Sunday, April 1, 2012


For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

There are certain areas where being a film critic is easier than being a TV critic. For one thing, if you've been watching a bad movie, it's usually only a two-hour affair that you later write about and it's over. You move on. But in reviewing television programs, it's not over after the opening episode. You have to return to it week after week. That can be thrilling when the show is really good, but when it's really bad, a critic can feel like they're in constant purgatory. In the case of the popular AMC series, The Killing, which begins its second season tonight, David Churchill became deeply acquainted with purgatory, perhaps even wondering if he'd somehow slipped into Hell....     

Gutting The Killing

I have wasted 13 hours of the only life I'm ever going to have on a self-important piece of crap called The Killing. Brought onto AMC as their next 'great show' to go with Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and TheWalking Dead, The Killing started strongly, as I outlined here. The premise was simple. Set in a rain-soaked Seattle, The Killing was about an attractive young girl, Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay), who was kidnapped and killed by an unknown assailant. The story was broken into three strands: Mitch and Stan Larsen (Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton) and their boys dealing with the tragedy of Rosie's death; the cops, Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder (Mireilles Enos and Joel Kinnaman), investigating her murder; and the election campaign between the young uniter, Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell), and the moustache-twirling corrupt current mayor, Lesley Adams (Tom Butler). Rosie's body was found in the trunk of a car owned by the Richmond campaign. Each episode represented one day of the investigation.

Michelle Forbes
Fine. Okay. Good start. Then things started to go terribly wrong. The rain fell and fell and fell and fell. People wandered around rooms so under-lit that it is impossible to see what was going on. To use a line my colleague, Kevin Courrier, likes to use at times like this, I wanted to give them all flashlights. After the revelation of Rosie's death, the whole show's various arcs took on layers of grief and never did anything with them. The Killing has been celebrated by its fans because they claim 'it is the first show to actually get at the truth of the grief a family goes through after the lost of a child.' What The Killing actually did was hit one note of bereavement and then played it again and again and again and again. Michelle Forbes is a wonderful actress whose work I have always enjoyed (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 24, Durham County, Battlestar Galatica, etc). She brings a vibrancy to anything she's ever been in, but here she is asked to play a rag doll. With her hair permanently draped over her eyes, she locks her gaze on the middle distance and then... nothing. That's where she starts; that's where she ends. This is an unplayable character.

If you want to really see how grief tears a family apart, hunt down a little-known Canadian TV movie starring Saul Rubinek and directed by Robin Spry called Obsessed (1988), about a mother (Kerrie Keane) trying to bring to justice a man (Rubinek) who killed her son in a hit and run accident. It's almost unwatchable (especially during the first ten minutes) because it's so intense, but once you see this you'll never forget it. It became a conventional revenge picture by the end, but until then it was very effective.

I have always been rather susceptible to honest, well-played emotion in films and TV shows, and Obsessed's opening still has an impact on my memory 23 years after I saw it. There was not one moment in The Killing that came close to eliciting any emotional reaction from me other than derision and boredom. The biggest issue, I think, is the source material. Based on a Danish TV series from 2007 called Forbrydelsen, adaptor Veena Sud (Cold Case) clearly had no clue how to shed the show's Scandinavian roots. I didn’t for a minute believe that any of these characters existed in any USA city I've ever seen. I've visited Seattle (and Vancouver, which stands in for Seattle). It's a beautiful city with some of the friendliest people I've ever met. The “Seattle” of The Killing is drab, dreary, dank, bleak, depressed place that is so damp and awful it makes almost no sense that anybody would ever live there. Even when the sun comes out, it's like it is shot through a grim filter. Then there are the characters. Kevin and I always kid about the morose nature of many Ingmar Bergman pictures. There's a famous shot from the film (I think) Shame where a man sits on a set of stairs and holds his head in despair. We dubbed this moment “Ingie-like.” This is 13 hours of every character pulling “Ingie-like” poses. It got so bad that in the third last episode the show abandoned solving the crime altogether just so Linden and Holder could sit in a car, while the Rain… Just… Poured... Down. Then they tried to find Linden's missing 13-year-old son. It took the whole damn hour and we learned nothing new about Linden (just a little bit about Holder and that was it). It should have been covered in 10 minutes, not sixty.

Joel Kinnaman & Mireille Enos
Everybody has guilt, shame or skeletons-in-the-closet here: Linden is a bad mother and emotionally fragile woman who gives up a potentially happy life in sunny Sonoma to solve the crime in sombre Seattle; Holder is a reformed alcoholic who has more than one secret; Richmond is on the surface a 'good guy,' but he's a serial philanderer, amongst other things; Adams' corruption makes Nixon look like an honest man; Stan Larsen used to run with an eastern European mobster of some sort, etc. It becomes wearying when every character is as depressed and filled with sin as the next. There is nobody to ground the viewer; nobody to hang on to. We latch on to Holder at one point because he's sarcastic and sardonic (and well played by Kinnaman), but in the finale ... well, never mind.

Even the red herrings are irritating. They introduce a sub-plot where Rosie's Muslim school teacher, Bennet Ahmed (Brandon Jay McLaren), might be guilty. Word is leaked. Stan and his crony/shadow, Belko (Brendon Sexton III – another red herring, by the by) kidnap Ahmed and beat him nearly to death. Of course, Ahmed's completely innocent, but the show's creators have to rub our noses in it further by bringing Stan down, one of the few characters here who was trying to pull himself out of the sludge his family was mired in. We can't have anybody get out of this with their dignity intact. The Killing never trusts its viewers to “get” what they’re trying to do, thus the over reliance on the rain machines, dim lighting and sad, blank faces. We get it! The landscape is a reflection of the story. Wow. Deep.

The Killing, because it is so filled with grief, is considered by many people to be a wise piece of work that gets at the reality behind horrific crimes like this. Nonsense. This show is no different than an idiotic Adam Sandler picture such as Grown-Ups. It knows its audience and plays right to them. Show them misery and they are happy; point your camera at it and say “aren't we all horrible.” But when a show like this offers no insight into what grief really means, it is no better than a frat comedy. At least the frat comedy has no illusions that it’s creating high art. The people behind The Killing think they are doing exactly that. That is the real crime.

- originally published on June 23, 2011 in Critics at Large.

David Churchill is a film critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information


  1. I don't think you know their audience as well as you think. Your first point being that we seek sorrow. Let me tell you something; No story that includes the killing of a seventeen year old can be cheerful. There is nothing BUT sorrow to go with a murder. Thats the truth. Sure you have crime drama that gets you to pay attention to quirky cops and gritty police work. But thats just silly. Murder doesn't improve family dynamics, and it shouldn't.

    I had no idea that everyone in Seattle was friendly and happy. And I am especially surprised because some of the more gruesome murders in the USA have happened in that city. A very promising young female musician was stabbed no less then thirty times in Seattle in 2005. I also had no idea that it didn't rain in Seattle. I am not sure where you visited, but I think it might have been closer to Cloudcookooland. Thats the only known place where EVERYONE is friendly and happy all the time. In fact I had no idea that everyone likes sunny weather. I for one LOVE the rain, and find the relentless, cloudless sunny days oppressive. I am by no means alone. You are not everyone.

    The audience of the Killing( and we are a very social lot) are not looking for emotion of any kind. We are looking for an absolutely tight, detail oriented plot. We are looking for perfect character development, and that includes the grief that accompanies loss. So far we have gotten both. I especially applaud the Killing for their unsentimental, no stereotyping examination of the working class. No jokes, no judgement, and lots of love. Its a very compelling mix.

    We don't know if Ahmed is innocent or not. Thats really not the point. And its less red herring then it is a view into Stan, Janik, Belko, and surprisingly Mitch. The Killing relies on the audience to watch what happens, and to make sense of it. Its not teaching any lessons. No one here is good or bad, right or wrong. Everyone, including the police is simply human, and thus very imperfect. But they all have plenty of dignity. However one thing is true in the Kiling as it is in real life....its almost impossible to get through it with your dignity unbruised. Life is very hard on self esteem. I would expect no less from a drama that emulates life so well.

    These people seem very real to me. They may not be the Simpsons, but they could easily live in any industrial metropolis. They have an understandable dynamic, and a plausible past. Again, I had no idea that all families in the USA were the same. Or that we need stereotypes to "get" people.

    Now lets look at the things the Killing doesn't have; It doesn't have annoying, Sherlock Holmes inspired police. No totally improbable guess work that against all odds turns out to be correct. I always hated that from the time my mom read Conan Doyle to me. The whole....She has chalk on her sleeve therefore she is a teacher.... BS always killed it for me. How does he know she doesn't have a chalk board at home? Or that she likes to rub chalk on her sleeves for that matter? Just because something is likely doesn't make it true. Most crime drama is so guilty of that its hard to watch any of them.

    The cops are REAL cops. They aren't squeaky clean. Most real officers are not. At least not at the detective level. They are not Mentalists, they do not have OCD. Just smart people trying to do a hard job.

    And best of all, the clues are there. They just are not highlighted. Most crime drama has neither. This isn't about the emotional satisfaction of taming death by making neat, tidy, and fun. Thats what you are looking for. The audience of the Killing is looking for a challenge.

  2. David Churchill responds: Hello Anonymous, thank you for your long response to my piece on The Killing. I too prefer complexity and real human characters and drama as a counterpoint to the endless super cop drivel that's out there (I don't watch any of the shows you mention because I find them shallow). However, my point is that The Killing is equally shallow because it thinks it's deep when in fact all it does is take ONE emotion and rifts rifts rifts on it. You may not be looking for emotion, but that is all you get. But only one.

    I got it. It's a horrible and tragic occurrence. But the characters don't move emotionally at all. There is nothing but stasis here. And the rain. Oh, I know full well it rains a lot in Seattle as it does in Vancouver (where it's shot). But even that's not believable here. The rain is nothing more than a very heavy-handed metaphor for the story being told. I did not say nor imply everybody was happy in Seattle, I said not everybody was lost in a grim haze as they are here. Whenever I've been around tragic circumstances, and I have, in the real world somehow there are many moments of humour (grim and a little black though it may be) - it's inevitable. In The Killing there is none of that because the creators don't trust the audience enough to understand the nuance of humour (and many other emotions) in reaction to tragic circumstances. (That includes the rain. It rains so much because the creators don't trust the viewer to get that things are grim. What would have been more challenging is if it was a beautiful and sunny weather -- Remember 9/11? It was an absolutely glorious day. That is one thing I always remember about that day, how perfect the weather was. And that perfect day was turned into something horrifying). And realistic characters? The politicians, for example, are pulled from every dreary cliche-ridden play book I've ever seen.

    The inter-character development is weak and goes practically nowhere. The solution to the mystery was a Hail Mary at best that was not earned.

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