Spelling it out

Sofie Gråbøl as detective inspector Sarah Lund in Denmarks "Forbrydelsen," on which "The Killing" is based.
Sofie Gråbøl as detective inspector Sarah Lund in Denmarks "Forbrydelsen," on which "The Killing" is based.

AMC's murder mystery "The Killing" brightens the bleakness of its Danish forebear, giving us all the keys to the characters and never an unhappy ending.

Posted: March 24, 2012

AMC's The Killing, returning for its second season on April 1, has been called one of TV's most original murder mysteries.

Its intricate story structure is unique, following a single murder case - the abduction and murder of high school student Rosie Larsen - over two 13-episode seasons. Its hero is one of a kind, an obsessive, monomaniacal, lone-wolf detective.

But it isn't original at all: The Killing is a remake, a copy, of the Danish mystery Forbrydelsen (literally, "the crime"), which premiered on Denmark's public TV network DR in 2007 and has since become a big hit across Europe and in Britain .

The Killing virtually mirrors its predecessor, right down to the characters and their tangled relationships, and its plot points.

So why do the two shows feel so different? Same characters - same cops, same parents and teachers, same victim, even the same writer. Yet they seem to come from different worlds.

  Forbrydelsen, like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is part of a Scandinavian invasion of TV mysteries, usually literary adaptations, that offer a fresh take on the genre, with such series as Irene Huss, The Bridge, Varg Veum, and, most famous, Wallander, a Swedish-language series that has been remade into a British show starring Kenneth Branagh.

The Killing and Forbrydelsen reveal a fundamental difference in storytelling style and characterization that suggests America and Scandinavia have slightly different assumptions about what it means to be a person.

Danish dramas define the person by their actions, American dramas by their private feelings.

In both The Killing and Forbrydelsen, the lead cop becomes so consumed by her investigation that she ignores her son (she's a single mother) and her fiance.

That's where the similarity ends. American dramas present their characters' lives as spiritual quests. If she catches the murderer, American cop Sarah Linden becomes empowered to patch things up with both fiance and son.

Not so in Copenhagen.

Not to give too much away, but by the time Forbrydelsen closes, Danish detective Sarah Lund feels anything but empowered. She sacrifices her personal life to solve the crime, and doesn't get it back.

She's so wrapped up in her investigation, she's unaware of other people's needs, including her partner, detective Jan Meyer (Søren Malling). In once scene, she becomes so absorbed analyzing a clue, she fails to act when Jan is shot.

Hollywood believes in the perfectibility of people. Through the course of the story, character defects - Linden's asocial tendencies - are cured. The Scandinavian mysteries present deeply flawed heroes who cannot or will not change.

Lund, Wallander, Beck, and their confreres are powerful, compelling characters, but difficult to read and impossible for colleagues, and even audiences, to warm up to.

Lund remains a mystery: Why is she so obsessive? Why such a loner? We don't know. Why is her relationship with her mother so bad? We're not told. Because, horror of horrors, we're not given a backstory.

You won't see a pop-culture story in America without the backstory giving viewers an easily digestible clue to explain each character's entire being. It's the key to the soul.

The backstory invariably details a trauma - an accident, a fight, abuse. The backstory tells us why a character is flawed.

Linden is emotionally closed off - because she was orphaned as a child. She felt abandoned. It's Freud Lite.

While Lund remains inscrutable, Linden eventually opens up, fixes herself, betters herself - at least, as the first season ended.

Similarly, we find out that her less-than-ideal partner, Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), is a recovering drug addict with self-esteem issues.

And that one of the suspects in the murder of Rosie, who was drowned, likes to hire prostitutes who'll let him drown them (a bit) - because he saw his wife drown in a car accident.

Another potential suspect lives with his mother, a promiscuous potty-mouth who walks around the house in lingerie.

But the suspects in Forbrydelsen are pretty much run-of-the-mill people. We're not treated to their childhood traumas. Why are American characters defined this way?

We seem unwilling to tolerate ambiguity, or the notion that people are inherently mysterious, not easily knowable. So we preoccupy ourselves with stories that reduce people to a single trauma.

It's just too terrifying to admit we can't know what makes a human being tick.

Forbrydelsen has a chilling end: The killer is caught. He confesses. One thing he does not do is explain why he killed the girl. There's no trauma that drove him to it. He simply says he was astonished to find out what he was capable of doing to another person.

Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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