The Wire

Difficult Men: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad, by Brett Martin

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When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, television drama fell into two categories: there was the homegrown mix of high-quality worthy but stagey UK productions that ran for between six and 13 episodes per series; and then there were the fun, flashy American imports which had little nutritional value but were handy for network schedulers as they came in seasons of 22 or more episodes that they could be shown in any order you wanted, as the events in one story were forgotten about by the start of next week’s instalment.

This sense that the US television networks just churned out endless mass-entertainment procedurals week after week – never mind the qualify, just feel the number of episodes available for syndication – persisted for two decades more, despite a brief false dawn when we had Hill Street Blues, St Elsewhere and other series from the MTM production company which seemed to show that intelligent writing with story and character progression really was possible even within the grinding 22-episode production line system. But eventually those shows faded away, with ongoing plot development a luxury relegated to the ghetto of the primetime ‘soaps’ such as Dallas in order to allow the easier-to-produce mundanity to resume elsewhere.

That is, until the end of the 1990s. The cable company HBO was starting to get anxious about the churn rate of subscribers who were cancelling after seeing all the movies they wanted on the service and feeling there were no other reasons to hang around. The executives at HBO realised they needed something fresh and original, something ongoing and exclusive to their channel alone, something that would force subscribers to stick around if they didn’t want to miss out on the talk around the watercooler the following morning. (It’s interesting to see a resurgence of this attitude today with the streaming companies like Netflix and LoveFilm/Amazon all investing in new original programming in order to get a jump on their competitors in the battle to sign up new subscribers.) Read the rest of this entry »

The Killing (Forbrydelsen) – S1 E5+6

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A couple of years ago, BBC4 had an unexpected hit on its hands when it screened four episodes of the Swedish TV detective series Wallander as part of a “support package” for the launch of the British version on BBC1 starring Kenneth Branagh. It was so well received that the rest of the Swedish series was picked up and shown in its entirety; and continued to prove so popular that it was repeated again while the second season was snapped up and shown as soon as it was produced. Finally, BBC4 even went back to the older, original Swedish film adaptations of the Henning Mankell novels and showed those as well, even though they duplicated the Branagh productions.

But having mined the Wallander seam to extinction, BBC4 needed some new blood to fill its Saturday evening crime spot – and turned to Danish television’s International Emmy-nominated series The Killing (Forbrydelsen, in the original Danish), which follows the investigation into the brutal rape and murder of a schoolgirl. I decided to try it out, but I’ll admit that the last thing I wanted was another long-running (20 hour-long episodes shown over ten weeks) heavy series commitment to a subtitled show. Hopefully I would not like it all that much.

Unfortunately The Killing turned out to be utterly brilliant. I mean, utterly. I’ve said it on Twitter but I’ll say it again here: I reckon it’s the best drama on television at the moment. In fact quite possibly the best thing I’ve seen in years. It’s completely magnetic, utterly absorbing, a compelling mystery with edge-of-the-seat moments of suspense, political conspiracy and heart-wrenching depictions of domestic loss and bereavement.

It makes The Wire – which it resembles in the way it cross-cuts the various sectors of society with its intelligent strands of storytelling – seem rather ordinary by comparison, while the central character of Detective Sarah Lund who is intelligent, insightful, low-key and committed makes Wallander (in both British and Swedish guises) look a bit of a doddering old fool.

Strangely the show that The Killing most reminds me of time and again is Twin Peaks. Not, I hasten to add, the bizarrely quirky and humorous side of that show (such as David Duchovney as a transvestite FBI agent and director David Lynch on-screen as his stone-deaf boss) but those times when Twin Peaks was very, very dark and chilling, when there was real sense of terror about characters going into the woods: for example, the moment at the end of the pilot episode when a hand reaches out of the dark to unearth the just-buried necklace of the murdered girl made me jump out of my seat at the time.

The entire series had an atmosphere of doom and menace, which The Killing shares: in both shows much is implied but little is shown, compared with a great many modern detective shows that spare the audience nothing. There is also the way both series involve the investigation into the life of a popular schoolgirl who, as the layers are peeled back, is shown to have ever-darker secrets. The moment the cops find a hidden room in the school basement where the students went for sex reminded me strongly of the boxcar scenes in Twin Peaks – it’s just that now the students are recording it on phone cameras rather than the handheld video cameras of Twin Peak‘s day. The victim’s flight through the forest in her underwear with airplanes coming into land overhead evoked much of the cinematic Lynchian style of that 1990s show.

I hear that American cable channel AMC is producing a remake of this, but I’d be amazed if it is anywhere close to being as good as this quite brilliant original production, or that anyone can compete with the astonishing Sofie Gråbøl in the central role.

As you can tell, I can’t praise this show enough. Please don’t miss out – watch it on Saturdays at 9pm on BBC4. It’s not too late to start – all episodes to date are available on the BBC iPlayer through ‘series stacking’.