It’s a crime to remake a cult hit
Thursday 30 June 2011
A terrified teenage girl runs for her life; a secretive detective finds herself lumbered with a difficult case as she prepares to leave for a new life; a devastated family struggle to come to terms with their daughter's murder.
Yes, it's the American remake of Danish drama The Killing, which starts next week on Channel 4. So what should we expect? The original, which recently won the international award at the Baftas, attracted a cult following when it aired on BBC4 earlier this year, thanks to its combination of strong characterisation, moody atmosphere and occasional detours through the Danish political system. Can the remake attract a similar response or will fans of the first fail to see the point of the second?
In actuality the two shows are not identical, despite using the same framework (a day-by-day investigation into a murder) and similar storylines (the political strand has survived despite the show's move from Copenhagen to Seattle). Like its predecessor, the new Killing, which stars Mireille Enos from the TV drama Big Love as Detective Sarah Linden and Swedish-born Joel Kinnaman (who will soon be seen in David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake) as her partner, Steven Holder, is primarily concerned with the effect a murder has on everyone from family and investigating cops to those who appear to be only tangentially involved, but Veena Sud, who adapted the series for the US, has likened the new piece to a jazz variation, saying: "We took a lot of the bones of the original and just riffed off it."
Thus Detective Sarah Lund is now Detective Sarah Linden, the dead girl is called Rosie Larsen, the setting is Seattle – possibly the only place in the world to match Copenhagen for rainfall. And although the pilot episode is almost identical to the that of the Danish drama, the US version then spins off in different directions – not always entirely successfully.
For while the US Killing is atmospherically shot and beautifully acted, with a standout turn from Michelle Forbes as the dead girl's mother, Sud's fondness for red herrings spins steadily out of control as the season progresses. And her insistence on challenging the conventions of cop dramas – she has repeatedly said that The Killing is "not a formula cop show where everything is neatly tied up" – can infuriate as much as it refreshes.
Small wonder then that the ending, which left a number of threads dangling, has enraged US critics and fans alike. One group of frustrated watchers went so far as to set up a website called F**KTheKilling.com; others called on the US network AMC to rescind its offer of a second season.
While such an event is unlikely, the complaints were a wake-up call for AMC, the home of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and more used to being hailed as the new HBO than accused of "betraying their viewers", as one particularly angry critic wrote.
In an attempt at damage limitation AMC's general manager, Charlie Collier, told Entertainment Weekly last week: "I stand by Veena Sud, and risk-taking is what we do", before cautiously adding: "The audience has an important voice, we heard them and don't take them for granted." We can assume from that The Killing will return, but that Sud will probably be encouraged to follow a less idiosyncratic path in the second season.
For in truth there had been gripes about the show long before the final episode. Gawker.com's critic Brian Moylan spoke for many when he wrote: "The Killing started off strong, moody and deep, but then soon got mired in so many red herrings that we started to care about the show less and less."
So what went wrong? In part the problem was Sud's obsession with making sure her show was viewed as genre-challenging television. While her ambition was laudable the reality didn't always match the vision. An under-developed terrorism subplot, for example, was particularly poorly handled.
It is notoriously difficult to pull off a good remake, one that stands apart from the original and presents us with a fresh vision. Recent failures have included the US version of Life on Mars (which started strongly before signing off with an incomprehensibly silly futuristic space ending) and Viva Laughlin, which took Peter Bowker's Blackpool and stripped it of all the things that made it work, most notably humour.
The US version of The Killing always had something of a mountain to climb. A large part of the appeal of the Danish original was that it showed us a city (Copenhagen) and a justice system that we were unfamiliar with. It was fascinating because it was a world we hadn't seen before.
By contrast the American police procedural is a genre that we are all familiar with. Our TV schedules have been dominated by US cop shows from the outstanding (The Wire, The Shield) through the good (Southland, The Chicago Code) to the generic (The Closer, Blue Bloods). We know all about good cops and bad cops and the US justice system, so what could be gained by transporting The Killing to the US?
As Sud admitted, even the nature of the crime and the reaction to it was difficult to transpose. "Unlike in Denmark we live in an extraordinarily violent country," she told Zapit.com's Rick Porter ahead of the show's debut. "In the Danish version, the minute this girl goes missing it's red-alert time in Copenhagen. And in this country... if a girl went missing in any major American city, no one would care."
Then there's the problem that any remake today suffers from: the original ending is only a click away on the internet. For a show such as The Killing, which centres on mystery, that became a real issue and it was no surprise that Sud decided to create a new ending.
"From the beginning there was a long, long discussion with all the partners in The Killing. Let's not do the 45-minute formula, let's let the season be what it is organically... this is where we see it going, and that's great," Sud told the US press at the end of the season. "We're following the story rather than forcing the ending. When I watched the Danish series, I didn't crave a crime-of-the-day because of the compelling nature of going deeply into the family's experience, the cop's experience, the politician trying to keep his campaign above water when this grenade has gone off in the middle of it."
Nor is she over-concerned by the fall-out from the season's finale. "We said from the beginning that this is the anti-cop show," she added. "It's a show where nothing is what it seems, so throw out expectations. There are plenty of shows [where] the audience can rest assured that they will be happy and they can walk away from their TV satisfied. This is not that show."
Not everyone has agreed, however. In a furious review in which she admitted she was "frothing at the mouth" AOL TV's critic Maureen Ryan, who had hailed early episodes as "excellent, enthralling television", now called Sud arrogant and accused AMC of "flagrantly wasting 13 hours of its viewer's lives". She added that it was "a jaw-dropping instance of a show not just squandering its promise but betraying its viewers."
Was it really that bad? Ginia Bellafante, of The New York Times, was one of the few reviewers to think differently, praising the show for the way in which it "consistently and beautifully resisted transparent emotionalism". It's true that the US version of The Killing occasionally achieves a haunting power, but it never quite compels in the way its predecessor did. It's as though Sud was so obsessed with creating something completely different, so determined to make groundbreaking, difficult television, that she forgot to make sure that the audience would come along with her for what proved to be a bumpy ride.
'The Killing' starts on 7 July at 9pm on Channel 4
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