In praise of #Spiral and #TheKilling

by Stephen Tall on May 8, 2011

My Saturday evenings will not be the same for a very long time. First, BBC4 treated us to The Killing (or Forbrydelsen, if you’ll forgive my Danish); then, when it concluded, they eased our loss by showing the third season of Spiral (or Engranages, if you’ll forgive my French).

Both were terrific, putting British crime series to shame. Though I’m a fan of shows such as Waking the Dead and Silent Witness, there is an unreality to their every-case-wrapped-up-in-two-episodes schtick. Breakneck plotlines which rely on instant breakthroughs. Lead characters who must all have their personal crises erupted and sorted within two hours. And however dramatic the last episode the next one must top it, until you reach the happy ending or a major tragedy. In the pursuit of ratings producers happily sacrifice their series’ credibility with audiences.

The Killing and Spiral turn such conventions on their head, focusing on just one case in each series. But unlike, say, 24, events unfold at a more natural real-time pace. And there is time to develop characters gradually, little by little, so that by the end you feel much more intimately connected. I cared about the worlds of Lund, Troels and Theis in The Killing not because they’d been kidnapped, or shot, or developed amnesia — or any other sensational dramatic trope — but precisely because their ordinariness encourages the viewer’s empathy.

It took me slightly longer to appreciate Spiral‘s characters — for example, Clement was a little too boringly, prettily good-to-be-true; Karlsson a little too hard-assedly nasty. But over the three series both have become more ambiguous, each rubbing off on the other, Pierre a little rougher, Josephine more noble. And in Judge Roban, French TV has created a true original: independent, understated, solitary, unimpeachable, aloof, and yet always humane. If Judge John Deed had had even one-millionth of his charisma it might have been watchable.

That the programmes are subtitled means they will never be massive, mainstream hits — but it forces the viewer to focus on the drama without the distractions of the open laptop and Facebook/Twitter. Quite literally you cannot take your eyes off the screen if you want to follow what’s going on (well, unless your Danish and French are good enough): it’s good to have some basic discipline re-instilled in those of us who are lazy, gadflying viewers.