Billy Campbell

Helix E1-2 (Channel 5)

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It’s been a long time since the SyFy Channel has its breakout mainstream hit Battlestar Galactica, and while it has done its best to repeat the success with the likes of Being Human USA and Haven along with last year’s ambitious Defiance, the truth is that the channel will probably actually be best remembered in 2013 for its notorious ‘so bad it’s good’ Z-list creature feature Sharknado. Perhaps as a need to redress the quality balance, SyFy has started the new year with a serious quality drama from executive producer Ronald D Moore, the man behind the BSG success.

helix1The basic story of the 13-part Helix series is that of a team dispatched to investigate a viral outbreak at a remote state-of-the-art scientific station in the Arctic. When they get there, they find something never before seen, a pathogen that turns its hosts into … Well, there’s no easy way of saying this: zombies, albeit the wilful and aggressive fast-moving zombies of the likes of 28 Days Later, World War Z and Zack Snyder’s 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake, not the slowly shuffling variety pioneered by George A Romero still to be found in The Walking Dead.

As well as seeking to tap into the current mania for all things zombie, Helix also cheerfully ransacks a whole slew of other science fiction movie classics. The early episodes and overall setting strongly evoke The Andromeda Strain while the growing sense of paranoia over not knowing who may or may not be infected but yet to show symptoms is very much in the same vein of John Carpenter’s The Thing, also sharing its ice-bound location. There’s a touch of Alien (and all the films it inspired) in the ‘haunted house updated with monsters for ghosts’ mise en scene, and ultimately I was reminded most strongly of all of the TV series The X-Files, which itself was never better than when it was cheerfully purloining from every SF and horror source it could find. In fact Helix rather resembles two episodes of that show in particular (“Ice” and “Firewalker”) as well as that programme’s series arc more generally with its underlying sense of a deadly military and business conspiracy behind the threat. Read the rest of this entry »

The Killing USA – S1 E12/13 “Beau Soleil”/”Orpheus Descending”

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So, this was the hugely disappointing ending of the first season of the US version of The Killing that caused so much controversy in the States? I really can’t imagine why.

On the contrary, after the disastrous, risible episode 11 (about which I vented last week), this was a triumphant return to strong form and possibly the best work that the series has done since its feature-length pilot.

It helped that the approaching end-of-season meant that there were a series of revelations that quickened the pace of the investigation and gave a real sense of urgency to proceedings. At times the series has meandered and looked listless (in a way that the Danish version never did despite arguably even slower pacing) but that’s not the case here, and I would even go so far as to describe these last two episodes (shown as a feature length double bill finale in the UK) as genuinely gripping.

A lot of that is thanks to most of the key plot beats being lifted and adapted wholesale from some of the Danish series’ strongest mid-season work: the detectives finding the fuel discrepancy in the murder vehicle; the charged encounter between Linden and politician Richmond in his apartment; the revelations about Rosie’s involvement in a high class escort agency and about a (seeming) client who becomes the shocking prime suspect leading to an arrest. Even the Danish show’s most memorable mid-season cliffhanger – Linden coming to a realisation about the case as she sat on a plane taxiing down the runway to take her and her son away from this for good – was used to perfect effect in the final moments.

But the US version also added its own embellishments, and for once they all worked extremely well: the sound of the repeated ‘new mail’ chime in an unexpected setting; replacing the oddly unsubtle ‘Faust’ with the more nuanced ‘Orpheus’; the shocking realisation that a key piece of evidence has been fabricated (and by whom!); and the re-use for the first time since the pilot of Frans Bak’s music cues, as Linden makes a key realisation in a gas station that loops the investigation back to the original murder scene are all hugely effective.

The US version also continues to do a slightly better job of the original of untangling some of the plot threads and previously underdeveloped secondary characters that showed how the Danish version was more improvised on-the-fly than it looked on the surface. In particular, the political strand’s characters (Richmond, Jamie, Gwen and the Mayor) are finally fleshed out from their former unpleasant one-dimensional nastiness and become rather more rounded and accordingly interesting people as a result. Finally, the troika on which the series depends is finding its proper balance.

So was the dissatisfaction that greeted the ending of the season in the US just down to a frustration that it didn’t give a neat answer to whodunnit? If that’s the case, then this is one case where fans of the Danish original can rejoice. When it was announced that the US adaptation would last for 13 40-minute episodes versus the 20 hour-long episodes of the original, it seemed impossible to see how the US producers would condense the series into such a short run without compromising the story (even before they threw in pointless “fillers” like episode 11.)

Now we have the answer: they haven’t. They’ve simply divided the story into two, and what we have had so far it pretty much a faithful recounting of the first half of the Danish series episodes one through ten. There’s plenty we haven’t had yet – no mention of the ‘party flat’ for example that was so important in the original, let alone the butt-clenching tension of the blocked toilet! Will that be picked up with the same fidelity in season 2 of the US version?

I hope so – and hope that the second series doesn’t drift off on too many of its own misguided innovations that so nearly sunk it last week.

The Killing USA – S1 E11 “Missing”

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I’ve held off for the longest time commenting on the first series of the US remake of the Danish series Forbrydelsen, because I’ve not felt capable of judging it fairly and independently away from the original. Finally after this week’s instalment I had to say something, so here goes (and slightly longer length than usual.)

Initially, the US version stayed so close to the Danish original that it felt like a Gus van Sant Psycho-style unnecessary clone, where everything even down to the selection of locations, the design of sets and the choice of actors in the roles (especially the casting of the Larsen family) seemed to have been done to mirror as closely as possible the 2007 version. And one thing I found particularly disconcerting was when they even used some of the original (wonderful) musical cues in the pilot.

Then when it tried to do things differently and break away from the Danish version, I had initially resented that, too. The early loss of several sequences involving an initial prime suspect who’s been a campaign driver seemed like a missed opportunity, for example. It really did seem for a while that in my eyes there was no way for the US version to win, and that it would have been unfair to review it given that sort of in-built bias.

But before this week’s episode I’d started to come around to it, and it was particularly for those points where it deviated from the original that I started to appreciate it most. The character of Holder for example (the one part not simply a recreation of his Danish counterpart, Meyer – albeit ironically the one part played by a genuine Scandanavian actor, Joel Kinnaman) is really very interesting and unlike any character you’d usually get in a US drama (outside of the fantastic The Wire) and I’ve really enjoyed seeing him develop.

The show benefits from having access to experienced child actors (for the Larsen boys and for Linden’s son) that mean these parts can be fleshed out and contribute more actively to the show. Other second-string characters like Larsen employee Belko and Mitch’s sister Terry are fleshed out and given more of an impact and rounded role, where in the original they were left very much in the background milieu until very late in the day, the late development of which suggested some frantic late-series rewriting scrambles in the Danish production. Inevitable trans-cultural aspects such as introducing FBI cross-jurisdictional hassles was well done, and a strand about a casino on an Indian reservation in Washington state promised to be another intriguing new element.

I confess, I’ve never taken to Billy Campbell’s playing of politician Darren Richmond: much as I like him as an actor, here he seems too flat, downbeat and depressed to be any sort of inspirational leader figure. In fact the whole politics strand has been by far the weakest, with unlikeable and obvious characters (Gwen and Jamie) and even the Mayor, such a silky smooth charming piece of scheming evil in the original, here a crass and unsubtle bully of little intrinsic interest.

More worryingly, I’ve always had a sneaking concern about how far the series’ US producers really understood the show that they are working on. To be sure, they had been able to accurately reproduce the surface look-and-feel of the Danish show and do a decent direct translation of situations from Danish to American sensibilities, and to its credit the show’s preservation of the unique unflinching look at the Larsen family’s anguish has been impressively well done, and kept unusually raw and honest for an American mainstream drama. They have also maintained the slow, brooding pace of the original and not littered it with car chases and punch-ups and gun fights.

But little cracks made me think that they didn’t understand the show beyond the surface veneer. For example, while they kept that trademark slow pace for individual scenes, they then uncomfortably undermined it by the editing and sequencing around and between scenes, so that characters would suddenly hurtle from one location into another in a jarring way that implied speed and action that wasn’t delivered by the actual events on screen. The programme makers just didn’t seem to get how to do things once they stepped outside of the copycat approach that at least worked on a purely individual scene-by-scene level.

And then with episode 11, the series came rather crashing down as far as I was concerned. Where before I just suspected/feared they didn’t understand the show but it was nonetheless a passable and reasonable enjoyable facsimile despite its flaws, with “Missing” they demonstrated their misapprehension wholesale, and it was painful to behold.

The episode – the first complete departure from the Danish series – was a high-concept “bottle show” that many US producers love to do to break the boundaries of their show’s format, for example the many “musical” episodes that long-running series have done since Buffy the Vampire Slayer blazed the trail. More pertinently, The Sopranos did an episode in its first series that broke away from the usual cast and setting and saw Tony Soprano take his daughter on a road trip visiting potential colleges for her to apply to. “Missing” is not far removed from that, discarding almost all the regular cast and instead setting the entire hour-long episode in a car with just two characters: detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and the aforementioned Holder.

Now, the whole point of Forbrydelsen is that it’s a triad: the detectives’ story, the victim’s family and the political story are intimately intertwined. Take one away or over/under play one of the others and you lose the show. And “Missing” did precisely that, by presenting The Killing as just another two-cop buddy detective show, which said unequivocally to the audience: it’s really just about Linden and Holder, folks. You knew that, right?

Worse, the episode basically had the two of them opening up, sharing and caring and pretty much cutting the legs out from under any and all of the interesting simmering tensions and frictions that had built up by virtue of the Danish roots of the series. So we found out exactly what makes Linden tick, about her difficult past, her emotions, her love for her son … It’s so cookie-cutter routine American drama-approach that it makes you want to sob, and a world away from the Danish show in which no one would ever ‘open up’ like that. Instead the whole appeal of the Danish programme, the heart of the puzzle that really intrigues us, is trying to get to know these characters by the most subtle of tell-tale signs, the smallest look, and slightest twitch – the tiniest peek into a crack of their surface veneer.

The American version has no patience with that. It shatters the character puzzle wide-open with a hammer, tips the contents out onto a plate, shoves them around for a few minutes with a fork, thoroughly scrambles the contents and then discards the lot as an undercooked disappointment.

Ladies and gentlemen: episode 11 of The Killing, USA-style.

It’s so annoying, and so very deeply disappointing. I should have known better than to even try to watch the remake of such a perfectly immaculate original, but I was seduced by how an American remake so nearly got so much right. I was willing it to work, do better, be a success, and damn it if it didn’t nearly make it. But for all the good work by the actors involved and all the efforts of the writing team, “Missing” was a car wreck. It’s the moment when the producers seemed to realise “Hang on, how are we going to make this series continue year-after-year once we solve the basic original crime? Better make it a proper cop show!” Which it most emphatically isn’t, never was, and never can successfully be.

In another show, this could have worked. It could have been fine, or at least not out of place. But here it’s so thuddingly misconceived that you know from this point on that the series is doomed, because it has fatally diverged from all the good things that had originally inspired it and made it worth doing. It’s one of the few times when I can look at a show and point to the very moment when it catastrophically “jumped the shark” as far as I was concerned.

Thank goodness, the premier of series 2 of the original Danish production is almost upon us on the wonderful BBC4 to save me from all this.