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03.29.11

The Next Twin Peaks

With AMC's Mad Men negotiations getting ugly, the network is launching The Killing, an addictive murder mystery in which everyone is a suspect. Jace Lacob talks to its creative team.

With Season 5 of Mad Men delayed until early 2012, following a protracted renegotiation that got ugly this week, AMC is on decidedly less firm ground than it was a year ago. While the cable network can boast about the huge numbers for its autumn zombie drama The Walking Dead and the success of Breaking Bad, it's had less success with its other serialized offerings. Last summer's complicated spy mystery Rubicon crashed and burned, and Mad Men—despite its well-earned critical acclaim—still isn't bringing in huge numbers.

But that hasn't deterred the network from launching another immersive drama, despite an increasing worry in the television industry about the risks of investing in shows that demand consecutive appointment viewing. (As FX President John Landgraf said recently about his own network's canceled legal thriller Damages, "You'd be crazy to make [a show like that].")

Nevertheless, AMC's newest show, the murder mystery The Killing, launching Sunday, may buck the trend, thanks to its winning ensemble, intelligence, and its serpentine plot twists. The show, however, is likely to garner quite a few comparisons to ABC's groundbreaking Twin Peaks, which also revolved around dead girls, buried secrets, and the evil that men do.

In The Killing, everyone is concealing secrets. "Even a seemingly innocent victim, this dead 17-year-old, had a secret life no one knew about," said Executive Producer Veena Sud, who comes from both crime procedurals ( Cold Case) and serialized drama ( Push, Nevada).

While The Killing—based on the insanely successful Danish series Forbrydelsen—doesn't have dancing dwarves, cryptic giants, or a log lady, what it does share with David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks is a harrowing approach to murder and a central mystery that will likely prove to be addictive viewing.

In both cases, it's the gruesome murder of a seemingly perfect teenage girl that kicks off the action and the gloomy Pacific Northwest (Vancouver stands in for Seattle in The Killing) serves as a backdrop for an engrossing murder mystery where every character, from the girl's grief-stricken parents (played by Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton) and her classmates to local politicos and their aides, are under suspicion.

Seeking to uncover the series' central mystery is Seattle police detective Sarah Linden ( Big Love's Mireille Enos), who is no Jane Tennison of Prime Suspect, that hard-bitten female copper who has sacrificed her personal life for the sake of her career. Still, Sarah's future—she's due to marry fiancé Rick ( Battlestar Galactica's Callum Keith Rennie) in three weeks and relocate with her son to Sonoma—is decidedly unclear after she lands this case.

Co-star Billy Campbell on watching the Danish version: “I watched practically the whole thing, 16 or so episodes out of 20, in one day. My eyes were bleeding, but I could not peel myself away.”

"She is strong, but she doesn't have to prove it every moment," said the petite Enos, her auburn hair hanging loosely over a sea-foam dress. "I didn't have to put on the guise of toughness and I could allow myself to be 5'2" and a hundred and something pounds and good at my job... There's a part of her that desperately wants to let go, but… change is incredibly difficult, even if it's choosing something that will be better for you."

While "who killed Rosie Larsen?" is the central question that hangs over The Killing, it's a story engine to fuel other mysteries, all tangentially linked to the Laura Palmer-esque dead girl hovering uneasily over the story. The pilot episode, directed by Patty Jenkins ( Monster), follows Enos' Sarah Linden and her new partner, shady narcotics transfer Stephen Holder ( Joel Kinnaman), as they search for the missing Rosie.

Unlike such current crime dramas as CBS' CSI franchise and Criminal Minds, The Killing goes out of its way not to glorify the violence here. On those procedurals, the act of murder is itself exploitative, the corpse becoming a prop, displayed to maximize the audience's visceral reaction—murder porn.

"We had many discussions that this is someone's child," said Sud. "We were really careful with how we showed the body, how we had that final reveal at the end, so that the audience had enough time to get to know that she was deeply loved by many people before we see the tragedy of her death."

Enos, pregnant with a girl at the time that the pilot was shot (she's married to actor Alan Ruck), said the handling of Rosie's murder was of crucial importance.

"I couldn't have taken on a project that glorified that kind of violence in any way," said Enos. "Patty [Jenkins] and I talked about it. She asked, 'Is this going to be really hard for you, being pregnant?' Actually, because we're doing it the way we're doing it, hopefully in our own little way, we're making the world safer, making people more conscious."

The Killing instead plays up the humanistic aspect, displaying the emotional fallout surrounding the crime, the way that murder explodes around not just the victim, but her family, the police officers, and the suspects.

That sensitivity immediately sets it apart from its American crime brethren, but not at the expense of suspense. Billy Campbell ( The 4400) plays Seattle politician Darren Richmond, who has more than a few skeletons in his closet and whose campaign for mayor finds itself connected to Rosie Larsen's murder. Campbell was a devoted fan of Forbrydelsen, discovering firsthand how addictive the original was.

"I was trapped in the Newark airport for 24 hours," he said, "I watched practically the whole thing, 16 or so episodes out of 20, in one day. My eyes were bleeding, but I could not peel myself away."

That sort of reaction to Forbrydelsen has been extremely common. Forbrydelsen has been a huge success in its native Denmark and around the world. Two seasons have aired to date and Danish broadcaster DR1 has commissioned a third season, set to air later this year. Its current run in the United Kingdom, on digital channel BBC4, has drawn rave reviews and consistently rated better than Mad Men.

But don't hit the Internet, hoping to unmask Rosie's killer, as Sud and her writing team will diverge from the plot of Forbrydelsen, which revealed the murderer at the end of its 20-episode first season. (Season 2 found Sofie Gråbøl's Sarah Lund tackling a new case.) Still, the American adaptation will preserve the sense of atmosphere and suspicion of the original.

"If it ain't fucking broken, don't fix it," said Campbell, about the remake. "What they have done is retain all of the things that made the Danish one so compelling but just slightly amp them up."

Each episode of The Killing will depict 24 hours in the life of the investigation, giving the plot an even deeper sense of tension and claustrophobia.

"It forces us to spend time with all of our characters," said Sud. "If we didn't have that device, we could easily try to fast-forward a day or a week or a month. But because we're forced to tell the story within a day, we get to look at the specifics of what happens. Are you sleeping? Are you eating? Are you showering? I felt like those little pieces hadn't been told before in a lot of cop shows."

For Sud, the larger challenge is going into an open-ending murder storyline with a dizzying array of suspects and subplots, something that even the short-lived Twin Peaks stumbled with during its run. It's both a challenge and an opportunity, according to Sud, something that doesn't apply to standalone procedurals.

"You've got to make it fascinating and interesting so audience members want to come back to it," she said. "But then, it's like Jenga. It's like you're slowly building from the ground up. Any tiny piece that you pull out or readjust affects every other piece… It's a house of cards."

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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.