I am unabashedly a television elitist, though this column has gone a long way in encouraging me toward the channels below the number 20. When I heard that AMC had delayed “Mad Men” till March 2012 in favor of newer programming, the last thing I planned to do was to watch the shows AMC had chosen over the decadent world of Sterling Cooper. And yet, one spring quarter April afternoon later, I have regained respect for the American Movie Channel and have gleaned a new understanding of the procedural form from its newest serial drama, “The Killing.”
Airing Sunday nights at 10 p.m., the show presents an adaptation of a Danish series under the direction of Veena Sud, the former show runner of CBS’s “Cold Case.” Consistent with the elitist East Coast blood coursing in my veins, I have never been a fan of crime procedurals, shows such as “CSI” or “Cold Case” which examine a new crime every week. These 45-minute episodes thrive on an unfeasible compact plot, superficial emotions and attention to forensic detail, accurate or not – the storytelling appears formulaic and assumes what the audience wants from the show. At first, “The Killing” came off as a mere expansion of that mode, procedural narrative on a cable budget. By the middle of the first episode (AMC aired the first two back to back on Sunday), however, I was immersed in the maddening worlds of crime, domesticity and politics.
In the style of many cable dramas – “True Blood” springs to mind – the large cast of characters incorporates three simultaneously parallel and perpendicular plot lines in the same geographic region of Seattle: the homicide department, led by Linden and Holder, investigates the murder of Rosie Larsen, survived by her parents and two brothers, after the girl is found in the submerged campaign car of aspirant mayor Darren Richmond. These threads all intersect in the pilot episode, establishing the diverse landscapes the show plans to cover. Seattle itself has many representative modes: the cinematography uses establishing shots to transition between the modern metropolis with the space needle, the dank setup of the industrial waterfront and the solemn flats of marshland. These contrasting ecosystems, unified by dark lighting, underline the contrasting perspectives of the characters while enabling all of those characters to pass unobtrusively through all of the settings. The muted colors, costumes and even physical beauty of the actors similarly highlight the symbolic transformation of the mundane into the horrific. The typical procedural draws its life from tales of prostitutes, extramarital affairs and celebrities, but “The Killing” actively resists this urge to sensationalize. The detectives encourage Richmond to wait to go public with the story of the murder, and he agrees. As he tells his aide, the lives of his constituents – the widow of an Iraq War vet, for example – are more important than the vortex of the murder investigation.
“The Killing” exposes its scaffolding, which both allies it with and distinguishes it from network procedurals, through its untraditional relationship to time. The pilot episode begins with deadlines – Linden has a flight at 9, Stanley Larsen has boxes to move and Richmond dashes between meetings and scheduled appearances. The constant references to the amount of time that has passed or that remains reminds us that those predictions are broken in the world of the investigation, with Linden transforming “just a minute” into 20 of them and her boss asking her to stay another 24 hours. Linden, planning to move to California to meet her fiancé at the outset of the episode, is still with us two hours later and has communicated to her replacement, Holder, that there is no time in homicide. The show, in the world of politics, high school or criminal investigation, generates suspense by obliterating time, not enslaving itself to it as procedurals normally do.
Ultimately, this disregard for conventions of time aligns with the show’s desire to depict how we communicate and absorb information. These issues lie at the core of procedurals: when will a suspect stop lying, when will the light bulb go off in the detective’s head? Consistently throughout the episode, we see a character’s auditory comprehension over the phone arrested by a visual interruption, perhaps to imply that the common structure of even our conversations is a fallacy. After Linden’s blunt classroom investigation fails, Holder gleans information from two high school soccer players by affecting a role himself, a method usually unavailable to detectives. Richmond instructs an associate to investigate the emails of his two most senior aides, as if the truth of their intent lies not in their words but the action of sending a message to the wrong person. The second episode concludes with repeated photographic captures of a bloody hand on the wall before cutting to black, a device repeated from Linden’s own zoom-in on Rosie Larsen’s butterfly necklace. First, the technique is used to confirm that Rosie is the victim; the second time, it solidifies only our curiosity – is that really blood? Or red paint as it was in the first scene, when Linden’s coworkers pranked her? The willingness of this show to contradict itself, in words and images, suggests that this traditionally filmic narrative can intrigue audiences for an entire season of television. At least until “Mad Men” returns, trading blood for martinis.