Denmark’s answer to The Wire

A recipient of whispered and tweeted praise, marvellous new cop drama The Killing deserves to be more than cult viewing.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

A few weeks ago, I noted that British broadcasters were starting to resemble canny football managers, scouring abroad for fresh and exciting talent unavailable closer to home. The example I used was BBC4’s new cop drama The Killing, which was apparently Denmark’s answer to The Wire. Well, it turns out it actually is Denmark’s answer to The Wire, or British TV’s answer to Eric Cantona, depending on which comparison you prefer.

Eight episodes in, and the familiar signs are there that a cult hit is brewing. Several people have texted me to say I should be watching it immediately; Twitter is alive with trend-spotting journos celebrating that everyone else has finally caught up with a programme first screened in 2007; offices are seemingly filled with bleary-eyed workers who’ve stayed up into the wee hours catching up; subtly whispered conversations between those in the know are suddenly curtailed when virgins are within earshot. The marketing department at Sky Atlantic, having launched the channel with much fanfare in recent weeks to showcase the best of US drama, are probably not best pleased at having their thunder stolen.

Perhaps its success shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. After all, for the past couple of years the blockbuster book charts have been dominated by Stieg Larsson’s trilogy of Swedish crime thrillers, featuring the now ubiquitous Lisbeth Salander. Similarly, a shabby and clinically depressed Swedish detective made it on to Sunday night primetime in the shape of an unshaven Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander, which was seamlessly supplanted by the stylish, Italian-set Zen in the past few weeks. There’s evidently a bit of a trend for foreign detectives at the minute and, particularly in publishing, the more Scandinavian the better.

Even so, The Killing hardly looked like an obvious addition to this fashionable set. Unlike BBC1’s Wallander, it’s the original version with subtitles, which is a not-inconsiderable concentration test for our cult-hungry, cosmopolitan sophisticates. Furthermore, its pace is glacial: the first series is not yet even halfway through its 20-hour run, and so far we’ve only just about established that someone has been killed. And it’s set in Copenhagen. Forget Cyril Connelly’s line about the pram in the hallway being the enemy of good art: social democracy and zero-carbon energy provision don’t sound like a promising backdrop for bleak crime drama.

Yet, for all that, The Killing effortlessly achieves the skill of great drama: packing a lot in while seeming to do very little. While The Wire spent several series slowly building its way through the intertwining networks of police, civic institutions, politics and the media to build its Dickensian portrait of American society in decline, The Killing throws you right into it. In fact, while the comparisons to that critical darling have already become something of a cliché, The Killing resembles something closer to Paul Abbott’s 2003 political thriller State of Play on a grander scale, or what the similarly slow-burning US legal drama Damages could have been if it had left its environmentalist, anti-corporate prejudices at the door.

In fact, lest anyone get carried away with the slightly snooty Europhilia (ie, they wouldn’t make this in the US or the UK), which has thus far underpinned some of its rave reviews, The Killing‘s series-long focus on a single investigation of a crime pulling back to reveal the inner workings of society was pioneered on Steven Bochco’s marvellously underrated courtroom drama Murder One back in the mid-1990s. The Killing’s brilliance is that, given an unusual amount of room to breathe and to develop its story, it is able to incorporate all of the best storytelling techniques which would normally serve as individual USPs for other dramas: strong female detective (Prime Suspect), competing attitudes towards policing styles (The Shield), the impact on victims’ families (Murder), psychological realism (Cracker) and the political-social issues behind it all (everyone good, from Dashiell Hammett and Georges Simenon onwards). It may be the new The Wire, but only because all great crime genres feed off the same rich tradition.

Of course, I am in the unusual position of reviewing something before it’s even close to over, so the whole thing may turn out to be a crushing bore or disappointment by the end of next week. But don’t put off watching it because it looks difficult and bleak; and don’t watch it because it’s foreign and bleak and therefore so European. Just watch it.

The other programme on everyone’s lips is Rastamouse, which is a new CBBC show about a Rastafarian mouse. There’s not really very much to say about it, given it’s a show aimed at children broadcast on a children’s channel. For what it’s worth, I think it sounds like a great show if you’re five years old and probably pleasingly smirk-inducing if you’re an adult watching it with kids. Everything else I suspect about the programme was rather neatly summarised when I discovered its producer is called Greg, works at the BBC and almost certainly bores people stupid at dinner parties talking about his gap year in Marrakech and about how multiculturalism can’t be dead because you can buy some really nice curries in Brick Lane.

So let’s just save ourselves some time: if Rastafarians were going to take offence at anything, then Camden market would be a burning hole in the ground by now; Rastamouse is neither racist nor does it have anything to do with challenging racism; if you ever describe a children’s TV show as subversive you need to smoke less weed and read more books which are not about drugs or people on drugs; and, no, the guy who made The Magic Roundabout was not to anyone’s knowledge on LSD. For childless people born after 1960 and before 2006, my advice would be to watch it once, have a quick smile and then get back to being an adult. Which is handy, because all the episodes of The Killing are still on iPlayer.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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