It’s true: For years, TV procedurals have revolved around murder. Murder – as horrifying of an act as it is in real life – makes for pulpy fun in fiction. It’s the stuff of farce, of dark comedy and quirky investigation.
But then came Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Murder wasn’t good enough – it had to be really twisted stuff, it had to be rape and torture and perversion. Many of CSI plots involved extremely strange and gross mutilations. Horror movies abandoned the jump-out-and-scream chase scenes for lengthy scenes of the camera languishing on slow, stomach-churning torture.
Take a look at this synopsis for a Criminal Minds episode, which begins with an elderly man being beaten, tortured, and wheeled to an incinerator to be cremated. Then it starts to gets really torture-y with broken glass and dismemberment and circular saws. Even shows that should be popcorn fun – like Breakout Kings – insist on this sort of grisliness.
The Killing, an AMC series that follows the 13 days after a young girl’s murder in Seattle, would be different, I hoped.
For now, most of the critical discussion about The Killing has been centered on precisely that: how The Killing contrasted with most of the murder-fare on television. No cheesy morbid one-liners from the detectives. One case stretched over 13 episodes. When the pilot first aired I raved that The Killing’s “mad genius is treating an absolutely horrifying act with its actual real-life gravity.” Last week, Inlander critic Luke Baumgarten saw another difference when he wrote that the lead detective was “the most boring lead TV character” he could think of.
But the more I watched, the more surprised I was by how similar it was to the torture-kill-squirm-investigate formula of CSI, Criminal Minds and Law and Order: SVU.
It’s a gruesome killing: They find Rosie’s bloody shirt in the field. They find her body drowned inside a Senator’s campaign car, her fingernails damaged from trying to claw her way out of the trunk.
But quickly, the show cranks up the horror to make it even more absurd. Turns, out – of course – the school has a secret sex dungeon (essentially) in the basement of the school, where a pervert janitor watches. A video turns up that appears to show Rosie getting raped by two masked teenage boys in that basement.
It’s more of the same type of nightmare-for-parents that procedural TV traffics in, exaggerated with little bearing on reality.
Similarly, the major suspects are nearly all archetypes, all unsurprising and unexplored. The charismatic teacher who may have had affairs with students. The spoiled rich kid suspect sneers, and acts spoiled, creepy and privileged. The brooding skater kid – whom The Killing's website identifies as “Skater Kid” – looks exactly like a 1995 scare-ad of a skater would look like. He mostly just glowers.
A typical procedural episode will introduce some obvious suspects, discover evidence that clears them one by one, and then finally stumbles upon proof of the real killer: The most recognizable guest star.
So far, The Killing has done exactly that, but across 13 hours instead of one. Simply slowing down the formula doesn’t make it any less of a formula.
The Killing still does do a heart-breaking job – often to the point of being over the top – of showing what it looks like for a family to grieve when they’ve lost their child. No moment has been as profound as Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman’s calling his dead girlfriend’s voicemail answering message on repeat, but they have been close. But The Killing’s notes of the family’s grief – with the father collapsing in emotional pain in a gas-station bathroom or the mother simulating drowning herself in the bathtub – mostly feel real. This sort of grief could have followed an accident or a sudden illness.
Which makes the contrast with the pulpy nature of the investigation all the more jarring. The Killing had a chance to be new, to be refreshing, to be a unique take on an old subject. Instead, it’s falling into the same ruts as the rest of television.
If anything a procedural like NCIS and Criminal Minds has more variations in tone. Here, like the Seattle rain, the grim tone never lets up. The cinematography is always lit in shadows, as if Seattle politicians can’t afford lamps.
We’ll see how the rest of the season plays out. And the next season. As long as The Killing veers away from the mystery – and concentrates on the real-life impact of such a killing, the story could become unique. Right now, they're playing the same horrifying notes we've heard before.
A story about a heinous crime can make for good television – but it isn’t the heinousness of the crime that makes it great, it’s the subsequent consequences that follow.