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Television Review

‘The Killing’ breaks from the mold

Crime drama is the latest AMC standout

Mireille Enos is detective Sarah Linden and Joel Kinnaman is her partner, Stephen Holder, trying to solve a murder case in the new AMC series, “The Killing.’’ Mireille Enos is detective Sarah Linden and Joel Kinnaman is her partner, Stephen Holder, trying to solve a murder case in the new AMC series, “The Killing.’’ (Chris Large/AMC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / April 1, 2011

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‘Law & Order’’ — RIP, my longtime friend — was a meat-and-potatoes procedural that zipped you from the murder scene to the courtroom in one handy hour. It was TV comfort food — familiar, predictable, not awfully challenging.

But on AMC, home of “Mad Men’’ and “Breaking Bad,’’ the phrase “meat and potatoes’’ has more gourmet connotations. Essentially, AMC’s moody, riveting new series “The Killing’’ is your basic “Law & Order’’ murder mystery — the step-by-step investigation, the list of perps that expands with each new piece of evidence, the “aha!’’ and “really?’’ twists. But the Seattle-set drama, which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m., lifts those fundamentals to a higher level of intimacy. It’s an episode of “Law & Order’’ under a microscope. You get close to each party — the cops, the suspects, the mourning parents of the dead teen — rather than merely watching them spout clues between a pair of “chung-chungs.’’

Like “Damages,’’ Glenn Close’s legal drama, “The Killing’’ will spend the full 13-episode season exploring a single case, the murder of high school student Rosie Larsen, whose body is found in the trunk of a car owned by the mayoral campaign of Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell). The lead detectives are Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), who are a tense study in opposites. Sarah, ginger haired and forlorn, is an observer who questions all assumptions. She’s a single mother addicted to her job, and the Larsen murder is giving her an excuse to put off plans to move to California with her son and fiancé. The revved-up Stephen has just been promoted to homicide from narcotics, and his gonzo methods include smoking pot with teens to pry out info. She’s a lost mother, he’s a wayward kid.

The story line of Rosie’s working class parents is the most emotionally charged, as Mitch (Michelle Forbes) and Stanley (Brent Sexton) are mowed down by grief. In one devastating scene, Mitch and Stanley are on the phone and she overhears the cops telling Stanley that their daughter is dead. We don’t see relatives and friends rushing over to the Larsens to console them and their two younger children; they lapse into tense, preverbal shock alone at home as the gray Seattle rain falls outside, Mitch obsessively listening to Rosie’s voice on their phone machine. Forbes, from “In Treatment,’’ “True Blood,’’ and “Homicide,’’ continues to amaze, as she layers Mitch’s visceral sorrow with confusion and secrecy.

I was particularly drawn into Enos’s low-key leading performance, though. Enos, who played twins Kathy and JoDean on “Big Love,’’ completely avoids any vestiges of glamour, turning Sarah into a brooding figure with nothing obviously telegenic about her. You want to romanticize Sarah, make her into the all-knowing detective of so many network crime series, but Enos won’t let you. Sarah is all too human and flawed, unable to admit to herself what is so obvious to us — she has no intention of leaving Seattle, no matter what it means for her fiancé or her son.

The characters in the Richmond campaign leg of the plot are, initially, the show’s least interesting. The story seems to be veering in a Chandra Levy kind of direction, with Campbell as the pretty-faced politician who may be harboring secrets. But there’s enough that’s extraordinary on “The Killing’’ to give me hope that the political material will evolve into something more unexpected.

With “The Killing,’’ AMC further solidifies its position among cable’s original series elite, the position it first earned with Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men.’’ The channel selects material that asks for — and then rewards — viewer’s patience. The reason the difficult “Rubicon’’ didn’t fly was because the rewards were too few and very far between. Not so with “The Killing,’’ which quickly hooks you with its steadily unfolding story line. Created by Veena Sud, based on a Danish TV hit named “Forbrydelsen,’’ the show draws you into the tragedy of the crime, and then makes you crave its solution.

AMC also chooses shows that have some kind of rich visual drama. “The Killing’’ is less obviously designed than “Mad Men’’ and “Breaking Bad,’’ which is one of the most cinematographic shows ever on the small screen. But it is a thoroughly distinctive looking series that gives Seattle a grim, raw feel. It’s as if the city, too, is grieving a loss.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

THE KILLING Starring: Michelle Forbes, Mireille Enos, Seth Isaac Johnson, Billy Campbell, Brandon Jay McLaren, Brent Sexton, Joel Kinnaman, Eric Ladin

On: AMC

Time: Sunday night, 9-11