I haven’t found any reviews that capture what I think is good about the Danish detective series The Killing (Forbrydelsen) currently showing on BBC4, so I’m going to write my own.
The reason I’m watching The Killing is because a few weeks ago I was ranting to a friend about how brilliant-yet-flawed characters (eg Fitz from Cracker, Sherlock Homes, House) are rarely female. There are plenty of obnoxious-yet-right, ugly/nasty-yet-lovable male characters, but females usually have to be nice and polite; they can be capable but never genius, logical but usually proved wrong. Plus main female characters should also be ethereally waif-like and perfectly pretty at all times and it’s difficult believe a woman is driven and obsessed if you know she must have to disappear to the toilets every hour to check her makeup. I also told my friend that I believed this trend was getting worse rather than better. A few weeks after the conversation the same friend told me to watch The Killing, I did and it was great (thank you friend).
The main character is a detective called Sarah Lund, she investigates just one murder throughout the first series, that of Nanna Birk Larson, a nineteen year old girl. Lund is not quite Fitz, but she is definitely brilliant; intuitive, quick thinking, seeing details that others miss, and definitely flawed. She’s a fairly crap mother, girlfriend and work colleague, but this is because she has such intensity of purpose and passion for her job that the rest of life tends to get trampled. She doesn’t care about career advancement, she cares about getting the bad guy, and the rules and sensibilities of others are largely irrelevant. To use a cliché: she’s a maverick, she breaks the rules, but she gets the job done.
Just to make clear, I don’t think that this is a particularly good way to be or that all women should be like this, just as I don’t think men should try to be like Fitz, but there is a joy in watching a powerful, brilliant character with true, obsessive passion for her work. TV is about escapism and fantasy and I get little joy from watching bland, well-behaved women being mediocre. Lund is fabulous. However, she is just part of what makes this series unique, here are some other things…
The pacing is all wrong
Only when watching this did I really notice how predictable the pace of other detective shows is. On CSISS (CSI Style Shows, most recent UK shows seem to follow a similar formula, perhaps because CSI is so popular) and much of TV and film there is a distinct pattern to events. Things don’t happen in the same order each time, but with the use of camera angles, style of acting, music and so on, it is always clear what type of scene you are watching and roughly what will happen in it, for example:
- the build up – sinister music, not much talking, characters looking concerned or being distracted – always leads to a scary event
- investigation – furrowed brows, characters keep asking each other questions, often a montage of clue collecting
- quirky exchanges between characters – often while standing next to brutally murdered victim, but during a time of relative calm and inactivity
- personal conversations – either soft focus ‘concern’ scene or soft focus flirty scene, usually take place on route to somewhere important or over a microscope
The Killing doesn’t use that pacing at all, it ignores convention. Sometimes things happen without any build up, and others just happen without having a relevance to the plot, eg:
- Lund knocks over a coffee cup, she picks it up
- Test results get lost and have to be redone
- An entire scene is set up to look like a main character is going to be attacked, but never is
The effect of this is that the viewer never knows when things are going to happen and what things are important, so there is a genuine sense of surprise and an insidious tension; after all if there is no logic to when bad things happen, they might happen at anytime so you can’t prepare yourself for the emotional changes and have to pay greater attention. It also makes the settings seem far more realistic, the slightly dingy offices where drinks get spilt and things change without warning are much more familiar to me than the ordered, shiny, never-stumble worlds of CSISS.
The subtlety of the characters
Having an investigation that stretches out over twenty episodes means that we properly get to know the characters. Not in a ‘aha! You thought he was the good guy, but really he’s a killer!’ way, but in a ‘see how complex humans are? they change depending on situation’ way.
The murdered girl’s father (Theis) is a case in a point. A large man who doesn’t often speak, he can illicit absolute sympathy at some times, but then fear at others. His size can seem reassuring, terrifying or tragic depending on what is happening and what he is feeling. He doesn’t fit into any TV character category that I recognise so I can’t dismiss him as a type (or trope), instead I find myself judging him in the way I would judge a real person.
Lund’s detective partner (Jan Meyer) is in some ways a stereotype – the resentful, less talented one – but again there are other subtleties to his character, we can understand why he feels the way he does and he sometimes gets to be the hero – unlike the stereotype who will always get it wrong.
Watching The Killing I have realised that usually TV characters only have ten or so facial expressions between them. Some of these are:
- the macho sneer (often accompanied by a rude shoulder-bump)
- aesthetic thoughtfulness with furrowed brow
- the irrational-yet-sexy anger
- the raised eyebrow smirk (often while making a quip during a crisis)
- the soft focus faux-empathy
I don’t think I have seen any of these facial expressions in real life, when I am deep in thought I usually look a bit vacant and if I ever shoulder-bumped a colleague I think they’d be seriously miffed. The Killing doesn’t seem to use these, it uses more complex expressions that I recognise from reality and therefore identify with much more.
There is also a subtlety to the acting that causes the viewer to constantly try to analyse what the character might be thinking and feeling – for example,
- Lund’s very controlled and often insincere expressions as she tries to placate her colleague and family, it is clear that she doesn’t use facial expressions to show what she is thinking, but what she wants others to think she is thinking. She makes most TV characters look a bit simple.
- The murdered girl’s mother (Pernille) who has a constantly bewildered and distracted face as she repeatedly fails to come to terms with what has happened to her child. Her evident shock and undramatic horror as she tries to carry on with the practicalities of life are heartbreaking, unlike CSISS when bereaved parents are shown being tearful in a few scenes and then gone and forgotten.
Again it is the fact that The Killing is closer to reality than to TV life that enables the viewer to feel more empathy with characters and be more affected by the events.
Some of the characters are good looking, others are less so, however this doesn’t really seem to matter because the attractiveness of characters isn’t ever mentioned and a character’s importance and goodness is not determined by their looks. The actors wear makeup, but they don’t have that plastic, unreal, lineless skin that women on CSISS do, their faces move. Lund’s face has pores and sometimes her hair is greasy. Plus her clothes are the kind you would want to wear if you were chasing a killer – shoes you can run in, jeans and jumpers, sometimes she wears the same clothes for days on end.
I think all these differences come not only from time and care taken in making the series, but also due to a respect for the viewer. To watch this you need to concentrate, to have patience, to think. Most British and US TV at the moment seem to assume that the viewer is lazy, inattentive and in constant need of eye candy, unfortunately the more TV is created like this the more viewers will become lazy and inattentive (why pay full attention when you know what is about to happen?), jarred by any physical imperfections and confused by occurances that do not fit the usual patterns.
The Killing is being remade by the US which is interesting. Often when successful programmes are remade in another country, the very things that made those programmes different and successful in the first place are ignored. With The Killing I think the success comes from the fact it simply doesn’t look like television, the characters are not copies of other TV characters, they are copies of real people, the plot does not unfold in the manner of TV plots but more awkwardly, closer to the way events unfold in real life; as a result it isn’t throwaway like most TV. I am curious to see if the US remake realises this and uses it or ignores it and creates another CSISS that looks and acts just like TV usually does.
Note: The Killing (Forbrydelsen) is currently available on BBC iplayer here http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00z1yqz/The_Killing_Episode_12/