Saturday, May 11, 2013

Killing Spree

What I put out there with Jester is an intense interest in comedy performance, but I’m just as equally into well-told dramatic TV and film, and have been for an equally long time – I just don’t write about it very often. 

Anyway, I’ve gotten inspired to do so again by catching up to episodes of the AMC series “The Killing,” which returns next month for its third season. I’m currently on the first few episodes of season 2 and thankfully have managed to avoid any major spoilers. (Please don’t tell me any!) I had heard people were disappointed and felt let down that season 1 did not conclude with a resolution of the murder case at the center of the story, but when you marathon-watch the episodes, that doesn’t matter so much. 

From the start of watching The Killing, I was immediately reminded of one of my favorites, the 1990s NBC series “Homicide,” whose creators Tom Fontana and David Simon went on to do the HBO series “Oz,” “The Corner,” “The Wire” and “Treme” (the latter three being all Simon’s), among other works. Despite the mastery of those shows, The Killing, in tone and subject matter, could be called the true successor to Homicide.

It starts with something as small as the credits’ theme music -- airy flutes over percussion that sounds like wood striking wood – and the visuals of abstract close-up colors depicting sirens, rain, a murdered body and other images. The tone of this introduction then bleeds into the action and the story itself. The Killing’s central detectives, Linder (Mireille Enos) and Holden (Joel Kinnaman), parallel Homicide’s Pembleton (Andre Braugher) and Bayliss (Kyle Secor). Linder and Pembleton are the intense, focused ones and Holden and Bayliss are more casual and sometimes screwed-up.

A large portion of Homicide’s first season also focused on the murder of a young girl, with Pembleton and Bayliss chasing several red herrings and dead ends. Some of the criticism of The Killing – admittedly I had to skim it to avoid spoilers – sprung from fan frustration at the way one possible suspect after another was eliminated as a possibility, leaving our protagonists Linder and Holden no closer to catching the killer. In the current television and pop culture universe, audiences have less patience for this type of storytelling than they might have when Homicide aired – hence the online chatter.

Just as Homicide did, The Killing points out that real life doesn’t usually offer the decisive resolutions that the Law & Order franchise, for all its dramatic excellence, still does. With that, The Killing yields great characterizations even in small parts. The detectives’ interrogation of Belko Royce (Brendan Sexton III) and that character’s twisted relationship with his mother recalls a scene in Homicide’s first season about Calpurnia Jones, who kills off husbands and family members for insurance money. The detectives are interviewing her very dim nephew, who reveals, “My wife, Aunt Calpurnia…” You can just imagine the rest.

Aside from this dark comic example, larger aspects of both shows have parallels – highlighting depressed American cities outside the media capitals of NY, LA, SF and DC as their settings – Seattle and Baltimore respectively. The police brass in both shows are mired in department politics and bureaucratic pressures. And when there’s real danger, you really feel it, as when Pembleton is threatened in “The Gas Man” episode and when Linder makes a discovery about mayoral candidate Richmond toward the end of the first season, while at his apartment to speak with him.

With so many parallels, the creator of The Killing, Veena Sud, has got to be a fan of Homicide. Sud previously did extensive writing and editing work on the late, lamented CBS show Cold Case, and undoubtedly is steeped in crime fiction television as a viewer as well.

Even if The Killing doesn’t go beyond a third season – which is still a possibility if the twists and turns don’t continue to stay true to this crime fiction TV standard, it’s already made a mark as a classic piece of work, and an inheritor of the Homicide mantle.