Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Killing (2007), a 20-hour Danish crime drama, is a cross between CSI and Groundhog Day. Detective Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) expects this to be her last day with the Copenhagen Police department as she is set to move to Sweden with her fiancé, but a 19-year-old girl is found raped and brutally murdered and her superior officer asks her to stay on to work the case. She is unwilling to change her plans until she finds a clue that she feels compelled to pursue. She agrees to stay an extra day to see where the clue leads, but one clue leads to another and the dedicated detective soon finds herself absorbed by an exhausting series of clues and suspects. Never in the history of crime dramas have more suspects piled up during the course of a single investigation. Lund, hopelessly trapped in this seemingly endless murder investigation, cannot bring this intended last day of work to a close. Along the way, characters are destroyed by breakups, breakdowns, bump offs, betrayals and cover-ups.

For this American viewer, the most engrossing aspect of the series is its exotic locale. The city of Copenhagen is depicted as an ominously dark and cold place. So little sunlight gets through that it becomes hard to tell if it is night or day. This allows viewers to identify with Lund, who becomes so obsessed with the case that she stops sleeping and loses track of time. Lund's obsession causes her to lose her fiancé, who breaks off their engagement, and her teenage son, who goes to live with his father. She looks increasingly drawn and wild-eyed and her sanity is eventually called into question. The series in this way resembles the 1997 Norwegian thriller Insomnia. Clearly, life is not sunshine and flowers for these Nordic murder investigators.

I am not one of those arm-chair detectives who can easily pick out the murderer in a murder mystery and yet I knew who the girl's murderer was from the very first episode. The murderer is the most obvious suspect with the most obvious motive and, in the end, all of the complications that the story presents are nothing more than false leads, blind alleys and red herrings. But the viewer has no way to know that for sure until the last hour. In the meantime, the confounding parade of suspects can serve to make the viewer feel as paranoid and disoriented as Lund. The series shares a dramatic device of House - everyone has to lie to hide dark secrets. It becomes the job of the detectives to jackhammer past the lies to arrive at a resolution. In the end, the drama remains addictive even as feints prolong the action and reoccurring formula tricks move the story into occasional self-parody.

One dramatic device that became laughable in its overuse was the-meeting-broken-up-by-a-cell-phone-call. Throughout the series, facts are introduced, conflicts arise and twists are sprung by way of coldly formal meetings that have characters sitting across from one another with lips tightened, eyes narrowed and hands folded. The series introduces these meetings, one after another, as suspects are interrogated, witnesses are questioned, victims are notified, experts are consulted, bosses are briefed, and colleagues strategize. Even a conversation between a husband and wife assumes the formality of a meeting - one spouse tells the other that he or she wants to "sit down and talk" and the couple then sit across a table from one another to discuss the topic at hand. But then a cell phone suddenly goes off, shocking news is delivered, and characters rush out of the room. No one seems to be aware of simple cell phone etiquette or the fact that a cell phone has an "off" switch.

The story also unfolds from the perspective of the victim's parents, who struggle to cope with the tragedy, and a local politician, who has been linked to the murder. Bjarne Henriksen and Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, as the grieving parents, stand out among a compelling cast of veteran Danish actors.

AMC will debut an American remake of The Killing in April. This version will only be half as long as the original, which means that many characters and subplots will be missing. The new series was shot Vancouver, British Columbia, which is meant to serve as a stand in for Seattle, Washington. It remains to be seen if the Vancouver/faux-Seattle setting can offer the same sort of cold and dark atmosphere as Copenhagen.

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