Sunday, 27 March 2011

The Killing, the greatest-ever TV whodunit, just ended - thank you, Denmark!

After two and a half glorious, gripping months and 20 mesmerising hours that seemed to last about 30 minutes in total, we know who killed Nanna Birk Larsen. Importantly for this genre, the explanation didn’t strain credibility.

The killer was one of the first suspects and had already been identified as a bit of a weirdo, without their guilt being obvious from the start. (Apparently, none of the cast knew who the killer was – the actress playing chief investigator Sara Lund knew her character hadn’t done it, that’s all.)
A commenter on the Guardian website summed it up nicely today: “King Canute!!!!! Hans Christian Andersen,!!!!!!Helena Christensen!!!!!! Thumbelina,!!!! Sandi Toksvig!!!!!!, Peter Schmeichel!!!!!!Karen Blixen!!!!!!!! .......Sofie Gråbøl? Sofie Gråbøl can you hear me?????? You Danes made one HELL of a TV programme. Mange, Mange Tak!!!”

(I’ll forgive the writer for mistaking an historic piece of Norwegian football commentary for Danish – the Danes wouldn’t have been that excited to beat England: nowadays, no one is.)

Oh God, what are we going to do now? No more Troels Hartmann (the lanky bloke running for Mayor of Copenhagen), no more Theis and Pernille Birk Larsen (parents of the dead girl) or their two boys (heart-breaking in the early episodes), and no more Sarah Lund (lead detective) or Jan Meyer (her slightly demented and none-too-bright partner) or Morten Weber (Hartmann’s bulgy-eyed assistant) or Poul Bremer (wily old bastard Mayor of Copenhagen – an evil Tory if ever there was one) or Lennart Brix (Lund’s deeply creepy, stone-faced boss – at one point I even wondered if he was the killer). It seems inconceivable that we won’t be sharing the lives of these compelling characters any longer.

A few random observations:

If this had been a British series, the fact that the chief investigating officer was female would have been milked for feminist angles – here, it simply wasn’t an issue. (The Americans have done a version, set in Seattle, the first episode of which airs on a US cable channel in just over a week – as it’s a Fox production rather than HBO, I’m not holding out much hope.)

When Bjarne Henriksen, the actor who played the father of the murder victim, let his sideboards grow a bit, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Harry Secombe – tougher and better-looking, granted, but he still looked disconcertingly like the singing Goon. 

As my wife pointed out, three of the male actors had no eyelids – it must be a Danish trait.

The programme was so good that I even forgave Hartmann (lanky, eyelidless pol) for holding unrelentingly silly liberal views, especially on race. But I couldn’t help wondering just how short his girl-friend, Rie Skovgaard was – five feet tops, I should imagine (she’s second from the left in the cast photo above - and must be standing on a very large box). As Troels was at least my height, this made conversations between them rather disconcerting, visually (mind you, my wife says those who live in glass houses…). 

There was not one single aspect of this magnificent production which deserves criticism (okay, Pernille’s nutty act started to wear a bit thin after three episodes – but that’s about it). Script, direction, editing, characterisation, plotting – all quite stupendous. The acting was amongst the best I’ve ever seen on TV – Sofie Gråbøl and Bjarne Henriksen, in particular, were both unbelievably good: especially given that the former must have been onscreen for at least 10 hours in total.

Foreign TV has produced at least four crime series masterpieces during the past decade – The Sopranos, The Wire, the Swedish Wallander (both versions) and, now, The Killing. (The French series, Spiral, is only one or two notches below these brilliant works.) I can’t think of a single Hollywood crime film from the past decade that comes close. The only British TV series which deserves to be mentioned in the same breath is the wonderful State of Play (remade as a movie starring Russell Crowe).

As for the rest – forget it. Waking the Dead? Silent Witness? Trial and Retribution? Lord, no! Fake as nine-bob notes, the lot of them. 

Where did British TV’s guts disappear? Safety first, all the way. If we were to produce something along the lines of The Killing, I shudder to imagine just how truly abysmal it would be – unbelievable plot-lines, clunking script, principals constantly stepping out of character to fit story-lines, unbearably tedious personal back-stories for the main figures,  lots and lots of irrelevant scenes which fail to advance the story one whit (a speciality of modern British TV crime writers), and unremittingly right-on political posturing. 

How do our TV commissioners feel when they see something as brilliant asThe Killing? Guilty? Embarrassed? Sick? I certainly hope so.

Meanwhile, there are two pieces of good news to cheer us connoisseurs of superior foreign TV crime fiction – the third series of Spiral starts airing on BBC 4 next Saturday, and the BBC has bought the second series of The Killing – from the few scenes shown at the end of Series One last night, Lund and her creepy boss are back, and someone else has been killed. And there’s to be a third series to follow. Hoorah!

Whenever anyone suggests shutting down the BBC and letting Sky take over the world, I can’t help wondering who would show great foreign stuff like The Killing: the BBC was responsible for broadcasting all five of the crime series I’ve mentioned today. I can’t imagine Sky – or anyone else – clearing the schedules for hours of subtitled fare. So a quick “God Bless you!” to the BBC, and to everyone involved in creating Forbrydelsen -  Gud velsigne dig! 


  1. Very much agree with everything you say in your comment. A thoroughly good TV series. Everybody slags off the BBC generally [and, yes, they get many things wrong], but BBC4 gets many things right.
    Monday, March 28, 2011 - 06:34 PM

  2. On Sunday night I started thinking about the "Killing" again [my thoughts wandered after the first ten minutes of Ridley Scott's "Robin Hood" and then continued when I switched over to John Huston's "Night of the Iguana" - surely, two of the most crap films ever made?] and the reasons why it was so good.

    Apart from all the standard requirements [ casting, acting, directing etc] it succeeded because of the script and the power of realism [in contrast to edginess]. So many British and American series fall flat on their faces because they strain so hard for effect which usually manifests itself in melodrama [why do so many Anglo-Saxon actors shout so much?], gratuitous sex scenes [oh no, the wobbly white bum is coming out again], obligatory violence or graphic depictions of the results, endless cliches and, of course, being in English, the constant repetition of the F-word with the C-word now coming up fast on the outside.

    Before the beginning of every episode of "Wallander" and "The Killing" we were duly warned that the programme contained bad language and the sub-titles duly obliged. Scandivians tend to use three expletives "Helvete" [hell], "Faen" [Devil] and "Jævlig" [roughly, bloody. That's it. But the translator had obviously been told to "sex" it up. The dialogue in both series did not stray away from these three words.

    As a further illustration,I am a great admirer of HBO and much of its output in spite of the shock tactics it employs to maintain a competitive edge. OK, they have their failures ["Oz", "Generation Kill"], but their successes are legion - especially "Band of Brothers" [well done BBC for co-producing] and "Pacific". But they are beginning to strain for effect with their current offering "Boardwalk Empire" in order to keep their edgy "advantage" over the terrestrial competition; the money spent is being flaunted [overblown production values], the violence and sex is too graphic and sickening. Their creative gurus should be given whatever the mental equivilant is of stool softener. Great TV series do not need a stream of shock events to keep the momentum going and the dialogue does not have to be expletive-driven to affirm street credibility.

    The Scandinavians have demonstrated the effectiness of restraint and perhaps have put us on the road back to TV series for grown-ups.
    Tuesday, March 29, 2011 - 05:11 PM

  3. So there’s about 60 of us in the room. Bankers, lawyers, accountants, regulators, investment managers, three or four senior coppers and more government consultants and contractors than it’s healthy to assemble in one place. It’s Tuesday lunchtime, two days ago, we’re in the middle of the City and we’re discussing “whither fraud” under the aegis of an absolutely fizzing think tank when, for absolutely no discernible reason one of the speakers starts talking about The Killing.

    It’s been like this all week.

    Scott’s post went up on Sunday. I thought of commenting with my eyes shut so that I wouldn’t accidentally read who done it but couldn’t trust myself.

    We’d had two lovely Danish girls staying with us last week. Denmark ran out of patterns for Lund’s jumper, Anna told me. Anna works in retail in Copenhagen, ladies’ fashion, and she offered to tell me who done it. No, I begged, and off she went with her friend Mie (sp?, sounds like “mia” as in mamma mia, possibly “meier”), to do another 12 hours comparative shopping in the horrors of the West End.

    I sat down to watch the final two episodes on Saturday but, lacking Lund’s facility to get by on no sleep, and having done a run to Luton and back starting at 4 in the a.m., I fell asleep after about two minutes. Caught the penultimate episode on Tuesday evening. Made time last night for the last episode only for Branson’s apology for a playback service to announce that there were no programmes beginning with K. Ended up watching it on a PC. Still electric.

    Should Theis have shot Vagn? Yes, if he was the embodiment of the salt of the earth, no if he was superman. As he was a very engaging embodiment of the salt of the earth, the trigger had to be pulled.

    Did we need a moonlit forest scene with dogs and torches? Yes, for The Killing, that counted as splashing out, and at least there was no helicopter noise. In any other director’s hands, the dogs would have been baying like wolves and there would have been helicopters.

    “Semi-believable”, says Scott. OK. For low values of “semi”. Vagn had always loved Theis jealously and possessively, even to the point of wanting to impress him with his eel-catching abilities so his greatest desire was for Theis to kill him, preferably on the spot where he had killed Theis’s daughter because she rejected Theis by going with ...

    Why did Vagn leave the dog chez Theis? In fact why did he even bother to buy a dog? A stupid man’s thoroughness? And why didn’t the dog bark? Why does the dog never bark when it should?

    Vagn wasn’t even remotely sinister. Just nasty. That’s realistic. Maybe a bit too articulate in the woods?

    Now that curly-headed, bespectacled assistant to Hartmann, he’s sinister. And driven, and clever, like the series of beautiful SpAds Hartmann’s obviously going to have when he becomes Mayor and gradually drinks his way into Bremer’s hospital bed because his schoolboy wet liberalism is no match for the real world.

    If you’ve ever wondered what Lurch would do if the Addams family dispensed with his services, now you know. He becomes a police chief in beautiful downtown Copenhagen and changes his name to ... Brix, was it?

    And if you’ve ever wondered what a European Harry Callaghan would look like, look no further than Lund. Family life? Yeah right. No, nothing but the job. Obsessive. Compulsive. Down those mean streets ... a dowdy-looking skinny woman must walk, ready at any time to wield the claw hammer and personally tear up your floor in the pursuit of the truth. I love it. She’s silent most of the time, but the brain is whirring, and suddenly she’s machine-gunning the interrogator’s questions or the leader’s orders to a team of procedure-bound nerds to whom it’s just a job. Very much an obsessive compulsive’s obsessive compulsive.

    I hope the next series will stay serious, in its own world, no more comic relief like Meyer. It should be unrelieved serious. Gloomy. And tired. Above all, tired. Lund must not be allowed to sleep or to change her clothes.
    Thursday, March 31, 2011 - 08:57 AM

  4. Excellent points, Vidkun. I think it comes down to whether the audience believes in the characters or not. I believe in everyone in the Swedish Wallanders and The Killing, while I don’t believe in anyone in British cop shows – and you’re so right about all the overwrought emotionalism and the stupid shouting. When did everyone start bellowing at each other and banging on about their personal lives in Britain? (After Diana’s funeral, I suspect). The scriptwriters, directors and actors here seem to have watched every US cop show going – and tried to ape their least convincing aspects. (The very worst example – ever – is ITV’s new series, Monroe, starring that irritating twerp, James Nesbitt, as a neurosurgeon (!!!), which is basically House with an Ulster accent – find me any Britons who behave or talk this way and I will gladly return to the folk from whence I came.) When did British TV folk stop knowing how the British behave? (Your point about Scandinavian restraint is really spot on!).

    As for Boardwalk Empire, it’s not good. Martin Scorcese stopped making decent movies back in the 1970s, and this is borderline awful – badly cast, clichéd and as morally repugnant as that nasty film, Goodfellas.
    Sunday, April 3, 2011 - 07:11 PM

  5. DM, I hadn’t thought about the scene in the woods – but you’re right. There would have been helicopters and snipers and bull-horns and Pernille convincing Theis not to do it. Good point about the dog – but I’m always really bad at picking up unlikeliness and inconsistency: that’s my wife’s job (should have been a detective, I suspect). What gets me is characters saying things nobody would ever say, or stepping out of character at the drop of a plot-line.

    Brix deserves a series to himself – and from the glimpses of the next series of The Killing, it doesn’t look like they’ve glammed up Lund, or let her have any sleep. The omens are good!
    Sunday, April 3, 2011 - 07:25 PM