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'The Killing' recap: Taking its time

April 4, 2011 |  9:00 am

Larsens
The greatest thing to recommend about AMC’s new drama “The Killing,” based on the Danish series "Forbrydelsen," is its sense of time. Things take a while on this show, and not everything happens all at once. By focusing on just one crime, show runner Veena Sud and her writers are able to examine every element of that crime in detail, from the cops investigating it, to the family grieving the loss of a daughter, to a political campaign that’s only tangentially related to what happened (or is it?). It’s a show that’s fond of wide shots that show off lots and lots of open space and empty skies, and the pacing of the series reflects those natural realms. Everything is subdued, understated, but filled with a strange menace. Stare at an empty sky long enough and it starts to feel sort of scary and isolating. The direction here takes full use of that space. In hour two, a standard scene (the police question the parents of the deceased) becomes something altogether more interesting because Ed Bianchi's direction keeps panning between mother and father in wide shot, uniting them in grief, even though they're in separate rooms.

If you think about it, not a whole lot even happens in Sunday night’s two-hour premiere, which airs the pilot and the second episode –- “The Cage” –- one after another. There are character-building moments and moments to watch our lead detective, Sarah Linden (a fantastic Mireille Enos, perhaps best known to TV fans from her work on “Big Love” as two polygamist twin sisters), who thought she was ready to leave Seattle once and for all but finds herself drawn into yet another case, figure stuff out. There are lots and lots of shots meant to give us time to puzzle out the show’s central questions ourselves. There are scenes seemingly solely devoted to parsing out who all of the possible suspects might be. By surrounding the actual events and plot points of the episodes with all of this space to do other things, the show makes those events even more powerful.

Think, for instance, of the discovery of the body at the end of the first hour. Now, we’ve all seen the promotional materials for the show. We all know that Rosie Larsen is, in fact, dead, the victim of a killer who pursues her through the woods in the pilot’s opening sequence (though we have yet to learn who that killer is). This is the moment that might close the teaser in another crime show: Somebody stumbles upon the body, and then an investigation is launched. Here, the discovery of the body is the culmination of a search by Sarah and some other cops (though it’s not immediately clear just why they see a bloody sweater and check card and expend this much manpower on trying to figure out what happened), but it’s still the same basic principle. A car is pulled from a lake. There’s the body of a teenage girl in the trunk. Lake water drips all over the ground.

But then the scene keeps going. The girl’s father has come upon the police blockade keeping him from the scene of the crime. And he just KNOWS. As all of this keeps going, drawn out more and more, Sud’s script and Patty Jenkins’ direction gain a tremendous amount of emotion from the actors playing out a scene that would be dealt with in 30 seconds on another show. Even though most of TV is based around the idea of people solving murders, few of those shows really deal with the hole a murder leaves in the lives of the people the victim leaves behind. “The Killing” looks to be the exception to this rule.

The second hour, then, really gets into the meat of the case. Rosie, it seems, disappeared from a Halloween dance at school, where all footage from the event (provided by a helpful teacher who may turn out to be much darker than he seems to be, if I’m reading some of the clues correctly) shows a happy young girl in a witch costume having a good time. After toying with a couple of witnesses in truly creepy fashion (meaning he seems to be coming on to two teenage girls and supplying them with marijuana until he gets the information he needs), Sarah’s eventual replacement and temporary partner Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman, alternately irritating and fascinating) discovers the truth about that dance: There was another, far wilder party in the school’s basement that night. And the mattress in the corner is covered in blood.

I’m less certain the story of Councilman Richmond (Billy Campbell at his smarmy best) and his run for mayor is going to have much of a connection to the story of Rosie’s death. There’s some intriguing business with whether Richmond is going to make hay of Rosie’s disappearance to benefit his campaign in the pilot (when everyone thinks she’s just a missing girl who will turn up very much alive somewhere), but that ultimately doesn’t go much of anywhere. Sure, the campaign had one of its cars turn up as the final resting place of Rosie, but the story lines involving Richmond feel incredibly tangential, though I’m sure Sud and her writers have something up their sleeves here.

I’m much more intrigued by Rosie’s parents, Mitch and Stan Larsen (Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton, respectively), who learn of the death of their only daughter, then struggle to incorporate her absence into their worldview. These scenes are deliberately slow –- Forbes and Sexton even move as if underwater, as people stricken by grief often do –- but in a way that really draws you into the suffering this family is feeling, into the feeling that life will go on, but there’s no way it SHOULD be going on, not like this. At its best, “The Killing” finds a pitch somewhere between a modern crime novel, like something by Dennis Lehane or Michael Connelly, and an Alice Munro short story collection. As long as it keeps nailing character moments like the ones with the Larsens, I think we’ll be in good hands.

Photo: Stan (Brent Sexton) and Mitch Larsen (Michelle Forbes) must confirm that the body the police have found is that of their missing daughter, Rosie. (Credit: AMC)

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--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

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