Once upon a time, American Movie Classics was the lesser cousin of Turner Classic Movies. It delineated its slim territory on the basic cable roster by playing 20-plus-year-old movies that were rarely considered classics and often not even categorizable as American. In the last few years, though, the network has built a reputation for creating some groundbreaking TV series. With hard-hitting, appointment-television shows “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead,” AMC is now a ratings-grabbing, Emmy-hoarding machine. You can add to that AMC’s newest series, “The Killing.”
The show is based on the Danish crime series “Forbrydelsen” (“The Crime”) and mines some of the same Nordic noir territory as Stieg Larsson’s insanely popular “Millennium Trilogy.” (Think The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but less rapey.) Set in sun-deprived Seattle, the 13-episode series starts out chronicling the final day of work for retiring homicide detective Sarah Linden. Linden is played by the refreshingly plain Mireille Enos (from HBO’s “Big Love”). If this were network TV, our heroine would be a sexy forensic scientist. Here, she looks and feels like an average, ordinary person. While cleaning out her desk and preparing to hop a plane to California to meet up with her fiancée, Linden gets distracted by the disappearance of a teenage girl named Rosie Larsen. (OK, now think “Twin Peaks,” but less trippy.)
The entire first episode of the series is taken up with the discovery of Rosie’s body. We know from the title alone that the girl is dead, and it is to the credit of the show and its creators that “The Killing” can adopt such a leisurely, detail-oriented pace and still remain so gripping. This sort of slow-burn storytelling (each episode consists of one 24-hour period) allows the show to home in on things that would be glossed over in any other detective show. On “CSI,” the murderer would be behind bars in 45 montage-heavy minutes. Here, we get to witness the mounting heartbreak of the parents (Brent Sexton and cult actress Michelle Forbes, both doing fine work). We get to experience Sarah’s torn allegiances. She’s desperate to get out of Seattle and on with a normal family life. Before long, though, she’s missed two flights out of town and we know she’s in for the long haul. As are we.
The story is split into three intertwined segments: the detectives trying to solve Rosie’s murder, the grieving parents looking for justice, and a local politician who may or may not be tangled in this ugly web of murder. The characters at all levels are rich and real. Knowing and caring about their stories makes this whodunit all the more engrossing. From its cloud-draped cinematography (Seattle has rarely looked gloomier) to its brilliant cast to its finely tuned script, “The Killing” is a rare beast: a mystery you’re desperate to see solved, but don’t want to end.