I was chatting to a former boss yesterday and overheard him talking up Danish thriller The Killing, explaining that it’s “better than The Wire“.
Now, The Killing is by all means a truly excellent piece of telly*, which everyone should see. But comparing it, or anything else, to The Wire, is not just misleading, it’s potentially offputting.
Here’s why: the Wire has now reached a mythological status for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Such is the praise heaped on it that it, or anything compared to it, almost seems too intimidating a proposition for those poor souls who’ve not seen it yet.
What if you didn’t like it? What if, after hearing everyone you know say how amazing it is, you watched two episodes and found it confusing and unrewarding? What if you were fool enough to admit this to your friends? They’d beat your face off with a rolled up copy of the Guardian as soon as look at you. How dare you not like the Wire!
The thing is, nothing will ever be as good as the Wire. It is king of its own castle, worlds apart from anything remotely like it. We need to accept this, and move on.
Like a dearly loved relative – everyone should get to know it, love it, think about it and its place in the wider world for a bit, cry when it’s gone, and then just try to live out the rest of our lives.
But if you want a more accurate comparison, think State Of Play meets 24 but longer, and in Danish, and with questionable knitwear. That’s the Killing.
But OK, if we’re going to do comparisons, here you go…
1) The Killing is a crime thriller (and little else)
OK, it might be the best crime thriller I’ve ever seen, but the Killing has few pretensions to social commentary (well, save for a vague subtext about racism) or offering a treatise on institutions and morality. It’s 20 hours of telly, tightly focussed on one murder case. And it’s incredible for doing just that and little else.**
Most shows give a murder case an hour at best, or two hours if it’s a film. The Wire dealt with one set of murders in series two, but this was interwoven with a much more involved story about the death of The Working Man. The third series dealt with a series of missing bodies alongside an exploration of the argument to legalise drugs, and a subplot about Carcetti’s political machinations. In short, whichever series of the Wire you’re plugged into, there’s a lot under the bonnet.
2) The Killing is not a show about characters
In that 20 hours, the Killing’s key players don’t get more than a smidgen of development. They’re by no means one dimensional, and they don’t suffer for being handled and presented with little more than the barest efficiency (Sarah Lund and Theis Birk Larsson are the only characters that I personally had the slightest sympathy for, and Sarah loses points for wearing that jumper in three consecutive episodes).
I can change, Bengt. I will change (my jumper)
Yet, in a mere thirteen hours of series one, the Wire gave us Omar, Bubbles, D’Angelo, Wallace, McNulty, Freamon, Shardene, Keema, even Baltimore itself. All of these players felt real and someone you cared about. The Wire is about many things, but above all, it is about its people.
3) The Killing is story, pure and simple
It’s a real feat of storytelling to make a single murder case watchable for 20 hours, but the Killing has pulled it off brilliantly.
The fact that it manages to do this without giving us a set of people to really get behind, or causing us to think much about the wider world, is astonishing. It shouldn’t work, and yet it really really does.
4) The Killing wants your love
If it wasn’t Danish, The Killing wouldn’t be confined to the category of sleeper hit, but would find an audience desperate for its next Waking The Dead fix. In spite of its favouring of story over characters, and in view of its love of four minute recaps and multiple cliffhangers, The Killing wants your love.
Going by the Wire’s insistence on “lean in” dialogue, its sprawling cast of characters, its sheer bloody-minded approach to drama and its refusal to play the enticing tricks that every other show relies on, you’d be forgiven for thinking that actually, it doesn’t give a fuck whether you watch it or not.
As long as all your mates do…
*At the time of writing, I’ve seen the first ten episodes of the Killing
**I reserve the right to hate what they do with the second half of the series