Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gutting The Killing

I have wasted 13 hours of the only life I'm ever going to have on a self-important piece of crap called The Killing. Brought onto AMC as their next 'great show' to go with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, The Killing started strongly, as I outlined here. The premise was simple. Set in a rain-soaked Seattle, The Killing was about an attractive young girl, Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay), who was kidnapped and killed by an unknown assailant. The story was broken into three strands: Mitch and Stan Larsen (Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton) and their boys dealing with the tragedy of Rosie's death; the cops, Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder (Mireilles Enos and Joel Kinnaman), investigating her murder; and the election campaign between the young uniter, Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell), and the moustache-twirling corrupt current mayor, Lesley Adams (Tom Butler). Rosie's body was found in the trunk of a car owned by the Richmond campaign. Each episode represented one day of the investigation.

Michelle Forbes
Fine. Okay. Good start. Then things started to go terribly wrong. The rain fell and fell and fell and fell. People wandered around rooms so under-lit that it is impossible to see what was going on. To use a line my colleague, Kevin Courrier, likes to use at times like this, I wanted to give them all flashlights. After the revelation of Rosie's death, the whole show's various arcs took on layers of grief and never did anything with them. The Killing has been celebrated by its fans because they claim 'it is the first show to actually get at the truth of the grief a family goes through after the lost of a child.' What The Killing actually did was hit one note of bereavement and then played it again and again and again and again. Michelle Forbes is a wonderful actress whose work I have always enjoyed (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 24, Durham County, Battlestar Galatica, etc). She brings a vibrancy to anything she's ever been in, but here she is asked to play a rag doll. With her hair permanently draped over her eyes, she locks her gaze on the middle distance and then... nothing. That's where she starts; that's where she ends. This is an unplayable character. 

If you want to really see how grief tears a family apart, hunt down a little-known Canadian TV movie starring Saul Rubinek and directed by Robin Spry called Obsessed (1988), about a mother (Kerrie Keane) trying to bring to justice a man (Rubinek) who killed her son in a hit and run accident. It's almost unwatchable (especially during the first ten minutes) because it's so intense, but once you see this you'll never forget it. It became a conventional revenge picture by the end, but until then it was very effective.

I have always been rather susceptible to honest, well-played emotion in films and TV shows, and Obsessed's opening still has an impact on my memory 23 years after I saw it. There was not one moment in The Killing that came close to eliciting any emotional reaction from me other than derision and boredom. The biggest issue, I think, is the source material. Based on a Danish TV series from 2007 called Forbrydelsen, adaptor Veena Sud (Cold Case) clearly had no clue how to shed the show's Scandinavian roots. I didn’t for a minute believe that any of these characters existed in any USA city I've ever seen. I've visited Seattle (and Vancouver, which stands in for Seattle). It's a beautiful city with some of the friendliest people I've ever met. The “Seattle” of The Killing is drab, dreary, dank, bleak, depressed place that is so damp and awful it makes almost no sense that anybody would ever live there. Even when the sun comes out, it's like it is shot through a grim filter. Then there are the characters. Kevin and I always kid about the morose nature of many Ingmar Bergman pictures. There's a famous shot from the film (I think) Shame where a man sits on a set of stairs and holds his head in despair. We dubbed this moment “Ingie-like.” This is 13 hours of every character pulling “Ingie-like” poses. It got so bad that in the third last episode the show abandoned solving the crime altogether just so Linden and Holder could sit in a car, while the Rain… Just… Poured... Down. Then they tried to find Linden's missing 13-year-old son. It took the whole damn hour and we learned nothing new about Linden (just a little bit about Holder and that was it). It should have been covered in 10 minutes, not sixty.

Joel Kinnaman & Mireille Enos
Everybody has guilt, shame or skeletons-in-the-closet here: Linden is a bad mother and emotionally fragile woman who gives up a potentially happy life in sunny Sonoma to solve the crime in sombre Seattle; Holder is a reformed alcoholic who has more than one secret; Richmond is on the surface a 'good guy,' but he's a serial philanderer, amongst other things; Adams' corruption makes Nixon look like an honest man; Stan Larsen used to run with an eastern European mobster of some sort, etc. It becomes wearying when every character is as depressed and filled with sin as the next. There is nobody to ground the viewer; nobody to hang on to. We latch on to Holder at one point because he's sarcastic and sardonic (and well played by Kinnaman), but in the finale ... well, never mind.

Even the red herrings are irritating. They introduce a sub-plot where Rosie's Muslim school teacher, Bennet Ahmed (Brandon Jay McLaren), might be guilty. Word is leaked. Stan and his crony/shadow, Belko (Brendon Sexton III – another red herring, by the by) kidnap Ahmed and beat him nearly to death. Of course, Ahmed's completely innocent, but the show's creators have to rub our noses in it further by bringing Stan down, one of the few characters here who was trying to pull himself out of the sludge his family was mired in. We can't have anybody get out of this with their dignity intact. The Killing never trusts its viewers to “get” what they’re trying to do, thus the over reliance on the rain machines, dim lighting and sad, blank faces. We get it! The landscape is a reflection of the story. Wow. Deep.

The Killing, because it is so filled with grief, is considered by many people to be a wise piece of work that gets at the reality behind horrific crimes like this. Nonsense. This show is no different than an idiotic Adam Sandler picture such as Grown-Ups. It knows its audience and plays right to them. Show them misery and they are happy; point your camera at it and say “aren't we all horrible.” But when a show like this offers no insight into what grief really means, it is no better than a frat comedy. At least the frat comedy has no illusions that it’s creating high art. The people behind The Killing think they are doing exactly that. That is the real crime.

 David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of DeathYou can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information


  1. I recently reviewed the Danish version of The Killing. It was fantastic. It was proper thriller that ran 22 episodes and didn't try to be anything other than really good entertainment. Too bad about AMCs remake... Watch the original...

  2. There are also too many holes in the plot...In the last ep, we learn Homeland Security let several days go by with a non-working surveillance camera on a toll bridge? Really? Jack Ruby moves to take out Orpheus? Really? I threw in the towel and checked all the spoliers for the Danish original show on IMDB.

    The original was 60 minutes an ep in TWO ten ep sections, with the pause being half-way at the same place as the US version (600 minute mark, or 13 US eps x 46 minutes plus commercials). That means, in order to come to a related and relevant conclusion at Day 22 (I believe), we'll need 13 or so more eps -- an entire second season.

    Go to IMDB and read who actually killed Rosie, and skip the second season.

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