The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

3 hardboiled observations on the displaced TV series “The Killing”

Hillstreet Blues Law and Order Crime Scene Investigation (CSI)Bones… I could keep going, but point made: American TV is the undisputed godfather of the crime series genre.

These shows may be fiction, but they are underpinned by a grim reality: the United States has the highest rates of homicide and other violent crimes in the industrialized world.

But, not so fast. There’s a rookie on the scene that is taking on the veteran. I refer to the Danish crime series, The Killing, which is currently airing on AMC.

Now, what do the Danes know about crime — apart from suicide (regicide, too, if we go as far back as Hamlet)? Well, I’m here to tell you that this “smorgasbord thriller” has fast achieved cult status in the UK and now the US. As Alessandra Stanley wrote in her New York Times review:

It’s unnerving how well the Nordic sensibility fits a genre that for a long time seemed indisputably and inimitably violent and American, particularly given that Sweden, Norway and Denmark have homicide rates that suggest that they have more mystery writers per capita than murders.

Having become a a diehard (haha!) fan of the Danish noir series after a couple of episodes, I’ve been thinking about it of late in the context of The Displaced Nation. What happens when a TV series becomes expatified? Can we who have chosen to displace ourselves to other countries glean anything from its acculturation process?

Here are three hardboiled observations:

1) America is not Britain.

I was an expat in the UK for many years so am fated to have this thought nearly everyday: America is not Britain. Still, it’s gratifying to have it confirmed by third-party sources. Gratifying and, I must say, somewhat surprising given how quickly the UK appears to have become Americanized since I left. (I mean, pub grub now includes peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches! That would NEVER have happened in my day!)

Here’s the thing: the UK imported the original Danish series, entitled Forbydelsen, and simply added subtitles. Which completely makes sense to me — yes, I remain that anglicized.

But for an American audience, of course, subtitles won’t do. Thus AMC hired Veena Sud to come up with an adaptation. Sud moved the action to Seattle, which, she says, is the “closest American city, viscerally, to Copenhagen.”

2) Sud is right: Seattle is as creepy as Copenhagen.

Who knew that Seattle could be so creepy? Certainly not me. Though I’ve never had the honor of visiting that Pacific Northwest city, being an East Coaster I have always held a romantic view of it. At one point I even thought of Seattle as a place I might like to live in some day —  especially as the people are reputed to behave with greater decency towards each other than us competitive, dog-eat-dog New Yorkers.

But The Killing has quashed this “domestic expat” fantasy of mine, at least for now.

It underlines a truth we’ve been exploring recently on The Displaced Nation: horrific crimes can happen anywhere, even in settings where people are bending over backwards to be pleasant to one another.

3) But the series also addresses themes that transcend national borders, at least in Western countries.

Setting is important — one of the reasons for the series’ popularity in Britain is that so many people coveted the female detective’s classic Feroese sweater, and I think some fans of the AMC production enjoy watching a crime drama that takes place in Seattle, not New York or L.A.

But if setting is a crucial hook, it’s by no means the only reason The Killing has captivated viewers beyond Denmark and made such a killing for the Danish Broadcasting Corporation.

The show also addresses themes of widespread concern to Western countries: most notably, the fact that even in our supposedly civilized societies (we don’t have female genital mutilation! we don’t have honor killings!), many young women continue to be victims of violence.

The killing to which the title refers is that of a teenage girl, and each each one-hour episode depicts 24 hours in the police investigation, during which we are able to observe the impact of the tragedy has had on the girl’s family, her community, and the people involved in the investigation.

Another theme running through the series is xenophobia: the distrust American and European societies have for Muslim immigrants. America has yet to process the legacy of 9/11, while the Danes are still reeling from the incident involving cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. (To this day, he receives death threats for his cheeky portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad.)

For better or for worse, this Danish crime thriller holds up a mirror to Western culture and shows how easy it is for us to pin the murder of the girl on the Muslim teacher. It eerily reflects the times we live in — perhaps its most chilling facet.

Question: Do you have an experience with a TV show or series that made you look at your own and/or other cultures in a fresh light?

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2 responses to “3 hardboiled observations on the displaced TV series “The Killing”

  1. Kate Allison May 21, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    I’m not an avid watcher of TV, but every year, no matter how many good resolutions I make, I get sucked into the American Idol thing. During a visit to England a couple of years ago, I watched The X Factor for the first time, and, as I blogged at the time, was surprised at the difference in attitude between it and AI. When the contestants came on, they gave their little bio blurb, then ended the spiel by saying, effectively, “And if I mess up tonight, I’ll be going home.” It seemed almost defeatist to my increasingly American ears and I couldn’t imagine anyone saying it on AI. Will be very interested to watch the American version in the fall to see if it really was a diffence between two cultures, or if just a difference between two programmes.

    Law and Order UK is supposed to be doing pretty well – it’s the first US drama series to be adapted for UK TV, I read – and as it’s now being shown on BBC America, it would be interesting to compare it with the original US version. Except, not being a big TV watcher, I haven’t seen either version. Anyone out there who has and can comment?

    • ML Awanohara May 23, 2011 at 10:00 pm

      Interesting what you say about American Idol vs. The X Factor. In general, I’ve found the Brit versions of reality TV heaps better than their American adaptations. What Not to Wear, for instance, with Trinny and Susannah, was much more of a wheeze than the TLC remake with Stacy London and Clinton Kelly. The latter is much too bland. When eccentricity is called for, the Brits win every time!

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