On a lot of cop shows, the Rosie Larsen case would be dispatched in the space of an hour: A 17-year-old girl goes missing, then turns up murdered. Her grieving parents struggle to understand, while the dogged homicide detective chases down leads and sniffs out possible suspects, including (plot twist!) a local politician who has a connection to the dead girl.
You can probably fill in the rest: A couple red herrings, blind alleys and breakthroughs later, the perp is led away in handcuffs. Done well, it’s a very satisfying form of storytelling. But it’s also refreshing to see a different approach to a crime story, and AMC’s strong new series “The Killing,” which premieres Sunday night (April 3), provides that.
Rosie Larsen is the victim in the story, a 17-year-old girl who goes missing in Seattle and whom we later find out has been murdered. Over the course of “The Killing’s” first season, you will get to know the people affected by her death — her parents, the lead detective on the case and a city councilman who gets drawn into the investigation — intimately, in a way that case-of-the-week shows just don’t do.
The pace is deliberate (or, if you like, slow), but it also allows the show to play in a number of small moments that you don’t normally see in a cop show: Stan Larsen (Brent Sexton, “Life”), Rosie’s dad, stepping up to cook dinner with (and provide a distraction for) his two sons while their mom, Mitch (Michelle Forbes, late of “True Blood”), grieves, for instance, or Councilman Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) doing damage control after his campaign for mayor becomes connected to the case. There aren’t a lot of hints as to whodunit by the end of the first three episodes, but the accumulation of these little things adds up to a very engrossing story.
“The Killing” is based on a Danish series called “Forbrydelsen” and adapted by former “Cold Case” writer and executive producer Veena Sud. She kept the original show’s template, in which each episode covers one day in the investigation. By the end of the season, we’ll only be at day 13, and while we may know who the killer is, it’s likely we won’t get much past an arrest, let alone a trial or conviction. The notion of an open-ended case (and, presumably, future seasons of the show) is compelling for its difference from the norm; it’s not that whodunit is beside the point, but unlike a lot of cop shows, the trip will be just as important as the destination.
Sud and her fellow writers also seem to be playing fair with the audience: There is progress made in the case over the first three episodes (two of which air back-to-back Sunday), and while there are twists and turns, no development feels like it comes completely out of nowhere. The show also doesn’t linger much on the grisly details of the crime; the grief that Stan and Mitch are feeling is raw enough to drive the point home without us leaning in to get a close look at the autopsy.
In fact, we scarcely get to know Rosie (Katie Findlay) at all in the early going, except through the reaction of her family and friends, which is a forgivable but present flaw in the structure of the show. She’s just gone, and while we can see and feel the effect of her death on the other characters, Rosie remains a bit of an abstraction for the audience.
We experience most of the case through Detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos, “Big Love”), who when we meet her is in her last day on the force, about to move to California with her fiance (Callum Keith Rennie). She’s not thrilled with catching the case in her final hours on the job — or with having to stay on for a few days — but although she doesn’t say much, you can almost feel her getting drawn into the case just as we are. Enos gives a quietly confident performance as Sarah, who uses silence to draw out details from others and is darn good at it. It could be a breakout role for her.
Campbell is likewise very solid as a principled politician who’s finding that ideals aren’t always what get you elected. The show is walking a fine line in featuring him without necessarily making us think Richmond is the bad guy (in a corollary to the Most Famous Guest Star theory in close-ended cop shows), but if he is, no hands are tipped yet.
The show also looks beautiful. There’s one shot in particular from the pilot, of uniformed cops fanning out to search a field of tall grass, that continues to knock me out every time I see it (it’s featured in AMC’s promo campaign), and it makes great use of the slightly wild nature of the Northwest (Vancouver doubles for Seattle) in telling its story.
“The Killing” is not a jump in-jump out sort of show. If you’re in, you probably need to be in for the long haul. I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if it is, it feels like the journey will be very rewarding.
“The Killing’s” two-hour premiere airs at 9 p.m. ET Sunday on AMC. Future episodes will air at 10 on Sundays.