This weekend, after 13 episodes, one of cable’s more buzzed-about new series, AMC Network’s crime drama The Killing, comes to the end of its first season (the show has already been renewed for a second), with what fans are hoping will be the big reveal that answers the show’s freshman question: Who Killed Rosie Larsen?
For those not in the know, Rosie Larsen was a popular high school girl who went missing in the show’s early-spring premiere, much to the anger and dismay of her working-class Seattle parents, and to the trauma of her two smaller brothers.
She was soon found, savagely raped and murdered, in the back of a submerged automobile connected to a handsome and entitled young political hopeful, City Councilman Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell).
The detective assigned to the touchy and volatile Larsen case, Det. Sarah Linden (Mirielle Enos, late of Big Love), is a single mom with a mouthy tween son and a fiance’ down in California who’s patience is running out, as she finds herself unable to tear herself away from the ongoing case.
Helping and sometimes hindering Sarah is her youngish, uber-grungy, drug-abusing new partner, Det. Stephen Holder (Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman – and FYI, the show’s origins was a Danish miniseries called Forbrydelsen). While this is definitely a drama controlled by two women, one dead and one living, and Mirielle Enos gives a standout performance, Kinnaman steals every scene he’s in as the Ratso Rizzo of young policemen, both hopeful and hopeless in equal measures.
While the trend seems to be slowing down a bit (the deaths of all of the Law & Order series besides SVU, the possible final season of CSI, now without Marg Helgenberger or Laurence Fishburne, let alone William Petersen, and the aging of its spinoffs), crime procedurals hit a high over the last decade not seen since the “swingin’ detective” era of Mannix, Kojak, Rockford, and original Hawaii Five-0 in the polyester primetime of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
Yet at the same time, the genre’s prestige amongst TV and film critics cratered. While critics once waxed rhapsodic about Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, Homicide, Law & Order (original recipe), and even CSI in its first season or two, after character-driven groundbreakers like The West Wing, Queer as Folk, Six Feet Under, and sly, witty scene-stealers like Sex and the City and Depserate Housewives redefined TV, it was case closed.
They were too by-the-numbers, too predictable, just too similar in their root causes to old-fashioned shows like Diagnosis Murder and Matlock. So at 10:58 we find out it was Mrs. Peacock who bashed Colonel Protheroe’s head in, because the blood evidence told the pattern of the wound? That’s why we were watching for an hour? Big deal.
Only The Wire, The Shield, and The Mentalist (plus of course, the crime-oriented, if not ”crime dramas” 24 and The Sopranos) kept any real critical chic. That isn’t to say that there weren’t good detective shows in that era.
One of the better ones, the much-lamented (especially by me) Cold Case, was produced for several years by The Killing’s developer, Veena Sud, and it shows in the best ways. The Killing owes the rest of its surface mojo to two critically-acclaimed and short-lived ABC shows of the past (though from vastly different styles).
The most obvious of course is David Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece Twin Peaks, complete with “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” (who was, of course, another attractive, sexually active dead teen queen).
While set in the same general atmosphere of small wooded towns and lakes, the big difference is that in Twin Peaks, the characters were stick figures created to represent various pop-culture constructs, while The Killing’s conceit is that it’s the ultimate in realistic grittiness. The other DNA donor would be Steven Bochco’s OJ Simpson-era buzzsaw, Murder One, which tracked the course of a high-profile celebrity murder trial over the course of a single season.
Yet what makes The Killing most notable, and why it’s often-rightfully enjoying the critical love that it is, is how it tells its story rather than the story itself. One of the things that made Mad Men notable was that up until it (and its late HBO predecessor, the gay-themed and subtext-driven Six Feet Under), TV critics and Emmy voters prized witty dialog and verbal tennis matches above almost all else. Think The West Wing and Law & Order in their prime, or the zingers and comebacks and storylines of All in the Family or M*A*S*H. However, what that all too often inadvertently led to is talky, obvious photographed stage plays or novels masquerading as films, with the visual, contextual aspects all but gone.
What Mad Men and Six Feet did was take a lot of the dialog away, and force the viewers to fill in the blanks for themselves. While both shows had their showoff lines, many of the spoken Sterling-Cooper one-liners and references are blatant in-jokes to the point of camp. But that’s not the point.
On Mad Men, it’s Sal’s sidelong glances, Don’s raised eyebrows, Peggy’s schoolmarm smirks, and Pete’s covetous drooling that really tells the story – and the story behind the story. In some ways, this format is even more suited to a procedural or whodunit. After all, what is detective work but picking up on the not-so-obvious clues that nobody else notices?
For an interesting contrast to The Killing that premiered at roughly the same time, there’s ABC’s delayed (but worth the wait, as it’s dominated its timeslot against formidable competition) and likewise female-driven crime show, Body of Proof. It stars the always-delightful Dana Delany as sassy medical examiner Dr. Megan Hunt (formerly a brain surgeon, who quite literally lost her nerve after a damaging car accident, and is no longer willing to risk operating on the living after accidentally killing a patient during surgery). Some might consider even comparing a network show as routine as Body of Proof to a show as arty and cable-only as The Killing to be an insult to the latter, but really they’re more like two sisters who had the same parent and morphed into different sides of the same personality coin.
Yet while Mirielle Enos has a role with deeper characterization, Dana Delany’s character is by far the more entertaining of the two to watch.
Unlike Det. Linden, the glammy, luxury-car driving Dr. Hunt has a truly powerful job (and she knows it), and came from the highest rank of professions. She’s about as likely to defer to other people or make apologies for her intelligence as Judge Judy is. And to its credit, like The Killing, on Proof the victims aren’t just cardboard cutouts but real people, even if we only really come to know them after they’ve been forced off our mortal coil.
In that way, by contrast, Det. Sarah Linden is a throwback – as ever since Roseanne, Peg Bundy, and Brett Butler hung up their oven mitts in 1997-98, lower-middle and working class women have been all but invisible on the small screen. What really makes The Killing an often killer show is that Sarah Linden is not only postfeminist but postmodern as well. She’s trying to juggle a relationship, life as a single mom, and the job and victims she’s devoted to, and Mirielle Enos does it all without drawing attention to doing it.
As Lt. Columbo used to say, “I’m just doing my job.” But Det. Sarah Linden also knows it’s so much more than that.