The Killing and Forbrydelsen

June 23, 2011

With the rebirth of scripted television and the rise of original cable programming came the need for networks to establish an identity to rope in new viewers.  Gone were the days of four broadcast networks wheeling out their new shows over the course of a month and people picking and choosing; original programming is now year-round and there are a lot more outlets to choose from.  As such, cable networks have developed brand identities in the hopes of building a core audience of faithful viewers who are always willing to check out their new shows because they have certain expectations.  FX is largely male-oriented and ‘edgy’, HBO is high-quality content for the discerning viewer, USA is light entertainments, and TNT hews closer to broadcast drama procedurals.  AMC has been in the original series game for five years now, and off the back of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, they’ve gained enough critical acclaim (and the awards that go with it) to see themselves as the only true rival for HBO’s high-quality crown.  The idea, I think, is to not have any particular genre niche to cater to, but rather to create and maintain a stock of exceptionally good shows that anybody who likes good TV can tune into and enjoy.  Their biggest hit to date, The Walking Dead, complicates this, of course, as it is a fairly mediocre show that doesn’t transcend its zombie trappings at all, but like HBO and True Blood, AMC won’t complain about a hugely successful money maker.  The Killing, based on the acclaimed Danish series Forbrydelsen, on the other hand, is clearly attempting to rise above its crime genre roots and become The Next Great Thing.  At that it fails miserably, but for reasons that go beyond simple execution. 

For a much better analysis on The Killing and AMC’s brand identity crisis than I can ever give, I recommend you read this piece by Myles McNutt at his Cultural Learnings blog, but for our purposes, it’s important to remember the expectation a new AMC show brings with it, based on the network’s own marketing as well as viewer experience.  There was a solid critical consensus at the beginning of the series that this was a high quality show.  It was moody, well-acted, interesting, and the plot looked to be engrossing.  As the season wore on, however, the grumblings began softly and then became very, very loud.  Common complaints centered around the seemingly endless red herrings, the general incompetence of the two lead detectives, and the repetitive scenes of the dead girl’s mother sobbing in grief.  Interestingly enough, these were the exact problems I found in the original series, and the griping raised up issues of, if not a total cultural gap, than a marked difference from what American TV aficionados expect from their classy dramas than what the largely middle-class viewers of Britain are looking for.

Forbrydelsen was aired on BBC4 in the UK, the kind of high-culturally minded channel that has a small but affluent viewership and prides itself on the quality of its content.  It was something of a runaway success for that channel, owing in no small part to word-of-mouth and excited praise-pieces in The Guardian, which likened it to The Wire.  When I finally sat down to watch the series, however, I found it to be rather standard crime drama fare, anchored by an exceptionally good performance by Sofie Gråbøl as Detective Inspector Sarah Lund.  Gråbøl was extraordinary in the role, imbuing Lund with a quiet stubbornness and determination that sometimes effectively tipped over into recklessness.  The scene where she lights a cigarette reminded of Alain Delon dropping the keys in Le Samourai; it was a moment of quiet desperation beautifully played.  Other than Gråbøl, there wasn’t much above and beyond in Forbrydelsen, save perhaps the atmospheric use of the wet, grey streets of Copenhagen and an exceptionally presented finale, which was all darkness, flashlights, and climactic despair.  Still, the series ran a punishing 19 hours, which was at least 10 hours longer than it needed to be.  The fill in those gaps there were endless red herrings and blind alleys, and though those might be expected in a homicide investigation, their only purpose on the show was to allow for yet another episode-ending cliffhanger, a ploy that felt cheap and tired four episodes in and never got better.  There’s a way to present the tedium of police work (The Wire was a lot of legal wrangling and sitting on rooftops, and AMC’s own Rubicon spent a lot of time in bland offices staring at papers) that gets across the frustration and time-consuming nature of any large investigation, but only if the larger show requires it.  Forbrydelsen never had the capability (or perhaps the interest) in transcending its crime drama roots.  Drawing it out wasn’t about depicting anything resembling reality; it was about mistaking duration for quality.  Like a lot of the Nordic Noir trend ushered in by the success of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, it features a lot of grit and style but little in the way of substance.  It might be unfair, but I can’t help but attribute its success to the same impulse in a certain strata of society that raises up The King’s Speech to Best Picture levels.  You can dress it up in grit and a bit of sleaze and subtitles, but people really want your standard genre fare as opposed to something truly challenging.

Perhaps the most glaring central problem in Forbrydelsen is that of the Mayoral candidate Troels Hartmann (Lars Mikkelsen).  He has the largest B-plot of the series, and an inordinate amount of time is devoted to his political campaign and the problems it faces from both the case and general insider corruption.  Aside from the political storyline being rather simplistic (it had a decided lack of actual city politics, opting for more personal attacks and the moral quandaries that come from running a campaign), Troels is given the prominence of a main character and yet his ever changing position from suspect to paragon of virtue to suspect to grieving widower and back again makes it virtually impossible to invest in the character.  For instance, a rather nice dinner scene between Troels and Lund is undone by the latter’s discovery of something incriminating, and all of sudden Troels is presented as a dangerous killer (before going back to being an all-around decent guy again).  This would be fine if the series were from Sarah’s perspective, but it isn’t.  Good characterization is routinely subsumed by the desire for ‘exciting twists’ and general crime thrills.

Despite all that, it wasn’t a terrible show.  It was along the lines of a middling season of 24.  It lacked in depth and it was occasionally quite tedious, but it could be fun and occasionally thrilling.  I was optimistic for the AMC version for several reasons.  One was the pedigree of the network, and though my heart sank when I learned that the showrunner Veena Sud’s previous job was on the run-of-the-mill procedural Cold Case, there was still hope that the network wouldn’t put anyone in charge who wasn’t capable of raising the level of the show beyond its genre trappings.  There would be an emphasis on character and theme and a reduction in cheap red herrings.  It would also be a 13 episode season, which translates to a little more than ten hours as opposed to the bloated 19 of the original.  The first two episodes were promising and my optimism seemed credible.  The cast was solid, led by Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden.  Her partner, Holden, was a little annoying, but they gave him an edge his Danish corollary was lacking.  They even gave a few minutes of screen time to the victim’s little brothers, allowing them to establish distinct characters, which is something the original never bothered to do.  However, it wasn’t long before those hopes began to rapidly diminish, as it became obvious that they were going to stick fairly close to the plot of the original, blind alleys and cheap cliffhangers included.  Though it did push out a little bit here and there, including producing the best episode of either version, titled “Missing”, in which the case was put completely on hold while Sarah and Holden spent time together looking for her son who had apparently run away.  Veena Sud mentioned this was inspired by “The Suitcase” episode of Mad Men and “The Fly” episode of Breaking Bad, something like bottle episodes where it was basically about core characters interacting with each other.  It wasn’t as good as those, but it gave some welcome insight into the pair that was lacking in the original.  Despite all this, the show was content to spin its wheels the same way the original did.  By the final episode, it was clear that they weren’t even going to truncate the season, but rather they would continue the same story through to the second.  The last five minutes even went so low to shock us that it completely undid a lot of the good character work they made time for through the season, especially in “Missing”.  It was the signal that the creative team had no interest in making a great show because they were too busy making a boilerplate twisty crime drama.

A good show should be honest in story and character, but also in what it, as a show, is.  There are ways to subvert a genre like Buffy did back in the day or in using its trappings as a springboard to something better, like The Sopranos did with mobsters and Deadwood with westerns.  The bitter taste left in everyone’s mouth after the finale probably has more to do with deflated (betrayed?) expectations than the actual quality of the show itself.  If AMC promises something different from the standard claptrap that’s on offer on lesser networks, then they had better deliver.  For all its gloss, pretensions, and misdirection, The Killing is a bog standard mystery-thriller just like its predecessor.  And not a very good one at that.


7 Responses to “The Killing and Forbrydelsen”

  1. Aitor Says:

    I think one of the tags you’re using (“bad twists”), says it all. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy watching the season, but the episodes became more and more tedious, with lots of increasingly annoying cheap twists.

    I was wondering if the Danish series would be any better, but I guess I shouldn’t even bother watching it…

  2. chiaroscurocoalition Says:

    The same bad twists plague the original, but it is resolved at the end of the 19 episodes. A lot of people I respect really loved the original, so maybe I’m just being too harsh. I just think there is a difference between an enjoyable-enough entertainment and a really great show.

  3. Mal Says:

    The beauty of Forbrydelsen is the pacing. It is so slow brewing and subtle, with a focus on character development – something that’s frequently uncommon on TV these days. I guess it’s similar to 24 in respect to the plot twists, but 24 is too superficial and action orientated for my taste (a bit like a big budget action movie).

    • chiaroscurocoalition Says:

      I don’t think it’s all that slow or subtle, nor do I think the character development is particularly good. When I compare it to 24 I mean that it works as superficial entertainment. 15 years ago this would have been a hugely impressive, groundbreaking series, but in that time there are so many television shows that concentrate on character development and deliberate pacing that it now feels like an also-run.

  4. The first thing you think when he saw the American version (unlike what happens with other remakes) is that you have not lost anything by not having seen the original, that is, no one has the feeling of missing something.
    Both are very interesting and share many things, but there are also many differences. And, interestingly, people with a predilection for one or the other, but do not hate or despise the other.
    If we look at the scores of FilmAffinity or imdb, for example, we see that the American version vece by a few tenths, surpassing both the 7 or 7.5.
    I particularly I opted for Danish. I think the depth of the characters is somewhat higher in the European and more credible. But both are highly recommended.

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