TV review: Those Who Kill

Matt Hills enjoys spotting the overlap as the Danish crime genre continues to bring home the bacon

March 1, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

Danish crime series Those Who Kill began its UK run recently (ITV3, Thursday 23 February, 10pm), giving ITV a chance to get in on the action after all the buzz surrounding The Killing and Borgen on BBC4. Unlike Forbrydelsen/The Killing, however, Den Som Draeber/Those Who Kill follows a series of different murder cases rather than pursuing one criminal investigation. Perhaps ironically for a show about serial killers, it therefore tends to lack the compulsive seriality of its celebrated predecessor. It does share a few actors, though: Lars Mikkelsen, formerly Troels Hartmann, plays police chief Magnus Bisgaard this time round, while a military suspect from The Killing II turns up as the opening story's creepy murderer. The Killing's composer, Frans Bak, is also on duty again, once more providing audio atmospherics and helping to build tension, although Those Who Kill doesn't quite find any musical motifs that possess the driving, Pavlovian impact of Bak's previous work. And Borgen is represented via the appearance of Iben Dorner - Sanne the PM's secretary - who on this occasion plays the wife of forensic psychiatrist Thomas Schaeffer (Jakob Cedergren). The reappearance of actors known from other Danish imports has prompted one of The Guardian's writers to cheekily ask: "Has Denmark run out of TV actors?" There would seem to be something of a double standard at work here, mind you: nobody asks whether the UK has run out of actors when Christopher Eccleston is cast in the latest TV thriller, or John Simm or David Morrissey turns up on screen.

So why has Those Who Kill, like Borgen before it, got viewers and critics furiously actor-spotting? I suspect it's because such a major part of The Killing's appeal was that audiences believed wholeheartedly in Sarah Lund et al. Yes, there was the allure of that down-to-earth fashion sense, but television cops always have their iconic foibles. More important than the sweaters, I'd hazard, was that minus any awareness of Denmark's frequently cast and most respected actors, Lund and her team (as well as Troels and his political friends or foes) could all be appreciated by British telephiles purely as characters. They seemed more real than many of the UK's own TV creations not because of some special Danish pixie-dust sprinkled over the series, but because we simply didn't know anything about the actors involved. And hence The Killing worked without the logic of typical British and American TV star vehicles. Possessing no contextual knowledge about the actors, at least at first, audiences could get immersed in the fiction without distractions such as "that's so-and-so". But such a disruption of standard TV viewing could only ever be short-lived. No sooner had another Danish drama arrived over here, in the shape of Borgen, than the trick pulled off so spectacularly by Forbrydelsen - no doubt reinforcing its quality of writing and direction - had started to become more difficult. As characters became familiar actors again, then audiences were abruptly brought back to processes of illusion-shattering recognition: "What's Troels doing in the police? Oh, that's Sanne as the wife."

And just as normal service has resumed in the wake of The Killing's unusual success, Those Who Kill emerges in the ITV3 schedule. Katrine Ries Jensen, played by Laura Bach, is our central identification figure: a female cop dedicated to her job. At times it all feels a bit like Prime Suspect meets Waking the Dead, with subtitles. Katrine is aided by Thomas, the academic profiler type who's given to musing out loud about issues of omnipotence and control (doesn't everyone know an academic like this?). In their first case together, "Corpse in the Woods", Katrine gets rather too involved in proceedings and finds herself becoming one of the killer's potential victims - a plot twist that would be surprising only to someone who had never previously watched a serial killer narrative. Despite such rehashing, Those Who Kill is well-made, classy drama that balances ongoing character arcs with individual cases, and becomes more interesting in later stories as we gain further hints about Katrine's past, and as Thomas adjusts to police work. Whether investigating killers of women, families, prison inmates or gangsters, Katrine and Thomas encounter a parade of textbook grotesques: the series doesn't provide much sense of distinctive Danish culture, instead being dominated by contemporary gothic staples like the normal-acting sociopath or the delusional fantasist. In terms of showcasing Denmark's TV acting talent, though, Those Who Kill is far less about spotting the usual suspects and more about observing that, after media talk of assorted Bratpacks and Britpacks over the years, the Danepack is now a force to be recognised and reckoned with.

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