California Literary Review

AMC’s Unfortunate Killing

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June 4th, 2011 at 6:28 pm

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As The Killing starts its final three episodes next week without a renewal (or cancellation) notice, one cannot help but be disappointed at AMC’s first misstep in its original production line-up. Well second misstep if you count the unjust cancellation of the brilliant Rubicon.

After four years, it’s still difficult to believe that basic cable’s worst movie channel is also television’s best station for original programming. (Halle Berry’s Catwoman is not an American Movie Classic, nor is Pearl Harbor, Predator 2, Eraser, U.S. Marshals, or Reindeer Games. Even if AMC stood for Cruddy American Movies, its catalogue would still be embarrassing.) Although not as prolific as FX or HBO, and having yet to venture into the comedy realm, AMC nevertheless holds a goodwill equal to, if not greater than, those two networks.

The History: AMC’s Remarkable Collection

Mad Men

Mad Men’s premiere in 2007 served as a revelation for AMC. Unique, insightful, and remarkably complex, from its start, the 1960s advertising drama harkened back to the years when HBO radically changed how many saw the television drama with series such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire. Even more remarkably, after four seasons, Matthew Weiner’s multiple Emmy-winning show still hasn’t lost its way. Its success even inspired two new network series: ABC’s Pan Am and NBC’s The Playboy Club, both set during the decade.

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The following year introduced us to cancer patient Walter White and his magical meth making abilities in Breaking Bad. Entering its fourth season this July, the show grows increasingly more intense every year with an uncommon willingness to defer to the storyline and the characters, traveling to dark and honest places by presenting major moments in a believable timeline that lesser series would wait until finales or sweeps to reconcile. Both this and Mad Men arguably rank among the best dramatic series ever put on television, let alone basic cable.

Walking Dead

Although there’s no official return date set for the second season of The Walking Dead, one expects the hit zombie series to return around October, when its first season premiered. Based on a collection of graphic novels, the tale of people surviving after a zombie apocalypse respectably continues AMC’s trend of notable shows with interesting concepts and characters unlike anything else on the air.

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Then came Rubicon in 2010. Although criticized for being “slow,” Rubicon served as an antidote to shows like 24 and Chuck (which are both enjoyable nonetheless). With pacing unlike anything else on television and a haunting score, Rubicon was the alternative spy show. While many others in the genre relied on fast cuts, immediate action, science fiction technology, and explosions, Rubicon didn’t even allow its characters to use computers; they had to rely on their minds. In one memorable instance, after the group toils over a decision before finally making a stance on where to attack, they learn they won’t know the effects of their choice until weeks down the line. Compare that to the real time results of similar series. Rubicon’s was television’s The Conversation.

Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation

The show presented a different look at those in the spy field- the stress of the job, the paranoia, the depression- with clever dialogue and a collection of memorable characters and side characters including Arliss Howard’s Kale Ingram and Michael Cristofer’s Truxton Spangler. And, in a very naturalistic way, Rubicon presented questions about free will and the ability to fight against those who rule our lives. Although canceled after only one season, Rubicon is the type of show that people will remember fondly years down the line like HBO’s Carnivale and ABCs Twin Peaks.

Which brings us to The Killing.

The Topic: The Killing

The Killing

Based on a Danish show (that, to be fair, I’ve never seen), The Killing was AMC’s fifth venture into new programming (sixth if we’re counting 1996-1998’s Remember WENN, which we probably aren’t…). The concept was interesting enough- a procedural series where one season features one case (in this instance, the murder of teenager Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay)) from the points of view of the detectives, the family, the suspects, etc. As of the tenth episode, the show primarily centered on four different groups: the police investigating the crime (Detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman)), a teacher suspect (Bennet Ahmed (Brandon Jay McLaren)), a mayoral candidate (Darren Richmond (Bill Campbell)) whose campaign car Rosie was found in; and the Larsens themselves (mother Mitch (Michelle Forbes) and father Stan (Brent Sexton)).

The Cops: Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder

Enos and Kinnaman as Dets. Linden and Holder

The center of the show is the Rosie Larsen investigation, and thus the cops become the key to the series as a whole. Unfortunately, the cops aren’t particularly good, neither as characters nor as police officers.

The main character is Sarah Linden, a homicide detective who, in the pilot, was about to move from Seattle to California with her fiancé and son when she gets called in to investigate the disappearance of Rosie Larsen. From what I’ve gathered, Sarah is supposed to be the obsessive type, who once had a nervous breakdown due to a previous case. She is so into the Larsen investigation that she regularly misses plane flights, violates protocol, ignores her rambunctious teenage son, and is even given a stock “there’s always going to be another case!” speech from her fiancé who flies back to Seattle in the middle of night to give her this speech.

Enos As Detective Sarah Linden

However, that’s not what I get from Enos’ performance. I see a cop who comes across as bored with the entire affair, as well as pissy, annoyed, and defeated most of the time. There’s been plenty of television shows and movies featuring detectives whose every waking moment are occupied with a single case. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) from The Wire, David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) from Zodiac, and Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart) in Vertigo are just some examples of media cops who show the damage that an unsolvable case causes to someone and the people around them. Whether realistic portrayals or not, you nevertheless get the sense of just how much of an effect the mystery has on them. You do not get this with Linden.

Holder’s also kind of terrible with both suspects and victims. For victims (see her interactions with Mrs. Larsen for example), she doesn’t come across as particularly compassionate, she doesn’t really give answers, and the answers she does give often seem wrong or out of place. Could these be character flaws? Possibly, but she’s not called out on them, nor are they really referenced. Though other problems are mentioned (like how she cares too damned much!), her horrible bedside manner isn’t. As for her storyline with her fiancé and teenage son, it lacks emotional gravitas and seems like cheap shorthand better used in a low rent crime drama than a series carrying the AMC banner.

Joel Kinnaman as Detective Stephen Holder

And then there’s her partner Holder- a former junkie/Narcotics officer who never met a bad cop movie he didn’t like. Playing his role like a parody, Holder makes early-season Quinn from Dexter seem positively nuanced.

But this is a character drama, you might say. Police work isn’t necessarily exciting, you might say. All that is true. But plenty of other programming featuring the drudgery of police work at least had the decency to populate it with interesting officers. Homicide: Life on the Streets, the aforementioned The Wire, and Rubicon understood the importance of the giving life to characters who aimlessly troll through empty documents.

But is there a method to the madness? Could Linden and Holder purposely be bad cops with bland personalities prone to sloppy investigative techniques (more on that below)? Possibly. I’m still somewhat willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt that their incompetence will lead to something, but we’ll just have to wait and see.

The Main Suspect: Bennet Ahmed
Brandon Jay McLaren as Bennet Ahmed

For the bulk of the series, Bennet Ahmed served as the prime suspect in the show. A Muslim teacher who associated with Rosie Larsen, Ahmed quickly rose to the top of the killer pool by being ridiculously suspicious and needlessly cocky. Once Holder and Linden discovered that the two wrote private notes to one another, they spent their time seemingly solely investigating him to the detriment of other potential suspects.

As the show continued presenting as Ahmed as overly guilty to the point where it became very obvious that he wasn’t guilty, his storyline became increasingly farfetched. For a show that purported to be a realistic look at police investigation, throwing in the FBI, a terrorism angle, and Ahmed moving an Islamic girl to Canada so she could avoid ritual circumcision (a concept which Detective Holder seemed not to be aware of, or be able to comprehend for that matter) stretched credibility.

His storyline ended after a piece of evidence Holder showed to Mitch Larsen led to a misunderstanding, which caused Stan Larsen to beat Ahmed halfway to death. So everything returned to square one with the exception of losing days chasing a red herring.

The Bereaved: The Larsens

Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton as Mitch and Stan Larsen

I can’t really bash the Larsens. They are the best characters on the show. Forbes and Sexton bring a sad and relatively understated honesty to their performances that the rest of the show fails to accomplish. Even when their storyline might seem a bit outlandish, the two reel it in and make it believable.

The Probably Really Guilty Distraction: Darren Richmond and the Mayor’s Race

Billy Campbell as Darren Richmond

Rosie Larsen’s body was found in the trunk of a car that was part of city councilman Darren Richmond’s mayoral campaign. Richmond was also associated with Ahmed because Ahmed participated in one of the youth empowerment programs he developed whilst on the city council and which the current mayor wants to (or already) cut funding to.

To be fair, the mayoral race actually has interesting aspects and more fascinating characters than most of the rest of the series, even if it does drift dangerously close to “You want to help children and minorities?! How dare YOU, Mr. Richmond!” territory.

Unfortunately, it feels too disconnected from the rest of the show. Despite having a connection to Rosie Larsen, her death plays too small a role in this storyline. This world is populated mostly by figures and elements completely outside of the Larsen murder. This subplot must be part of the ultimate conclusion, otherwise it’s an unforgivable timewaster.

The Rest: Everyone Else

Seattle Skyline at Night

Of course, the mayor’s race wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb if the show focused on other elements within the world of The Killing. During the first couple of episodes, Rosie’s friends, boyfriend(s), and associates seemed to be significant, but they were dropped as characters once cleared of wrongdoing (though they probably have a lot more information about Rosie herself). Similarly, the show started ignoring Rosie’s school’s reaction to her death around the same time. In a show about the emotional impact of a dead teenage girl on a community, showing how her closest friends react should be as significant, if not more, than political wranglings. Or, if the show was about the investigation of a dead teenage girl, why bother with people not really being investigated?

Additionally, when Bennet Ahmed is revealed as the prime suspect, Seattle-ans started defacing mosques and Islamic storefronts. We never see any of the people who performs the acts, any of the people performing these acts, nor get a sense of why this death would cause such a reaction other than simple mob mentality. But without the mob, it felt kind of out-of-place. In fact, from what I recall, of the main characters, only Richmond responded to the vandalism.

The Dead Girl: And What Of Rosie Larsen?

Kate Finley as Rosie Larsen

Lost in the shuffle is Rosie Larsen herself. The show fails at giving us a sense of who Rosie Larsen was. Although dead, she should still be a character, a driving force behind the investigation, a significant reason why the cops are “obsessed.” We should know about her, her likes, her fears, her desires. Yet it seems for many episodes that people have forgotten that someone died and instead care exclusively that someone died. Much like the cop’s myopic investigation into Ahmed, once Holder and Linden discover that the teacher and student wrote letters to one another, they stopped looking into other elements of the girl’s life. That is until Ahmed is cleared, and they returned to what Rosie did on the night of her death. Though as soon as they find someone new to railroad, they will probably, yet again, exclusively focus on the suspect of the day.

Though, to be fair, this lack of character development plagues practically every single person on the show.

The Others: Show Comparisons

Poster for AMC's The Killing

The tag line to The Killing was “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?”, which calls to mind the central question behind David Lynch’s legendary Twin Peaks-“Who Killed Laura Palmer?” As weird and surrealistic as that show got with dancing dwarves and red rooms and log ladies, it still managed to achieve more humanity than The Killing.

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FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean) were more interesting apart and together than Holder/Linden. The audience also got the sense of just how important and addicting this case was to both of them. The show showed in detail how Laura’s (Sheryl Lee) associates such as Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), Shelly Johnson (Madchen Amick), and Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle) dealt with their friend’s death, and how her parents (Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie) dealt with their daughter’s untimely death. With each step of the investigation, we discovered more pieces about who Laura Palmer was and why she might have been found wrapped in plastic. This isn’t to say that a series more connected to reality like The Killing should enter Lynchian territory, but there are certainly pages that can be taken from the work described by one viewer as “Brilliant! I have absolutely no idea what’s going.”

FX's Damages

Or, alternatively, we can take a show like FX’s (and now Direct TV’s) Damages. Also more or less reality based, the legal thriller starring Glenn Close as ethically challenged attorney Patty Hewes presents a new overarching mystery every season and goes back in time to explain how the characters got to that point. Even with its missteps in season 2, Damages knows how to build a mystery while building characters (and different character realms) by offering different clues every week instead of the same bit of information repeated over and over again.

The Future: What’s Next?

The next new show in AMC arsenal is Hell on Wheels. Set immediately after the Civil War, Hell on Wheels is about a Confederate soldier seeking vengeance on the Union soldiers that killed his wife.

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Okay, that looks incredible.

  • Julie Gaynor

    Excellent analysis of “The Killing” – especially comments about the detectives. They are very poorly portrayed.

    Also agree that “Rubicon” was fascinating.

  • Stan

    “The Killing” is based on a Danish show, you maroon. Also, it is awesome.

  • Kimber

    There are so many inaccuracies in this article. You even flubbed the name of the main actress. Geez, get a fact checker.

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