I think it all started with Homicide: Life on the Street. This show, based on David Simon‘s book about a drawn out and unsuccessful murder investigation, was the first that I remember that seemed to both explore the metaphysics of being a detective and that seemed to actually focus on the victim. Most shows, if not all, to that point used the victim as a simple plot point, a wrong to be addressed but not much more. (It also might have been the first show to exhibit a range of African American characters beyond the usual cliches. In fact, this show along with Oz, The Wire and Treme are still miles ahead of most contemporary programming in this respect.)
And of course, this was the same David Simon that went on to The Wire, Generation Kill and Treme, and you can see not only the sensibility but some of the same actors following.
On a side note this also started Michelle Forbes on the path to being the queen of cult tv (Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Durham County, True Blood, and in perhaps the finest role of her career as the distraught mother of the murdered girl in The Killing) and to being the first hot medical examiner which seems to have been a trend ever since; before her they were all variations on Quincy – smart and quirky but not quite so easy on the eyes.
But to return to the point of interest, that we are living in the best of all times when it comes to crime television – see Wallander (both the Swedish and British versions) and Case Histories. Or before that the British Prime Suspect. In fact, we might have the Brits to thank for really running with this ball since even their less than great productions seem to outclass most American crime dramas. And now The Killing.
The Killing, shot mostly in Vancouver but ostensibly an American production, is visually a kind of moody beautiful – very well suited to the murk of uncertainty and to the West coast setting.
All those hallmarks of superior crime drama are here – equal time to the pain visited on the survivors of the tragedy. There is none of the thrill of the predator as in the CSI family or Criminal Minds where we are asked to enjoy the kill and revel in the deviousness and evil of the perpetrator.
And we also see the damage done to the investigators.
This is where the real story lies. The clockworks of the antiquated Agatha Christie genre are all well and good but they are inconsequential next to the real human drama which surrounds violent crime and especially murder.
And when you have a stunning visual landscape it heightens the impact of the human damage. Its a chiaroscuro of sorts. Its those beautiful landscapes that make these dramas so emotionally draining.
But in these great dramas, the plots are good, the characters deep and the acting superlative, and the story is back where it is supposed to be. The devil used to be in the details but here woven through and through.