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April 23, 2014

Review: 'The Killing' Is a Gripping Murder Mystery Worth Following

by Maureen Ryan, posted Apr 1st 2011 10:00AM
It's rare for a new program to demonstrate as much confidence as 'The Killing' (9PM Sunday, AMC) does in its excellent opening hours.

Maybe that's because the show has, in a sense, done this before: The AMC drama is based on a wildly popular Danish murder-mystery titled 'Forbryldelsen.'

But there's more to it than that: 'The Killing' simply trusts its audience to follow along. It trusts that it doesn't need fake melodrama or overheated intrigue to keep its audience's interest.

Like most AMC dramas, this enthralling murder mystery knows that a taciturn lead character and an unfamiliar world can keep viewers' attention if that world and the people in it are created with exceptional attention to detail.

Like 'Breaking Bad,' 'Mad Men' and 'The Walking Dead,' 'The Killing' uses savvy aesthetic choices and minimalist but effective acting to create a vibe and tell a story with an irresistible undertow of forward momentum. And in its first episode, it does the near-impossible: It gives away the main event of the series in the title, yet the final moments of the first hour pack a serious emotional wallop, as do moments in subsequent episodes.

You've noticed that I'm being vague about what actually transpires in 'The Killing,' and that's by design. I'll be writing about the show each Monday, after episodes air on Sunday night. Post-mortems, if you'll pardon the phrase, are really the best way to delve into what the show is attempting and whether it's succeeding or not. I'm a big fan of mystery novels, and I'd really hate it if someone told me what happened in the 10th chapter of a book when I was still on Chapter 1.

It's not giving anything away to say that, like the best mystery novels, 'The Killing' will stand or fall on not just how well it solves the murder, but on whether the drama interests us in the lives of the people who are affected by that death. In that respect, 'The Killing' is off to a very solid start. Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton do terrific work as Mitch and Stan Larsen, whose daughter Rosie is missing when the story begins, and Billy Campbell brings his usual silky ambiguity to the role of a local politician, whose story is deftly woven 'The Killing' as it progresses. Mismatched cop partners constitute one of the oldest clichés of the entertainment industry, but Joel Kinnaman gives a wily performance as Stephen Holder, a detective who's not quite as clueless as he first appears.

Deftness is on display throughout 'The Killing.' There's exposition in Sunday's two-hour premiere, but it's handled quickly and subtly, and an array of characters are introduced gracefully. But the smartest move the producers of this series made was casting Mireille Enos as Sarah Linden, the lead detective on the case. Like Jon Hamm, Bryan Cranston and James Badge Dale, Enos makes the act of looking at something -- hell, just the act of thinking -- fascinating to watch.

I don't know how actors do that, but like her AMC brethren, Enos is compelling even when her character is staring at something with a knitted brow. Sometimes it looks as though she's listening to a crime scene on a frequency no one else can hear. It's a revelatory performance, one that makes use of no tricks or histrionics to draw the viewer in. I especially love the fact that Linden is usually clad in chunky sweaters and bulky windbreakers. Like the show itself, the character has the goods, and doesn't bother with superficial methods of keeping your attention.

Yet the mood, the acting, the well-crafted story, the well-timed revelations and the overall atmosphere of melancholy restraint won't matter, in the end, if the why of 'The Killing' doesn't end up mattering. The best of the current crop of crime writers -- not just Scandinavian stalwarts such as Henning Mankell and the pulpier Stieg Larsson, but U.K. and U.S. writers such as Laura Lippman, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin and Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell -- probe the psychology and motivations of their protagonists and criminals with fearless insight and bristling intelligence. These writers weave surprising and creative characters studies into the conventions of the mystery genre; the people linger in the memory well after the murderer's been found.

It's too early to say whether 'The Killing' will end up having that kind of emotional and intellectual heft in the long run, but there's no doubt that this Seattle-set drama is off to a very strong start in Sunday's episode and the April 10 outing.

Perhaps 'The Killing's' first significant accomplishment lies in what this moody drama doesn't do. Nothing irritates me more than a sight that has become, sadly, a television cliché: the terrorization and death of an attractive young woman. Too many shows use those kinds of stories in cheap and exploitative ways, and we never find out much about the woman in question. Who she is and what she wanted never really seems to matter.

That's not the case here; the depiction of the grief of the victim's family is sensitive and heartrending. And Sarah Linden's face tells us everything we need to know about how much this particular murder victim matters to her. Woe to anyone who gets in Linden's way.


Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Melanie Egan

Michelle Forbes *and* Billy Campbell? Oh yeah. I will be watching this one for sure.

April 01 2011 at 11:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sk1d

How would you compare this to Durham County? Same kind of story and tone/atmosphere? Or something entirely different?

April 01 2011 at 7:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
KathyB

OK, dvr is set. Looking forward to this series. Also, just saw a promo for it. First one I have seen. Smiled at the 'who killed ....?" since it reminded me of Who Killed Laura Palmer promos for Twin Peaks.

April 01 2011 at 2:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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