What AMC's The Killing could learn from BBC America's excellent crime drama Broadchurch
There is a moment, toward the beginning of the first episode in BBC America’s most excellent crime drama Broadchurch, when you realize this will be a ride through a murder whodunit like no other.
It comes as David Tennant -- best known as one of the recent generation of actors to play British sci fi legend Dr. Who – drags himself to the feet of a young boy lying in the sand along the beach of a tiny seaside town.
Tennant is playing Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, a damaged crime solver from the big city who had come to Broadchurch hoping to lie low after a high-profile murder investigation exploded in his face in a previous job.
“God, don’t do this to me,” he mumbles, as a crowd of locals begin to gather, most of whom seem to know the murdered boy. Among all the police in this tiny town where gasoline siphoning and bicycle thefts top the usual crime statistics, only Hardy knows the hell that is coming; but the viewer can feel it, too.
A good story is on the way. And we can’t wait to dive in.
American audiences will get a chance to delve deeply into Broadchurch’s amazing story when the series, which aired in Britain this spring, debuts on BBC America Aug. 7 (Fod TV also announced today it will make a U.S. version of the show as an "event series" for 2014). But besides offering a compelling, impressive story, Broadchurch manages something another slow-moving murder mystery show, AMC’s The Killing, has not:
Stretching the solution of a single murder over the length of a TV season without losing the audience.
The Killing has tried for three seasons now to accomplish this feat, airing the final episode of its third season at 9 p.m. Sunday. This year’s episodes have centered on a serial killer who has likely slaughtered a dozen young girls living as throwaway children on the street – youths often from broken homes selling their bodies for enough dollars to eat or to please a demanding pimp.
But where Broadchurch’s complex story draws viewers deeper into its characters and themes as episodes progress, The Killing brings more distance the longer you watch. Traits which once seemed intriguing – the laconic, OCD-like focus Mireille Enos’ Seattle detective Sarah Linden on the case at hand – become annoying.
And last week's showcase scenes, featuring Linden trying to save Peter Sarsgaard's condemned convict Ray Seward, felt like Emmy bait without much reason -- a platform for both actors to emote without much evidence their interactions would matter much to viewers.
It's a surprising failure, given how much TV audiences loved the Danish version of The Killing, which first aired in 2007 and led to AMC's American version. It also seems to have inspired Broadchurch.
The AMC version's constant rain and moody atmosphere, leaving some scenes looking like a light or two burnt out during filming, moves from menacing and mournful to relentlessly, predictably downbeat. Even the series’ brightest spot this season, the contentious-yet-caring connection Joel Kinnaman’s streetwise Det. Stephen Holder has with a young runaway named Bullet was taken away, as she became the killer’s last victim.
These days, there’s so much high-quality TV around, that viewers embark on a new series grounded in an unspoken covenant:
I’ll give you my time, if you pay off my close attention with a story worth the effort.
The Killing has been found wanting in its two previous seasons on that score, primarily due to creator/showrunner Veena Sud’s decision to move the resolution of their first murder case from the end of the first season to the middle of second. Viewers were forced to wait many more months to learn who killed working class teen Rosie Larsen, and many decided the knowledge wasn’t worth another go-round with the series.
Unfortunately, judging a series on the first few episodes is like judging a book by the first few chapters; sometimes it’s tough to know if you’ve got winner or a wanker until you’ve seen a bit more.
So here’s a bit of a primer on how to judge quality TV shows, based on the differences between Broadchurch’s success and The Killing’s failure. These concepts could be the only rules saving you from a long time wasted tracking a show that’s not worth the effort.
Characters aren’t caricatures. Here’s where Broadchurch and The Killing compare most favorably. Tennant’s Hardy seems a typically damaged loner cop – estranged daughter, scandal-ridding past, brusque manner, doesn’t play well with others – until you learn why his old case went sideways and see that he is prone to blacking out at times of stress.
Olivia Colman plays his reluctant partner Det. Sgt. Ellie Miller (I love the way Tennant's Hardy barks her last name in his Scottish brogue, "Mill-AH!"), the kind of woman who buys gifts for co-workers while on holiday. She was promised the top inspector job Hardy got instead.
She’s also inexperienced enough with murder to shed tears while informing the family of the dead boy, who was also her son’s best friend; a connection which transforms from advantage to liability over the course of eight episodes.
On The Killing, Holder and Lunden’s dynamic is also unique, as Holder’s jive-talking white boy shtick leavens Lunden’s sullen intensity. But more recently, Holder fell down a dark hole, as his anger over Bullet’s death pushed him into attacking a former partner, while Linden mouthed words of support even she didn’t believe.
Red herrings shouldn’t last too long. This is a problem The Killing still struggles with; detectives will spend long episodes chasing one suspect, only to realize it isn’t that person, fatiguing the viewer. Broadchurch has its share of suspects as well – from the father of the murdered boy who lies about his whereabouts on the night of the killing to a local merchant with a pedophilia conviction in his past. But sorting them only adds to the story's velocity.
The series wraps when the story does. British TV is notorious for ending shows when the story is finished, not when a predetermined number of episodes has been completed. So Broadchurch wrapped after eight episodes, which was just enough to keep viewers from losing patience with the coppers and the mystery. But American TV usually asks for at least 13 episodes in a season, which could explain while The Killing sometimes feels like it's running in place, story-wise. That could also be a major issue for Fox, along with the challenge of remaking an English-language series that's already excellent. Could mean there's only one place to go, and it ain't to Emmyland.
Stories are packed with multiple meanings. Here is where Broadchurch soars. Before long, you realize the show is a treatise on the hidden secrets every small town holds, the unique relationships between parents and kids (nearly every major character has a significant and singular issue with their children) and the ability of journalism to illuminate and obfuscate – sometimes in the same report.
Best of all, as the story resolves, we see a trading of roles between Hardy and Miller; where once her connection to Broadchurch was seen as an advantage, the tables turn by the seasons’ end.
It is harder to see larger issues in The Killing, beyond the obvious notion this year that bad parenting and a ruthless urban culture have created a generation of throwaway kids on the streets. The police department is overburdened and seemingly filled with cynics hanging on for full retirement benefits, while the prison guards supervising a condemned man seem frazzled as the inmates.
Here’s hoping Sunday's chapter redeems The Killing’s moody, struggling story.
Because right now, Broadchurch stands as the best TV series to stretch a single murder investigation over a season’s worth of episodes -- and perhaps the best series of the year -- setting a standard other shows will be hard-pressed to match.