Review: AMC's 'The Killing' has strong atmosphere, performances
But can the show tell a satisfying 13-episode murder mystery?
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Time is the greatest asset that AMC's "The Killing" has, but it also could be its greatest enemy.
The new crime drama, which debuts on Sunday at 9 p.m., tracks a single murder investigation over an entire season. The format, adapted from a Danish series (albeit with some major plot details changed so viewers can't spoil themselves with Google) allows the series to adopt the same measured pace that's typified most of AMC's post-"Mad Men" output, and to differentiate itself from the kind of standalone, interchangeable police procedurals that are so abundant in primetime. It's more televised crime novel than traditional TV cop show.
The series' lead producer, Veena Sud, used to work on one of those shows, CBS' "Cold Case," but she takes advantage of the concept to tell her story in a way that's both more leisurely and intense than she could have within the done-in-one confines of her old show.
So there's time to get to know blue-collar Seattle couple Stan and Mitch Larsen (Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes) well before they get the horrible news that their teenage daughter Rosie has been murdered, allowing us to track their transformation from earthy lovebirds to barely-functional automatons. We get to sit with veteran cop Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and her new partner Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) as they struggle to develop a rapport, and occasionally the action stops as we just watch Linden studying the latest potential crime scene, doing something that plot-driven TV rarely has time to show: thinking. And we can linger on potential suspects like local politician Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) and Rosie's rich, cruel ex-boyfriend Jasper (Richard Harmon).
And a lot of that stuff is terrific. Enos, who played the twins Kathy and Jodeen Marquart on "Big Love," makes an unconventional but compelling lead cop, one who doesn't speak unless it's absolutely necessary (it's a trait more stereotypically applied to men on these shows), and she absolutely holds the screen as the calm, still center of this chaotic story. Sexton and Forbes have both done screen-time as cops or cop-adjacent characters, and they bring that sort of strength to their performances as two human beings utterly and understandably wrecked by tragedy. A series that was just about the grieving parents of a murdered teen wouldn't be commercially viable, but interlacing it with a more traditional police investigation format pays big dividends as it goes along.
Sud and director Patty Jenkins ("Monster") establish a level of intense dread throughout the pilot episode - helped tremendously by the ominous score by Frans Bak, who did the music for the Danish original - so that even when little seems to be happening, you can feel the darkness creeping around the edges.
So the atmosphere and central performances feel worthy of telling one story over 13 hours. My concern is whether the story can say the same.
AMC is very wisely airing the first two episodes back-to-back on Sunday. The pilot establishes the world and its characters, but it isn't until a closing sequence involving Detective Linden and Stan Larsen that the show really begins to differentiate itself from all the CBS cop shows. By pairing it with the second episode - which has more of those slow, powerful moments - AMC makes it clear from night one what this show is doing on the same channel as "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad."
At the same time, though, those two episodes and the one airing next week combine to show some of the strain that often comes from this kind of long-form plotting for television, in which one story is told over many episodes, but where each episode has to feature elements that stand on their own.
"24," which had more episodes to deal with each season and less commitment to narrative coherence, often struggled with this, giving Jack Bauer various assignments that mattered very little within the context of the season but which helped fill time in between Point A and Point B. There's nothing quite that blatant in these early episodes - Linden and Holder don't get temporarily reassigned to investigate a different murder, for instance - but a good chunk of time is devoted to Richmond trying to identify a mole within his campaign for mayor. (Moles: the "24" gift that keeps on giving.)
All the campaign-related material feels especially problematic. Because Campbell is one of the higher-profile actors on the series, and because the show spends so much time on campaign matters that are wholly-unrelated to Linden's investigation, he's clearly meant to be our prime suspect. But it's so blatant - and the political stories themselves so uninvolving in the early going - that the show sets a trap for itself: if Richmond was the killer, it's predictable, and if he's not, we've wasted an awful lot of time on a red herring.
For that matter, the pilot episode features three or four different scenes featuring horror movie-style fakeouts where something that seems like it's going to be terrifying instead turns out to be completely innocuous. (At one point, for instance, Mitch calls Stan with what sounds like awful news, but instead is revealed to be a problem with the kitchen sink.) The pilot keeps hitting beats like that so often that it almost feels like Sud, or Jenkins, or someone at AMC, didn't trust the material and format enough to grab viewers early, and inserted these teases to keep the audience hanging around until the case really got going.
There's not nearly as much of that in the other episodes I've seen, but there are some other elements that are more bothersome at length than they would be in a tighter story. Linden catches the case on what's supposed to be her last day of work before she moves with her son and fiance to a more peaceful life in California wine country, and so every episode features one or two conversations about why she hasn't left yet, the hold the job has on her, etc. It's a cliche to begin with, and thus far it's a cliche just being repeated over and over for what could be three months' worth of show.
This may not be a comparison AMC executives want to hear, but at this stage the AMC show that "The Killing" most reminds me of is "Rubicon," the low-rated, cerebral spy thriller that had fantastic atmosphere and fine performances but tended to stumble whenever it actually had to deal with plot. In particular, "Rubicon" completely botched the resolution to the story of its first and only season. Until we get to "The Killing" finale, there's obviously no way of knowing whether Sud has a better conclusion in mind, but that's the risk you take with this type of extended plot-driven series: the 13 hours you spend on a season might feel utterly wasted if the resolution isn't satisfying enough given the commitment.
Of course, "The Killing" seems a far more commercially-viable show than "Rubicon" turned out to be. There's always an appetite for murder mysteries, and the raw performances by Sexton and Forbes give the show more upfront humanity than the damaged eggheads of "Rubicon" could provide. Because of Sud's experience on "Cold Case" (where they needed a satisfying resolution every week, albeit not one that had to pay off so much story) and because she has the Danish series as a template, I'm hopeful that she'll bring all the pieces together in a far stronger fashion than "Rubicon" did.
But I'm also prepared to have to make like Sarah Linden at the end of this and just stare off into the middle distance, pondering the meaning of it all and whether I'd have been happier if I'd just gone to Sonoma.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com