The timely death of The Killing

The Danish TV noir was groundbreaking in style, but rather conventional in its conspiratorial worldview.

‘Better to burn out than fade away’, proclaimed Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, quoting Neil Young’s lyrics to ‘Hey, Hey, My, My’. It’s a sentiment which holds a lot of appeal in an age, as critic Simon Reynolds has it, of ‘retromania’, where the cultural landscape is dominated by ageing bands on endless reunion tours, ‘classic’ works that are seemingly continually reissued, and long-running TV and film franchises that are constantly reworked and recycled for the last drops of profitability. Artists who are brave enough to know their own creative shelf-life, we are assured, are thin on the ground.

We’ve been treated to our own on-screen blowout this week, with the final episodes of the Danish TV series Forbryldsen (The Killing). The show has certainly had an incandescent quality for UK viewers, shooting from being another worthy foreign curio on arts channel BBC4 to heralding a Scandinavian revolution in our crime-thriller appetites since it was first screened last year. Now, after three series and 40 episodes, it is apparently gone for good in a blaze of glory, leaving behind only a craving for Sarah Lund’s unique brand of knitwear and a host of imitators such as The Bridge.

In truth, as with Cobain, the question of whether the departure really happened at a creative peak is contestable and inevitably unknowable. The Killing III undoubtedly provided compelling drama up until the last shocking seconds where (spoiler alert from here on in) indefatigable incorruptible cop Lund blew the brains out of a suspect. Yet it’s been difficult to escape the sense that The Killing - far from revolutionising drama, as is sometimes slightly excitedly claimed - has been offering diminishing returns since its first astonishing series (which premiered in Denmark over five years ago).

That debut series grabbed attention for going beyond the normal conventions of its genre, offering a sprawling view of how a single crime wove together disparate elements of society, from the infighting and murky shadows of state institutions through the personal stories of those involved, most notably its unusual focus on the effects of the murder on the family involved. The dramatic polish of these elements – led by the minimalist restraint of Sofie Gråbøl’s Lund - often overshadowed the slightly more outlandish plotting that maintained the dramatic pace over 20 episodes: the question of who actually committed the killing itself always felt like a sideline from the portrait of Danish society we were being given.

Yet, as the series progressed, it became increasingly clear that writer Søren Sveistrup was painting in broad-brush watercolours rather than anything more vivid. The second series tackled the war in Afghanistan, yet its dramatic justification seemed as flimsy and vague as the confused reasons for the war itself. The third series picked up the dramatic pace, but largely repeated all the elements of the first series (murdered teenage girl, a cover-up, a grieving family, and political infighting), with the added impact of an antagonist with almost superhuman levels of intelligence and resourcefulness.

It is perhaps too easy to judge Sveistrup harshly: The Killing suffered from standing out so much from everything else in the crime-thriller genre, simply by being so lavishly slick in its delivery. Yet it’s difficult not to feel exasperated by how toothless this otherwise bold and daring show ended up, where every politician, no matter how dogged in their pursuit of truth, would decide to sell themselves out with barely a second of soul-searching; where behind every teenage girl lay a sadist rapist-murderer ready to pounce and a state official ready to turn a blind eye; and where every nihilistic radical political act was a smokescreen for something else.

Despite the excitement which has come from the so-called Scandinavian crime boom, from Stieg Larsson to The Killing and now The Bridge, what often seems to stand out is the conformity of it all: socially awkward police officers; venal politicians; the corruptions of capitalism and big business; a creeping distrust in the mechanisms of justice; classy production values. Which is all very absorbing in a Sunday evening crime thriller, of course, but you can’t help but wish that one of these shows would provide a genuine shock or thrill in terms of critiquing society beyond the outright villainy of those at the top. If nothing else, from Leveson to the McAlpine saga, some of 2012’s big stories indicate that one of the biggest threats to society is a worrying credulity when faced with conspiratorial thinking.

‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily’ is how Oscar Wilde famously defined fiction. But simply reversing that formula does not make fiction any more truthful or substantial. Cartoonish black-and-white portrayals of the goodies versus the baddies are no more artful simply because they’re shot in noirish lighting. I’m going to miss The Killing, for sure, but I won’t be mourning it for long: even after three series, it had long faded from view. The only regret it leaves behind is that it could have been so much more than the sum of its parts.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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