is how glib the CSIs are about their line of work. Now I realize that given the line of work, you might need some gallows humor to avoid a mental breakdown, but the characters exude too much hip trendiness for the subject matter of these shows -- especially when the show is heartrending. I surely don’t need to reference David Caruso’s witticisms-while-playing-with-his-sunglasses to make this point. It just seems like they treat murder and suffering too lightly sometimes. The Killing doesn’t do that and, in many ways, seem to offer itself as the anti-CSI.

The Killing gave us the chance to meet characters you normally don’t meet. The central characters are still the law enforcement people, such as lead investigator Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), who is simultaneously training her new partner, Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), so she can hand the case off to him and leave for a new life in California. But we also meet the girl’s grieving parents, Stan (Brent Sexton) and Mitch (Michelle Forbes), and a candidate for Seattle mayor, Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell), who gets sucked into the case after Rosie’s body is discovered in one of his campaign’s vehicles. This worked really well.

The show works in other ways too. First, there is some really great acting by pretty much everybody. Enos does a good job of portraying how Detective Linden begins to lose control of her life and her future as she becomes obsessed with the case. Kinnaman is excellent as a cop with a question mark over his morality. Sexton and Forbes wonderfully convey not only the shattering sense of loss that comes from having a child murdered but also the feeling of being lost, of not knowing how — or even whether — to move on. Secondly, the story is much broader than just the investigation. We see the Larsens struggling to break the news to their other children, the Richmond campaign running for cover from the political fallout of the discovery, and several other threads from the event. I like how these subplots are constructed, and the fact they receive their fair share of attention. It’s actually very fitting this show is called “The Killing,” and not something like “Seattle P.D.” as it goes far beyond being just another tiresome crime-of-the-week story.

That said, there are several aspects of this show which are problematic. One is the writing. It may not be fair to describe the writing as “sloppy,” but “overextended” would be a good way to describe it. The Killing has too many unexplored avenues, especially where its characters’ backstories are concerned. For example, we learn that Linden has had problems obsessing over past cases; she even did time in a psych ward once. But we’re never given the full story — we don’t know why this matters, or what bearing it has on the present case. In fact, we mostly learn about her past in a single episode that ignores the current investigation entirely. Similarly, we find out that Stan Larsen, Rosie’s father, used to work for the mob. Does this have anything to do with her death? Don’t know that either. Once the information is thrown out, it’s ignored for several episodes and thereafter brought up only briefly. This is true of several other subplots, and it makes the overall story feel uneven. In fact, this may be partly a function of not having a clear central character(s). The downside of looking at all aspects of the murder is that attention gets dispersed among too many people. We don’t have a main character we feel we can or should root for.

In the same way, The Killing’s attempt to maintain a strictly realistic portrayal of crime and law enforcement has its weaknesses as well as its strengths. When reviewing The Walking Dead, I argued that one of its key strengths was its ability to tell a realistic story more accurately and convincingly than most members of the zombie genre had been able to do. AMC has really stood out in this respect with its foray into TV programming; Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and TWD have all earned reputations for gritty, no-frills storylines and multi-dimensional characters, things the networks have regularly failed to deliver. As much as I like this approach, though, when telling a story, you have to strike a balance between plausible material and necessary artistic license, and this series has occasionally neglected the latter for the sake of the former.

There are a few examples of this, but one which was frequently commented on by critics was the position of the Larsen parents. The Killing moves at roughly one day per episode, so that the season finale is set about two weeks after the murder. During this two-week period, Stan and Mitch Larsen are generally in shock over their daughter’s death: especially the mother, who shows the classic stages of grief, such as undirected anger, social withdrawal, suicidal thoughts, etc. Now, if I had a daughter who’d just been murdered, this is probably what I’d be going through, so you can’t say there’s anything really wrong with this depiction. But the truth is, her character’s not really interesting while she’s going through this; she’s too withdrawn and bitter for the audience to feel invested in her. It’s not pretty, but there you go. Viewers get bored when they see you in the same grieving mood all season.

Now I certainly won’t tell the show’s writers how to do their job, but it seems to me that when you’re trying to revolutionize the crime drama genre as The Killing is doing, you have a delicate balancing act on your hands. Providing an extensive look at one murder is daring, but you also need to provide the audience with some central characters if you have long-term plans in mind. So is conveying the acute sense of loss, but the characters must show some emotional or character development to keep viewers interested in them. Balancing these tensions properly can result in a truly great television series. But this one hasn’t figured the trick out yet, and they’ve only got so much time to pull it off.

So what to make of The Killing? Personally, I like it in spite of its problems; I watched every episode this season, and I’ll at least start the second season whenever it premieres. But I don’t think this show knows exactly what kind of drama it wants to be yet. I would recommend watching it, but you might find it frustrating.


Tennessee Jed said...

Interesting review, Rav. I will admit that one of the more interesting penomenon of recent years is the gradual migration of weekly drama series away from the networks to various cable outlets including premium networks such as HBO. One problem, of course, is that they do not get promoted the way traditional network shows do. One exception, I suppose, was "The Closer."What this does to a relative oldster such as myself is set up a situation where I never even hear of these shows, let alone know where to look for them.

Right off the bat, your description of the first season reminded me of a Stephen Bochco show in the mid-90's called "Murder One" which starred veteran actor David Benzali as defense counselor Teddy (something.) I thought it was a typical Bochco effort. Good stories, great actors, well shot and it displayed a willingness of Bochco to take chances with format (remember "Cop Rock." Nevertheless, viewers grew tired of story arcs stretching over a full season and it lasted only a couple seasons as I recall. It did seem to have an element, writing that you find lacking in "The Killing."

One other thing that would probably stop me in my tracks. You mention "lead investigator" Sarah Linden. I am sorry, but Hollywood has gone way overboard on this "females as authority figures" syndrome. Particularly in series where cops are involved and we have "the hot babe" in blazer, jeans, tank top, and usually the "lead." To me, that is both obvious and phony.

Anyway, good review; maybe I can find when and where to carch the series.

T-Rav said...

Thanks, Jed! I haven't watched a lot of the cable dramas, because many of them seem just as formulaic as their network counterparts, but there are some good ones. I keep hearing "The Wire" is great, but I've never checked it out.

As far as Linden goes, I think she might surprise you a bit. For one, "hot babe" would definitely be inaccurate; she wears a sweater and very little makeup. Also, she seems to approach her job in a very functional manner--she's a detective not because it's glamorous but because she's good at it.

On the long story arc, that is something that has me worried about the show's future. From what I hear, they're going to transition to another case in the second season after wrapping up this one. How they plan on doing that, I have no idea; it would seem the show would have to drop all the cast members except the investigators and start from scratch. Maybe they'll make a smooth change-over, but I'm not convinced. Still, I would definitely give the first season a try; you can usually find reruns on AMC at 12/11c Sunday nights.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, T-Rav. I look forward to giving it a shot. I certainly have enjoyed AMC's "Mad Men." Should be easy enought to DVR the season :-)

Unknown said...

I watched all of the first season of The Killing, just as I did with Damages, which did a similar thing. I agree with your summary. My problem with both series is that one lead female is so depressing that I wanted to reach through the screen, slap her, and yell "lighten up!" Damages went of the left cliff this season, so I didn't have to continue watching. I have some hopes for The Killing, since I've given up on Dmages. I just hope the detective gets some happy therapy before the series returns.

T-Rav said...

Jed, I can't say as I've ever watched "Mad Men." I have started on "Breaking Bad" a little, though, so I may have to get into that a little as well.

T-Rav said...

LawHawk, I've watched a couple episodes of "Damages" but couldn't really get into it, though it was clearly well-acted and well-written. I think it was the first season. I haven't seen any from this season, though I did get the impression from the commercials that it was tacking hard to the left.

I assume you mean you wanted to slap the detective? ;-) It's been a pretty grim tone throughout, I'll have to agree. Although, if that's what the writers were going for all along (and I assume it was), setting the show in Seattle was an inspired choice. Was there a single episode where it wasn't raining at some point?

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Thanks for the review! I haven't seen this, but I've been interested. I've been impressed with all of the shows that the non-networks have been doing lately, I just don't have enough time to see them all.

I've actually been working on a BH article about that for next week.

I am concerned, however, about two things. (Keeping in mind that I haven't seen one.) First, a lot of people seem upset that they apparently keep finding different suspects each week. Some of the critics said it felt like the writers were jerking you around. Secondly, as Lawhawk mentions, it looks depressing more than clever. But as I said, I haven't seen it yet.

Unknown said...

T-Rav: Yep. It is the detective in The Killing and the younger female attorney in Damages. They both seem to be suffering from post-partum depression only without the partum. In The Killing her surly, mysterious-past partner could be a power of positive thinking counselor compared to her.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, thanks! Like I said, I recommend watching it if you get the time, but the caveats you mention are well taken. I personally don't mind the somewhat depressing tone the show takes--like I said to LawHawk, this is Seattle, we're not talking sunshine and roses here--but it might put off some people. But I think the multiple red herrings are what really got people irritated. Several people are investigated in turn, due to evidence that looks damning at first but always turns out to be a misunderstanding. (Warning: One of the suspects is a Muslim, so we get to hear about profiling and such for a while. It's not so bad that you want to stop watching, but it is there.) While there is an arrest in the season finale, there's a great deal of ambiguity at the end as to whether or not he's in fact guilty. Actually, the season finale made a lot of people very angry for a couple of reasons--not me, because I think it was overblown, but I don't want to give too much away. But it does sometimes feel like you're being jerked around.

T-Rav said...

LawHawk, I think everybody loves Holder (that would be the partner), perhaps as a counterpoint to all the depression. It's also a nice political balance: on the one hand, some of the messaging in the show is left-wing, but on the other, he gets referred to by Linden as "a vegetarian Jesus freak." And he clearly has it more together than she does. So I thought that was a nice touch.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, As I said, I haven't seen it and this is just what I've heard. In general, I think multiple suspects is a good thing, but it does depend on how you handle it. Two things that I don't care for which a lot of mystery writers seem to fall into are (1) each suspect is given an equal amount of reason why they are guilty so it's not legitimately possible to determine who it is, and (2) when shows go from suspect to suspect making it appear they are 100% obviously the choice until some "critical" piece of evidence is suddenly found at just the right time to create drama. I think both are cheating and aren't that interesting.

I obviously don't know if this show does that, but that SEEMS to be the criticism I've read. Although... I have also learned not to listen to most criticism, because most of it is given by people who simply missed the point.

That's the long way of saying, I'm not deterred from watching it -- I just need the time.

Ed said...

T-Rav, Good review. I enjoyed the show though I agree it's flawed. What it's missing for me is the intensity of some of the other new shows. It's got a good story and it moves along well, but it never kept me on the edge of my seat. When I think back on a show like "The Shield" or "The Sopranos" I was blown away each week. This never reached that level for me. It's not as banal as "CSI" or "Law and Order" but it's not as good as the other higher quality shows these days.

Unknown said...

T-Rav: Holder does have a wry sense of humor. I think the fact that I wasn't getting constant left-wing messages helped. Not so for Damages. Like you, I didn't find the somewhat ambiguous ending too off-putting. Oh, and it doesn't rain in Seattle all the time. They need to take advantage of the occasional sun and blue skies. LOL

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, The Shield was one of my biggest surprises when it was on FX. I hard rumors that it was good and decided to check it out, despite the fact cop shows really have become pretty lame. It was incredible! You just couldn't guess what was going to happen next. Great show!

T-Rav said...

Andrew, I would say this is definitely a case of No. 2, not so much with No. 1. It seems to be a slam-dunk against each suspect until something comes up that explains it all away. And even then, I don't think the criticism is so much about that as it is about the fact that the investigations into each suspect sometimes go on for multiple episodes before the red herring reveal.

Some of the criticism for this show is definitely from people who don't know what they're talking about. Again, this is especially true for the season finale. Beyond the fact that it left us not knowing who really killed Rosie, which is a valid complaint, most of the attacks I saw (on the Internet) were so shallow and off-base that I once wrote back and told off a supposedly professional TV critic, which is when I got the idea to do a review myself someday. So yes, take the criticism with a few grains of salt.

T-Rav said...

Thanks, Ed. I agree, it wasn't gripping enough. Good, but not edge-of-your-seat good.

As an aside, what many people don't know is that The Killing is based on a miniseries of the same name from Denmark (really, Denmark), where it was wildly popular; something like three-fourths of all Danish households were tuned in at one point. I read an anecdote once that the lead actress once visited a hospital for publicity purposes, and met a woman with terminal cancer who begged to know the identity of the killer, as she didn't think she'd make it to the finale. The actress wrote the name down a piece of paper and handed it to her; the woman read it, then swallowed it, and died like two days later. Apparently the original was edge-of-your-seat; we must have lost something in the translation.

T-Rav said...

LawHawk, okay we'll say 90 percent of the time, it's raining with no sun. I wonder if that's why so many angsty vampires live over there? :-)

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I never trust the critics unless I know more about them. For example, most of the critics you see on a site like Rotten Tomatoes are idiots who just tell you if they liked something or not, but really don't have any great understanding or appreciation of film. So what's the point in reading their reviews unless you share their tastes?

Others like Ebert, get blinded by the politics. So you have to learn to decipher his stuff.

Random idiots on the net often are responding to what they heard rather than what they personally saw. And even then, they often didn't understand what they saw.

P.S. Angsty vampires come from not eating enough fiber.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, there sure are a lot of idiots on the Internet. And a lot of them earn their bread and butter by getting other idiots to read their stuff.

Maybe they need to eat their fiber, too. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, Yeah, there are a bunch of critics who really don't know what they are talking about and they are relying on their audiences not knowing better.

Koshcat said...

Although the ending annoyed me, overall I liked it. Yes it was a little depressing at times, but a young girl was brutally murdered. The tone of the show fit the crime. I think they also tried to bring some realism into it by having red herrings. Detectives take the clues they get and investigate them, sometimes they lead to a dead end. Yes, sometimes a piece of would exonerate someone but occasionally they would get a piece of information that would bring that same person back as a suspect.

I agree it wasn't edge of your seat kind of show, but it held my interest. I like the fact that some characters were developed slowly and got to know them well. And, there wasn't some perky, big boobed blond trying to convince us that she was legitimate (see CSI-Miami).

tryanmax said...

Sounds intriguing. I think I'll give it a look. I generally like the type of drama series that take the entire season to tell one story. It's sort of like the novelization of television, if you ask me.

Just from reading your review, I would suspect the character development problem stems almost entirely from the approach of using one episode to represent one day. Unless that approach has some central relationship to the story, it's just the writers locking themselves unnecessarily into a particular pace.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, It's funny how everyone Hollywood casts these days look like models isn't it?

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I had that same thought. While I see the appeal of doing one day per episode -- it feels like that would make a lot of sense -- it really probably doesn't work as a storytelling device because the days aren't always full of the exact same amount of plot. So it would artificially control your timeframe and force you to either move things around or waste time on slow days and rush through fast days.

T-Rav said...

Koshcat, I liked it too. And I agree, the realism is refreshing. My only complaint about that is, you sometimes have to bend to the desires of the audience, and The Killing wasn't always good at doing that.

I have no idea what you're talking about with CSI: Miami! ;-)

(P.S. Thoughts on the season finale?)

T-Rav said...

tryanmax, I'd recommend it. That sort of approach has a lot to say for it. It may be why the Danish original was so popular.

On the one episode=one day thing, that's a fair point. It does have some relevance to the storylines of the characters, in that it makes more sense for their personal and professional lives than would a case that stretched out for weeks and months, but it wasn't exactly vital.

However, I think a larger problem was the need for a more obviously central character (or characters). Take my criticism of how the Larsen parents were handled. That wouldn't be such a big deal if you only saw a few minutes of them per episode, but their grief and how they dealt with it was one of the main subplots. So the fact that their characters didn't develop over the season became more evident, and more irritating. That's what really hurt the show, in my opinion.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, see my reply to tryanmax.

For what you specifically mentioned, this became evident in one of the later episodes, when Linden's son ran off and she and Holder spent the entire day looking for him. In some ways, this was a very moving episode and provided a lot of development for both of them. You really got to see where they were coming from emotionally, and they had a better understanding of each other at the end. Classic character-driven material.

But the problem is, the Larsen case didn't just go away, and it's hard to believe they could have been allowed to just roam the city looking for him and not keep abreast of any leads. Despite being a good episode, this may have been best broken up and distributed over several episodes (and not involve her son, who was a pretty useless addition to the show).

T-Rav said...

P.S. Sorry for the lateness everyone, but I got delayed--first I was caught up in watching last night's debate, then my Internet connection went out and didn't get back up until this morning, by which point I had a class to go to. So this is really the first chance I've had to check back in.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I can see where the one episode = one day thing can work, and it may work here (I haven't seen the show and can't say for sure), but it's an artificial time constraint that is probably very hard to work around. I personally wouldn't want to tie myself to that formula if I were making a show. But I see the appeal.

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