If atmosphere were substance, The Killing would be the greatest show on TV.
When I think back on the two-hour premiere of the show's third season (AMC, June 2, 9 p.m.), what comes to mind are images and sounds: former detective Sarah Linden (Mirielle Enos) silhouetted in the doorway of the office belonging to her former partner Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), Holder scrunched into the lower right-hand corner of the frame, slouched in a rolling office chair, grinning; Holder questioning a possible witness to a street girl's savage murder, his face shrouded in gray shadow; another street kid, the underage Kallie Leeds (Cate Sproule), seated on the bed of a john she went home with, reflected in a mirror that's cracked in a mosaic pattern; the rivulets of rain coursing down windowpanes, a key motif in this perpetually dark, wet show. The sound of the rain: whispery, insistent. And the hiss of passing cars. And the moan of fog horns on the water. And the pealing of gulls.
What I have trouble recalling is anything in particular that happened. As was the case with the first two seasons of The Killing, this new one takes its sweet, sweet time getting going, and as it slowly gains momentum, it carries itself as if it's the greatest series in the history of American television, single-handedly reinventing the police procedural for the 21st century. This wouldn't be a deal breaker if the characterizations, dialogue, and plotting (however glacial) were rich enough that we were happy to luxuriate in moments and marvel at the show's distinctive color scheme: ocher, teal, brown, and bone-white. But they're not that rich. They just aren't. Sorry, Killing.
All right, fine, the show could pick up and become amazing; but almost any show that assembles this much talent in one place could potentially deliver more than this premiere episode hints at. That wasn't quite the case in seasons one and two, but yes, it could happen. And there are signs of improvement in the season-three premiere, just as there were in parts of season one (even during laughably bad stretches) and toward the end of season two, when series creator Veena Sud and her collaborators seemed to respond to the Rosie Larsen story line's need for closure by making us feel as if it were all going somewhere — not somewhere that justified the long, long trip, necessarily, but somewhere.
I continue to enjoy the chemistry between Linden, who's still brooding and reactive and tortured, but also brilliant and principled, and the trying-hard-to-act-respectable Holder (who still sounds a bit too much like Roy on the "Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie" episode of The Simpsons, but what the hey, it's an actor's choice). I like the parallel plot dealing with death-row inmate Ray Seward (the great Peter Saarsgard), a cop convicted of murdering his wife. Saarsgard is equally plausible as a measured and intelligent man and a brutish killer. His character is fascinating enough that I'll probably keep watching the show to see how he fits into the ongoing investigation into the street girl's murder, and to see him mess with people's minds.
And about that murder: I've already seen complaints that The Killing has debased itself by becoming yet another crime series built around the rape and murder of a young woman, in this case, a homeless kid found with her throat slit ear-to-ear, an atrocity captured in autopsy photos that are repeatedly seen in close-up. That's a valid concern — too many TV cop shows rely on images of young women terrorized, abused, or killed; it's a genre cliché, often lazily deployed — but I never got the feeling that The Killing was exploiting this grim material for purposes of titillation. If anything, The Killing's treatment of the culture of runaway and drug-addicted street teens reminded me of the original British Prime Suspect, the public school season of The Wire, and the classic documentary Streetwise, which was also about street kids in Seattle. These are all models worth emulating.
I'm not saying that The Killing is on the level of those other works, mind you — just that it's approaching the material in the right spirit, and that it treats the kids and their dire environment with empathy and respect. I like watching the former juvenile delinquent Holder interact with the kids, particularly Kallie's friend Bullet (Bex Taylor-Klaus), a tough young butch lesbian who's often mistaken for a boy. Bullet is tough enough to rattle Holder and other law enforcement officers who make the mistake of assuming she'll shrink before their state-sanctioned authority. She's the show's breakout character, somebody you likely haven't seen on commercial TV before. And of course there are other strong performances, some of which are by actors whose roles I'd rather not describe for fear of giving away good surprises: Max Fowler as Twitch, a teen hustler and drug addict who's gotten clean and wants to go to L.A. to become a model and actor; Elias Koteas as Linden's former supervisor, the head of Seattle's special investigations unit.
All that being said, I'm very skeptical that The Killing can ever rise to the level of its pretensions. This show's pacing makes Mad Men feel as hyperactive as 24. If you watched it with the sound off, you might mistake it for a cousin of Jane Campion's dazzling feminist-masochist police procedural Top of the Lake, or one of those existentially exhausted mid-nineties Danish thrillers that seemed to have been shot through a lens smeared with God's tears. (The Killing is a remake of a Danish series, don'tcha know.) But with the sound on, it feels like an episode of Sud's Cold Case played at one-sixth speed, but minus the flashbacks, and with the sensibility of somebody who adored Twin Peaks but thought it was mainly about perversity, degradation, and rain. Nothing about it — not the acting, not the writing, not even the great Ed Bianchi's direction of one-half of the season-three pilot — justifies such self-importance. Midway through I started amusing myself by picturing Holder turning to the camera and chiding the show for being so pokey. "Daaaamn, ya'll, pick up the pace, knowhati'msayin'? I got a date tonight with two sexy layyyy-dies!"