Jonathan Storm: A killing, Kennedys, and Borgias fill Sunday night TV

Posted: April 03, 2011

April in the land of television. No holiday tables, but a couple of chestnuts and way too much programming for any single person to keep up with.

For a long, long time, most of the new shows came in September, when the days grew short. "Aha," said the cable channels, "we'll counterprogram in the charm of spring, when there's nothing new." And then there was something new: a TV logjam of monumental proportions.

Hot on the heels of Starz's lusty Camelot, which premiered Friday, come three more new big-deal productions on Sunday, all the kind of "event" television that TV execs are constantly touting. One is outstanding, and all are at least OK. If the shows were spread out over a month or two, a lot of viewers might check out all three, but there's really no reason to go to great effort to watch one, record the other, and wait for the third on DVD.

Most will agree that such long-ago lyricists as Yip Harburg (who wrote "April in Paris") and Maxwell Anderson ("September Song") operated with a bit more panache than the current crop of songsters ("hook-er-er-er, hook-er-er-er . . . oooooooh-oooh"), yet among the trio of two-hour TV premieres Sunday, the newest story is the most satisfying. The Killing, on AMC at 9 p.m., is also the least prepossessing, an eerily quiet, yet compelling and complex, tale of the way the murder of a teenager affects the lives of many people.

Showtime has a sprawling 15th-century melodrama, The Borgias, also at 9 p.m., in which Jeremy Irons and company take positive joy in shredding the spectacular scenery. It might have benefited from the subtler writing touch of Anderson, who was a prolific writer for stage (Anne of the Thousand Days, for instance) and screen, specializing in long-ago history, but it's still good fun on a big level.

Then there's The Kennedys mini-series at 8 p.m., which took itself to a tiny channel called Reelz when the History Channel decided it was off brand with its other historically rigorous programming, such as Ax Men, Swamp People, and Ice Road Truckers. It's hardly the hatchet job foreshadowed by the degree of organized upset among Kennedy supporters and family members, but it's not exactly big entertainment, either.

The Killing takes some of the finer attributes of disparate older series - including Twin Peaks, The Good Wife, Murder One, and the obscure but delicious Durham County - and weaves them into a tapestry worthy of the gifted program pickers at AMC, who have somehow rounded up Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead for their schedule. The Killing is definitely in their league.

Its list of executive producers includes what must be the most exotically named trio in American TV history: Piv Bernth, Ingolf Gabold, and Soren Sveistrup, whose name is even more exotic than you see here, because who has a font that can come up with an O with a diagonal line through it?

The answer: everybody in Denmark, where those names are a little less striking, and where the precursor to The Killing, Forbrydelsen (which means The Crime), has been very popular. It even drew a fervent audience in the United Kingdom, where the characters babbled on in Danish and the Brits read subtitles.

No way that would happen here. So Fox Television Studios, the low-cost TV production arm at News Corp., hired an American executive producer whose name is pretty exotic, too. Veena Sud, a graduate of the dear, departed Cold Case, has localized the show, setting it in Seattle, even if it is shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, where everything is cheaper. No big budget needed when you've got the creative goods.

And Sud hired Broadway veteran (and veteran of HBO's Big Love, where she played the Marquart twins) Mireille Enos to play Sarah Linden, the gum-chewing gumshoe on the case. All by herself, she's maybe 15 percent of the reason to watch The Killing, a commanding presence in her unassuming way, with a fascinating face.

And before you start thinking normal names have no place in The Killing, Billy Campbell is a mayoral candidate who gets involved in the case.

The show focuses on him, the victim's parents (ably played by Michelle Forbes, the maenad Maryann on True Blood, who also had a role in Durham County, and Brent Sexton), and the murder suspects.

With beautiful camera work in the misty gray atmosphere of Seattle/Vancouver and a score of big, mostly minor-key chords, the series creates a lovely and ominous mood as the intuitive Linden goes about her business and the case unfolds, one day per episode.

The Borgias goes the other way, almost swashbuckling with a cast of thousands, costumes off the charts, and enough murder, sex, and mayhem to suit . . . well, the Borgias.

It's spectacle indeed as Rodrigo buys the papacy and, with his two sons, fights to keep it, with torture and poison for all, while learning to stop referring to himself as "I" and adopt the papal "we."

We were amused, and perhaps we'll watch it on demand come summer.

Another corrupt Catholic big daddy who browbeat his sons, Joseph Kennedy, is the driving force in The Kennedys, which portrays Jack (Greg Kinnear) and Bobby (Barry Pepper) as somewhat spineless family pawns from the late '30s, as far back as the series goes in flashbacks, until after a Kennedy is in the White House and Joe suffers a crippling stroke.

The show would do well on Home and Garden Television. You'd kill for that Kennedy furniture, and the carpets are glorious. But, except for Tom Wilkinson, who's extraordinary as Joe, most of the actors, especially poor Katie Holmes, even if she at least looks like Jackie Kennedy, seem like furniture, too.

Besides offering episode repeats throughout the week, Reelz, which is on the Comcast digital tier, has arranged the mini-series' eight hours with two-hour bookends this Sunday and next and one-hour episodes Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. It will rerun Sunday's premiere on Monday and televise the whole thing in an eight-hour chunk Saturday and next Sunday.

After Sunday, The Borgias and The Killing, both seeking to be continuing series, will appear as one-hour episodes Sundays at 10 p.m., with repeats scattered across the Showtime and AMC countryside.

Jonathan Storm:

The Kennedys

8 p.m. Sunday on Reelz

The Killing

9 p.m. Sunday on AMC

The Borgias

9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime

Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or Read his recent work at



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