tv review

The Investigation Will Frustrate You (on Purpose)

Pilou Asbӕk and Søren Malling play the investigators at the center of The Investigation. Photo: Henrik Ohsten/HBO

The Investigation, a new Danish crime series premiering Monday, February 1 on HBO, is at once compelling and infuriating, and that stems from one simple decision at the center of the series. It’s based on the real-life murder of a journalist named Kim Wall, but The Investigation approaches its subject with a remarkably narrow field of vision. It is only about the investigation into her death. Nothing else.

In theory, that idea doesn’t seem all that different from a dozen other crime series, especially because many of the familiar outlines are still there. Søren Malling (Borgen) plays Jens Møller Jensen, the chief detective responsible for the case. Pilou Asbӕk (Game of Thrones and also Borgen) plays Jakob Buch-Jepsen, the prosecutor who has to make a case against the accused perpetrator. They do all the familiar crime-show things, like pinning notes to a big board with a timeline on it. They also flip anxiously through forensic reports clipped inside manila envelopes with edges that grow more worn with time. They spend a lot of time answering phone calls, and making other phone calls. It’s the typical investigative labor, papery and plodding, but it’s inside a narrative frame so we can all feel good that everything eventually works out, or at the very least goes somewhere.

Like so many other TV murder shows, the story at the center of The Investigation (overseen by Tobias Lindholm, who was a writer on, you guessed it, Borgen) is a distinctive, unusual crime, the kind of thing that would create all sorts of questions about mindset and motive. Wall disappeared after going out on assignment in a homemade submarine. Quickly, detectives find a few hints that the man who made the submarine was known in some of the S&M clubs around Copenhagen. The circumstances of the submarine ride are weird; the sub’s owner has squirrely, mutable details about what exactly happened.

By the end of the first episode of The Investigation, though, you start to notice all the things that are missing. Jensen and his fellow detectives bring in the submarine owner quickly, and they get him held in police custody for several weeks while they try to build a case against him. But they don’t have many conversations about how weird it is to have a hobby where you build your own submarine. No one expresses surprise about his sexual preferences. They almost never say his name. None of the detectives stare mournfully at a photo of Wall while wondering aloud about what kind of a sicko could’ve done this to her. It’s blunt and it’s without embellishment.

By episode two, The Investigation’s incredible discipline — its astonishing narrative blinders — becomes even more noticeable, even more admirable and frustrating. It’s not just that there’s no half-impressed, half-disgusted examination of the suspect, it’s that he’s not there. He never appears onscreen. The detectives do work from his statements, picking apart the details of what he claims happened. Still, his face never appears in the series, and there’s never any lengthy and breathless consideration of who he is, his childhood, his life story, or his particular psychology beyond “what was his motive?” There’s very little time spent on interviewing witnesses, either, or probing into all the ancillary personalities. Wall’s boyfriend and friends are entirely absent; the suspect’s social life is very nearly absent as well. It’s just: Here’s what we’ve found so far, here’s what we’re still looking for, and here’s what’s going to make it very, very hard to find.

The challenge of finding evidence consumes most of The Investigation. Every relevant piece of information about the case is scattered somewhere in the bay between Sweden and Copenhagen, and much of the actual investigative labor is spent trying to find one tiny clue dropped somewhere in an ocean.

The narrow focus and the sheer improbability of proving this crime is precisely The Investigation’s point. One of the few sources of characterization comes from Wall’s parents, who are portrayed with lingering care in the series. Most of the absent interest in the suspect is instead funneled into the Wall family, their grief, their fury, and the pain of having to wait through each new stage of the long process. The Investigation builds its moral worldview into the shape of its show. The participants in this story who deserve our time and attention are the people who are grieving, and the people trying to solve the crime. No one else should enter our field of view unless they absolutely must, and as soon as we can, we should return our attention to the people who matter.

It’s poignant TV, and it’s deliberately slow so the few moments when there’s finally a big break in the case feel like a sharp, sudden relief. Still, The Investigation is also a reminder of why very little crime TV is like this. The absence of speculative psychology, the absence of an embodied suspect, the absence of all the lurid and spectacular grisly drama that so often shows up in this genre — all of it does feel like an absence, even though the gap is purposeful. And to its detriment, The Investigation can’t help but try to fill it all up with something, which is mostly a heavy-handed side story about chief detective Jensen and his own rocky relationship with his adult daughter.

There are two kinds of frustration that come with The Investigation, and the frustration it actively invites is the agony of the long, hyper-dilated, and mostly airless criminal story. How many times must we watch the same scene, where Jensen has a conversation with the man in charge of the diving squad about how the divers really, really need to find something and the diving captain says, “I’m sorry, but it’s truly impossible”? How many dead ends, how many ambiguous clues will they find? How long will these poor parents suffer?

The other source of annoyance is that its painstaking vigilance in telling such a disciplined, blunt story about solving this crime comes packaged with Jensen’s stereotypical detective-who-works-too-hard backstory. In a show that purposely eschews almost all character development — the officers working alongside Jensen get next to none — it becomes all the more disappointing that The Investigation’s one emotional outlet beyond parental grief is such a clunky detective cliché.

In many ways The Investigation feels like an answer to the question of crime TV’s moral and ethical unease. It does all the things most of this genre does not: it centers the work of deliberate, careful, rule-following police officers who do their best without ever overstepping their legal and moral limits. It focuses extensively on the victim and her family, and ignores the perpetrator almost entirely. Still, The Investigation also demonstrates why this route is hard, and what happens when crime stories are stripped of all their exciting, extra-judicial folderol. The remaining outline looks so empty, and it’s too tempting to fill that blank space.

This review has been updated to note that Kim Wall was on assignment when she disappeared.

The Investigation Will Frustrate You (on Purpose)