When it comes to my television-watching time, I’m a conservative investor. I didn’t start watching The Sopranos or Mad Men until they were already established critical successes and it was easy to catch up because the first season was available on DVD. So there was a hint of desperation in my decision, on the basis of a single favorable review, to watch The Killing premiere last night in an approximation of real time. (I only gave the live broadcast a half-hour head start so I could DVR through the commercials.) I must have been feeling needy after hearing that there won’t be any new Mad Men episodes this year.
I saw enough good things to keep me watching, but just barely. The Killing doesn’t have an irresistible hook that’s revealed up front, like a hardened gangster complaining to his shrink about quotidian domestic challenges, or a highflying advertising executive leading a double life in the now-exotic early sixties. Evidently, it’s a drama that turns on the exposure of the subterranean forces concealed beneath conventional surfaces. Nothing wrong with that. But by building an extended drama around the murder of an innocent-looking high school girl in the rainy Pacific Northwest, The Killing evokes a discrediting television precedent, David Lynch’s initially arresting but relentlessly tiresome Twin Peaks.
And then there’s the fact that The Killing’s writers are trying a little too hard to undermine melodramatic convention. The first thing we see is a wholesome face of Sarah Linden, jogging contentedly through a wooded area. Cut to the terrorized expression of Rosie Larsen, desperately trying to outrun a pursuer in the dead of night over what looks like the same terrain. Just when you’re sure from the look on Sarah’s face that she has run across Rosie’s lifeless figure, we see that Sarah’s actually contemplating the remains of a dead seal washed ashore.
Score one for the writers for gently slapping our faces to make us pay closer attention. When Sarah gets a call on her cell from colleagues in the police department to proceed to a homicide scene, we’re ready for the action to start in earnest only to have our dramatic expectations frustrated yet again. Sarah, it turns out, has been made the victim of friendly prank by her male colleagues to lure her to a bon voyage party. It seems that she’s leaving the Seattle police department to start a new life with a new husband in Sonoma County. OK, I got the point; this isn’t Prime Suspect, and Sarah isn’t a professionally embattled and sexually frustrated feminist like Chief Inspector Tennison. But I was also getting a little annoyed.
The dramatic objective of The Killing’s premiere is to introduce us to five characters. When we first see four of them--Sarah, a dashing and compassionate mayoral candidate in the heat of a close election campaign and the murdered girl’s parents—they look soothingly ordinary. It’s a sign of the times that reassuring conventionality that used to be conveyed by a character’s raising a voice during church hymns or coaching little league is now conveyed by conjugal (or near-conjugal) horniness.
On her way out the door to her last day on the job, Sarah has time for some insistent foreplay with her fiancé. In the midst of a day of frantic campaigning, the mayoral candidate tries to make a half-honest woman out of his calculating campaign strategist by urging her to move in with him. And the writers reveal their reverence for American entrepreneurship by showing us that the father of the murdered girl, still blissfully ignorant of his daughter’s fate, is enough of a rugged individualist to take time off from running his small trucking company for an afternoon quickie with the wife.
In each case, however, the sexual heat conceals an undercurrent of domestic turmoil. Sarah’s evident guilt about disrupting her fifteen-year-old’s life by transplanting him to California suggests that she’s running away from some dilemma in her life in Seattle. The fact that she’s plainly going to stay in Seattle long enough to see the murder investigation through testifies to her ambivalence. There are dark insinuations that our aspiring mayor is coping with, and trying to conceal, complications presented by an ex-wife that threaten to blacken his reputation. And there's something not quite right about the Larsens, the murdered girl’s parents. They took the rest of the family on a camping trip the weekend Rosie was killed without bothering even to call the unchaperoned teenager they left behind.
All of these characters are at least mildly interesting. Yet it’s the character of Stephen Holder, Sarah’s partner on the investigation, who'll keep me watching next week. It’s not just that the actor playing him, Joel Kinnamen, steals every scene he's in. There's nothing conventional or reassuring about Holder. He has just come over to the Seattle homicide department from the narcotics squad where he became a little too conversant in the ways of the street.
That’s clear from his forensic technique once he’s out of Sarah’s inhibiting presence. I doubt that the Officers’ Handbook contemplates using a controlled substance to persuade two sexually precocious high-school girls into inviting a leering policeman to accompany them to “the cage,” the go-to place on school grounds for sexual adventure. Granted, Holder stops feigning sexual interest in the girls as soon as they’ve told him what he wants to know, and that knowledge enables him to discover an apparent murder scene (although presumably not the scene of Rosie’s murder). But no reliable adult, much less an officer of the law, should be that practiced in the art of seducing underage girls.
Sarah is a stickler for police protocol, driven to solve the case out of compassion for the victim. She’ll undoubtedly keep plugging away at the investigation tirelessly because she can't help glimpsing the murder through Rosie’s eyes. Stephen Holder hasn't time for standard police procedure because he glimpses it through the eyes of the murderer. That’s an interesting enough dynamic to keep me watching The Killing for the time being.