The Killing



On the Saturday evenings when I stayed in at the start of the year, I was watching ‘Boardwalk Empire’, on Sky’s newly launched channel Sky Atlantic. Though it never reached the heights of some of the great American Drama serials of the last fifteen years, it was decent enough television; there were strong lead performances from great actors including Steve Bescumi, Kelly McDonald and Michael Shannon, and an opening episode that was easily identifiable as being directed by Martin Scorsese.

It was admittedly hard work sitting through episodes I hadn’t recorded, and couldn’t fast forward between the ridiculous amount of ad breaks, but I stuck with it, because the best American drama (such as The Sopranos, The Wire, West Wing, Dexter and Six Feet Under) has shown that television can be a superior medium to cinema. The long-running serial allows multiple-storylines, complex plots, characters to have real depth and personality, as well as a sub-context only previously achieved in great novels.

While I was watching ‘Boardwalk Empire’, BBC4 was showing the Danish drama ‘The Killing’ (translated from ‘Forbrydelsen), which did all of the above, and more. With 20 episodes and one main plot, it eschewed conventional television rules, while perfectly living up to the billing it gives itself in it’s opening titles – a thriller.

I became conscious of ‘The Killing’ midway during its first airing in BBC4, mainly because of its mentions on Twitter and in the Radio Times. It was too late to catch up on it then, and I stayed away from finding anything else out about it, as I planned to watch it at some point; thankfully, BBC4 re-ran all 20 episodes again over four weeks, with the conclusion last night.

All I knew about it when I settled down to watch the first episode less than a month ago was that it was a Scandinavian series, with a lead character, a detective called Sarah Lund, who wore woolly jumpers. (I have since read the jumpers represented both the character’s independence and sense of community spirit. Can’t argue with that).

It was engrossing from the start, while early impressions hinted at themes from other dramas. The beginning reminded me of early episodes of ‘Twin Peaks’, and I also thought ‘The West Wing’ may have been an influence, with a number of characters fighting an election in City Hall. (The 20 episodes/20 days may have also been a formula from ‘24’, a programme I have never seen).

But all thoughts of televisions formulas and references are soon forgotten, as the drama takes hold. ‘The Killing’ works so well as a thriller because as a viewer, we are always being led down particular paths (some of them blind alleys) by a wonderful combination of writing, direction, camera work, and use of music. From red jackets to red herrings, we are always at the mercy of the plot.

The acting is also first-rate; in an interview with Alison Graham in the Radio Times (26th March 2011), Sofie Grabol who plays Sarah Lund, said the actors were only given the scripts on an episode-by-episode basis, and they were shot in sequence, with none of the cast knowing who committed the killing for months into filming.

The dark lighting and bleaker shades that are constant in ‘The Killing’ always suggest death and danger, and not just when Lund is going into the unknown; in episode 16 for example, an ordinary daytime meeting held in City Hall is so dimly lit, the overbearing light comes from the sun shining through the big bay window opposite the primary camera shot, so the main players almost look like silhouettes, making a mockery of traditional television story-telling.

Meanwhile, all the characters are rounded; as if created by Dostoyevsky, some of them linger in our mind long after an episode has ended, giving pause for thought and appearing in our dreams, as we gradually learn more about them. Like the story, aspects of the characters are slowly fed to us. No-one is perfect, whether it be due to making massive misjudgements, using racist language, or keeping dark secrets. Over 20 episodes we are taken through the mill, both with the emotions of the characters, and the ever unfolding developments of the plot. And the next episode can never come soon enough.

The scheduling of the rerun of The Killing at peak-time, five consecutive nights a week, was a masterstroke on the part of BBC4; many of the great US dramas mentioned earlier were first consumed by us, the viewing public, on DVD, and a 20 episode season of a quality drama would have been comfortably eaten up inside 4 weeks.

The BBC has heavily invested in making original drama itself this year, and delivered ‘The Shadow Line’, a bona-fide British Thriller which had wonderful characters, a brilliant cast, a chilling plot and more twists than a Chubby Checker convention. It is a British Drama that ranks alongside ‘Our Friends in the North’, ‘GBH’ and ‘This Life’, all of which had more episodes to play with; admittedly not a second was wasted in the seven episodes of ‘The Shadow Line’, although occasionally the dialogue seemed less natural than in ‘The Killing’ (or at least the translation we saw).

But with the BBC licence fee frozen for the next six years, as another political act of the current Con-Dem Government (who at the same time are letting private train companies raise their fares around 8% in the next year), we are a long way of from the nation’s main broadcaster being able to invest in a 20 part prime-time drama, as DR, the Danish equivalent of the BBC, did with ‘The Killing’.

And that is a shame. In a week where a big arms fair has taken place in London aimed to boost exports in a failing economy, ‘The Killing’, a Danish export finer than Carlsberg, has been a reminder of the value of well made original television drama.

These past four weeks have flown by (except for the 23 hours in between episodes). Even at the end, like life, there were still some loose ends, but after twenty hours of a developing story there was enough information given for an audience to think for itself.

An intelligent, layered drama, with confidence in its viewers, BBC4 is the perfect place for it. And Season II can’t come quickly enough.


Originally published on Moving The Goalposts

16 September 2011

With echoes of Glory from American Cinema to Bruce Springsteen, and the flavour of Escape European Travel brings, The Substantive TV Columnist Mel Gomes’ new e-book ‘Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to buy for a Kindle from Amazon for £4.27 inc VAT, and for a number of other formats including as a PDF, an online download and for Apple, Palm and Sony hand-held devices from Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.