Until recently, the list of things we knew Scandinavians did well ran to low-grade self-assembly furniture, sticky pastries and social welfare. Now, it’s safe to add crime drama to the inventory. First came Sweden’s Wallander; next the Danes sold us Peter Brandt Nielsen’s The Killing (Saturdays, 9pm on BBC4, and stacked on iPlayer). This 20-episode investigation into a single murder (19-year-old Nanna Birk Larsen’s) is, to borrow Mary Poppins’ tagline, practically perfect in every way.
We’re two-thirds of the way into its ten-week run and every double-episode leaves viewers (at least the ones I’ve canvassed) with a thudding ticker and sweaty hands. I usually bunch mine into slippery fists and wave them at the set screaming “More! Want more!” It’s getting stupid. Every Saturday I’m dodging drinks invites, hysterically switching off appliances that buzz and trying out new ways to mute the cat. All so as I can focus on being vicariously Danish for two more delicious hours.
The Killing refuses to obey basic genre rules. It doesn’t, for instance, demand that everyone barring the lead detective is played by someone who can’t act. And, where possible, the dialogue refuses to sound like it was written by literacy-flunking nine-year-olds. Here, script and cast are low-fi but luminous. Even the extras and props possess frightening poise.
Lead detective Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) is vulnerable but also stony and interesting. She’s the show’s alt-sexy draw, always looking like she could use a good bath and a meal that isn’t a spoonful of brown stew siphoned from her overbearing mother’s big pot.
On top of Lund, there’s the blissful plotting: intricate but obsessively logical and beautifully paced. British and American crime dramas tend to be investigation-centric but The Killing is more holistic. We spend as much time with the grieving family, watching them pick out burial clothes and have their lives ripped apart, as we do observing the hungry, frustrated detectives. But what’s seriously ambitious--and brilliant--is the decision to layer on an elaborate third set of characters. Balding blond widower Troels Hartmann wants to be mayor of Copenhagen. Somehow, his campaign team is linked to the murder.
Now, of course, America wants to hop on the Dane train. Though, irritatingly, they’ve decided to make their own version, which the lightweights have squished into 13 episodes. It premieres on AMC in the US next month, with Big Love’s Mireille Enos in the Lund role. Want my pre-emptive advice? Skip the remake and gorge on Danish.