First episode impressions: ‘The Killing’ (TV review)

“The Killing” (9 p.m. Central Sundays on AMC), which instantly became the best show on TV with its two-hour premiere last Sunday despite the fact that it’s technically a cop show, exposes how we as TV viewers have become jaded by murder.

It’s not what you think, though: This show doesn’t shame us by showing the violence or horror of the crime itself; indeed, we don’t even see the murder in the premiere, and AMC warns viewers to beware of strong language, not strong violence.

Rather, “The Killing” gets under your skin by showing the raw emotions of the people involved, from the detectives to the family members. The scene where the Larsen parents finally tell their two young boys that their sister is dead is absolutely devastating. A comparison to the “Buffy” episode “The Body” — which thoroughly, unflinchingly explored everyone’s feelings in the wake of a loved one’s death — is in order. Nothing can top that episode’s greatness, but in a way “The Killing’s” feat is more impressive. It achieves its emotions despite the fact that we do not know the deceased, Rosie Larsen, at all, whereas we had known Joyce Summers for five years.

Everything “The Killing” does draws you in as a viewer. There’s the voyeuristic tension of watching the mom and dad gradually get more worried about their missing daughter when we already know (or strongly suspect) the poor girl’s fate. And there’s a certain Vancouver-y mood that has effectively served many TV shows through the years. I can’t recall if there’s a music score. If there is, it’s very faint, and yet the tone seems exactly, darkly, depressingly, correct.

I understand that shows like “Law & Order” (which famously used to open with Lennie Briscoe discovering a corpse and then making a morbidly clever remark) are not trying to set a real-world tone like “The Killing” is, yet this AMC show still shames those meat-and-potatoes cop shows. Watching this series, a viewer is gently but firmly reminded that murder is nothing to joke about. Nor, conversely, is it something to be all business about. Yes, there is a certain amount of fun and intellectual satisfaction that comes from debating “Who killed Rosie Larsen?,” and yet it feels like we should speak of her in respectful, mourning tones.

The sheer excellence of “The Killing” adds extra weight to the mystery, and it needs that weight to stand out from its many predecessors that invited us to seek clues and devise theories along with the detectives. Certainly, it’s no coincidence that “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” riffs on the early-’90s “Twin Peaks” mystery of “Who killed Laura Palmer?” (or “Dallas’ “ “Who shot J.R.?” before that). A few years ago, “Veronica Mars” featured the season-long question of who killed Veronica’s best friend. In a recent, less successful example, “Happy Town” asked us to uncover a serial killer. And, of course, there’s the current, overly drawn-out mystery of who killed Alison on “Pretty Little Liars.”

Interestingly, while AMC certainly hypes up the mystery angle on its website, the show itself (at least through two episodes) isn’t at all clue-oriented, and it doesn’t overtly parade suspects before us. And yet I’m still completely engrossed due to the emotions: Seeing Rosie’s mom collapse on the kitchen floor, screaming into the phone, or Rosie’s dad choking on the words when he tries to comfort his son.

Maybe it’s the case that great writing brings out great acting, but I was struck by how good this cast is. Everyone is so human here. Sort of like the guest casting on “The X-Files,” on “The Killing,” it’s not that the actors are unattractive, it’s just that they clearly were cast for their skills, not their looks. If you’re a TV geek, you’ll recognize several of the faces from previous shows; by the same token, you might not recognize them if they passed you on the sidewalk.

The cast (and their characters) are:

  • Mireille Enos as lead detective Sarah Linden. She has clearly seen it all before, and yet she is just as clearly affected by this case. It starts on her last day of work with the Seattle P.D. before she moves to San Diego to start a sunny new chapter with her fiance and son, and yet, by the end of episode two, she decides she can’t leave this rain-slicked city just yet. She has learned too many disturbing details about this case to walk away.
  • Joel Kinnaman as Stephen Holder, the detective who is taking over for Sarah (although they essentially become partners by the end of episode two). He acts and dresses like a perp from “Law & Order,” even smoking pot as a way to get information out of some high schoolers (and also because, I suspect, he likes smoking pot). He’s the flip side of Sarah: He’s somewhat jaded about the investigation — until they actually find the body; at that point, it’s clear he’s the novice to Sarah’s veteran.
  • Brent Sexton as Rosie’s father, Stan Larsen. Looking over his IMDB resume, I now realize I had seen Sexton in about 10 guest spots on my favorite shows (most recently when rewatching “The X-Files” eighth season), and now he gets to shine as a blue-collar dad.
  • Michelle Forbes as Rosie’s mom, Mitch Larsen. You’ll remember Forbes as the villain of “True Blood’s” second season; you’ll like her much more in this role.
  • Bill Campbell as good-guy city councilman and mayoral candidate Darren Richmond. He’ll always be Rick on “Once and Again” to me (and didn’t he go by Billy back then?). He’s still doing that soft-voice delivery, and it’s still effective.
  • Kristin Lehman as Richmond’s campaign manager/girlfriend. She’s another actor who we’ve all seen in about 10 different shows (most notably, playing Invisigoth in the “X-Files” fifth season classic “Kill Switch”).
  • Brandon Jay McLaren as Rosie’s home-room teacher. Sometimes I see a good actor on an obscure show then never hear from them again. Fortunately, McLaren, who broke through on “The Best Years,” is still getting good work, earlier this year on “Being Erica,” and now here.
  • Katie Findlay as Rosie. I hadn’t seen her in anything before, and she won’t get much screen time as “The Killing” goes on unless it shifts gears and becomes flashback-heavy. Will Findlay become the answer to a trivia question, or will she emerge to have a career, as Amanda Seyfried (the deceased girl on “Veronica Mars”) did?

AMC launched “The Killing” with a two-hour premiere. But I feel like they could’ve started with a 10-hour premiere and I would’ve hung on every minute, breaking only for meals, bathroom visits and, if necessary, calling in sick to work. I am completely engrossed. “The Killing” should be firmly in the “must watch” category for anyone who likes quality TV.

Seth's GravatarI’m hooked. I like the fact that unlike every other who-done-it? cop thriller, I’m not engrossed in finding out who the killer(s) is. Kind of like the first season of True Blood, I’m more focused on the background and story of each character,wanting to know more about Sarah’s new life, Stephen’s coolness, Stan and Mitche’s relationship and their aloofness to their daughter pre-death, Bill and the corruption of his Mayoral race within his own campaign, and Katie and her reclusiveness in herr personal life. Like you, I feel this series is must-watch.
# Posted By Seth | 4/16/11 4:03 PM
John Hansen's GravatarYes, it’s similar to a lot of series in that there is a big question to be solved in the season finale, but other things hold your attention in any given episode. Structurally, it is the same as “Pretty Little Liars.” The difference is that “The Killing” is rich with mood, characters (Holder is the most interesting TV cop I’ve seen in a while), great acting, great visuals and great writing. So, yeah, it’s one of those shows you just enjoy watching so much that the actual plot almost takes a back seat. I agree that it could be fascinating to learn about the Larsen family, perhaps through flashbacks. What was Rosie really like? What was her relationship with her parents like? We know that they all loved each other, but perhaps there is some dark stuff in there that we haven’t learned yet.
# Posted By John Hansen | 4/16/11 5:27 PM