What is The Killing and what is all the fuss about?
Since it originally aired in 2007, the Danish crime series The Killing (Forbrydelsen) has become an international hit (scoring phenomenal ratings on the traditionally unwatched BBC4, largely from word-of-mouth), inspired a US television remake and spiked the popularity of those dowdy Faroese cardigans (see below) worn by its protagonist, Detective Inspector Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl). But in an age where absolutely every single show on television is a police procedural, what about The Killing makes it stand out from the pack?
The first series follows the investigation into the murder of Nanna Birk Larsen, a teenage schoolgirl from Copenhagen. With each episode representing another day in their investigation, DI Lund and her unorthodox partner DI Jan Meyer (Søren Malling) find themselves wrapped in a plot that involves city hall, shady communities and grieving families. By only dealing with one case over the course of the season, The Killing is able to set itself apart from your case-of-the-week shows like Miss Marple or The Mentalist: it can dig deeper into its characters and cater to hardcore DVD box-set fans in a way that only a serialised drama can. Instead of being like CSI or Inspector Morse, the twisty plot that winds its way around the first season makes it feel like a slow-burn version of 24 or perhaps a darker, less goofy take on Twin Peaks. Also, it’s rare in a cop show to gain an authentic sense of grief from the family of victims: over its 20 episodes, we see Nanna’s parents go through the heart-breaking process of coping with her death and watch as Lund deals with her own existential crisis.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we’ve seen a recent explosion in Scandinavian mysteries with Wallander and the Stieg Larsson novels. There certainly is a melancholy that infuses the setting; a land far north that feels perpetually near dusk that fits well into the noir mould. The photography in The Killing is shot in such a way that it feels like it’s always about to rain, or already has: the muted grey tones make you wonder why Lund doesn’t just pack it in and leave the country already. But then again, she’s not like any other TV cop: Lund doesn’t have any discernible ‘gimmick’ like most modern TV cops. She doesn’t have the ability to talk to ghosts or use Holmesian deduction to arrive at epiphanies after having seen only a single nail-clipping. The writers seem more interested in how she reacts to new discoveries instead of how she arrives at them and it pays off—watching her balance her home life and work life is as interesting as seeing the political intrigue unfold (which, to be honest, was a bit grinding at times).