Monday, March 3, 2014

Pilot Review: Those Who Kill

Those Who Kill (Mondays at 10:00 on A&E; Premieres March 3)

Those Who Kill is the latest in a long line of Danish crime show remakes, this one from writer Glen Morgan, whose credits are primarily within the horror genre (The X-Files, The River, the films Final Destination and its second sequel). That would seem to work in the show's favor, since these Danish remakes tend toward a kind of psychological terror. Just look at The Killing or The Bridge. Whereas those shows each were creatively successful in their own rights, Those Who Kill just doesn't enjoy the same success, mostly because Morgan's script is a mess.

Chloe Sevigny (Big Love) stars as Catherine Jensen, a young homicide detective with a dark past working in Pittsburgh. She's always stepping on the toes of her superiors and disregarding a lot of rules along the way. When a body is found at a construction site, Catherine takes it upon herself to seek out an expert to help identify the method of the murder. That expert is Thomas Schaeffer (British film star James D'Arcy), a forensic psychologist and professor with his own issues. Schaeffer soon leads Catherine back to the crime scene, where they realize they are dealing with a serial killer: several other bodies are uncovered with uncanny similarities to the first. And because Catherine went over the lead detective's head to get Schaeffer's help, the case is now hers. No, it's not just you; it's a rather flimsy and run-of-the-mill plot.

The biggest problem with Those Who Kill is its script. It's nothing short of a mess. First of all, I hate scripts that blatantly leave out information in an effort to build tension, when what it actually builds is annoyance. When someone says, "I don't have a problem with him, but I think he has a problem with me," the natural response is, "'Why?" Not silence. The silence is there because it's a critical piece of information being withheld so the audience is left to question and keep watching. But that's not what a normal person would do in the situation; a normal person, especially a detective who is used to probing and questioning, would ask what the problem is. For me, this builds a wall of suspicion and distrust toward the show, because I can see the writer manipulating me. I'm then all the more critical of the actual reveal of the missing information. When information about Catherine's dark past is revealed here, it's done in such a clunky way that I wish Morgan would have just given us a flashback or something visual, rather than absurdly having Catherine just drop it in conversation as a non sequiter. Morgan's script is guilty of this type of narrative device on multiple occasions, including in the bizarre opening scene of Catherine breaking into the house of an older couple and watching them as they sleep before stealing a photo off the wall. We're just left to infer that it has something to do with Catherine's damaged pscyhe and not given any context for it until the pilot's final scene. The same can be said of the above exchange she has with Schaeffer. I don't want to see the creative wheels turning in shows I watch. I don't want to be able to map out the writer's process on screen. There are smart and less noticeable ways of withholding key information from the audience, but Those Who Kill just doesn't seem interested in doing them. It's a knock-off, a cheap imitation of smarter, more engaging shows with similar styles, particularly the far-superior and nearly-identical The Killing.

Morgan's script is also populated by stupid people doing stupid things, like cops going into a serial killer's hideout without backup and young girls blindly trusting any man who comes along and offers to help with their car troubles. It uses every cop drama cliche in the book, the kinds of things Law & Order: SVU has been doing for decades: Catherine knows the murderer, he slips through her fingers using the world's worst and most obvious disguise, and later overpowers her (because apparently her apartment door doesn't have a peephole or a deadbolt). Haven't we seen Olivia Benson go through this at least a half-dozen times? It also ends with a scene that throws all realism and credibility out the window; I won't spoil it, but rest assured it's something no cop can do without losing his or her job, which obviously won't happen since this is, you know, the pilot.

There are a few things, however, that Those Who Kill has going for it: the atmosphere and Sevigny's performance. In terms of the former, the cinematography and art direction really do a great job of evoking feelings of darkness and oppression. It's a dank, claustrophobic show, which is great because that's exactly how Catherine's mysterious past has made her feel as well. And Sevigny really is playing the hell out of Catherine. She's an emotionally scarred, very distant and disturbed young woman. It gets to be a bit much at times, watching her mental and physical anguish play out; like The Killing, Those Who Kill is essentially "grief porn:" the constant display of someone's grief and hurting to elicit a response from the audience. Regardless, Sevigny is fascinating to watch, her anger and pain always bubbling beneath and occasionally over the surface. Her quiet, introspective moments without any other interaction are the pilot's best moments. James D'Arcy is an attractive leading man, but there are too many question marks surrounding his character for me to really care about him.

Those Who Kill fits tonally with Bates Motel, its lead-in. Like that show, though, it suffers from a slowness and a tendency toward tangents. I don't really know what the story is here. Is it going to be about Catherine working through her issues with her past? The complicated budding relationship between two very damaged people? Or just another spin on the police procedural? It could be all these things, though, which is probably why the pilot feels cramped and confused, not unlike the box the serial killer shoves his victims into.

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