One of the weirdest phenomena of the past TV decade has been the improbable rise and influence of the Nordic noir. Usually highlighted by unflinching looks at the depths of human depravity and often driven by storytelling that’s highly coincidental in nature, Nordic noir blended together a series of unlikely inspirations—Twin Peaks, Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels, and 24 chief among them—to slowly engulf first the United Kingdom, and then the world. (Arguably, True Detective is a distant cousin of Nordic noir, though one supposes creator Nic Pizzolatto was more influenced by Nordic noir’s literary siblings than any Danish TV series.)
Though no one would confuse any of the American series highly influenced by the style—foremost among them The Killing, which is a direct remake of Nordic noir Forbrydelsen—for giant hits, it’s easy to see why cable networks are so tempted by them. The case-of-the-season format allows for the same structural rigor that makes network procedurals so easy to crank out, while also providing a thin sheen of sophistication and serialization. And the inherently dark aesthetic allows everyone involved to proceed under the veneer of serious business. This is a look at how life is really lived: in the shadows.
Yet if the trend had any life in it whatsoever, then that life is slowly being leeched out by endless repetition. Filled with talented people both behind the scenes and in front of the camera, A&E’s new Nordic noir remake Those Who Kill is a needlessly grim slog most viewers will be able to fill in the blanks for from memory. It has a tough-as-nails female cop who pairs with a brilliant criminology professor who lacks in social graces. It has a gruff chief with a heart of gold. It has fellow detectives who bristle at the rookie female cop’s rapid advancement. And it has serial killers. Ho boy, does it have serial killers.
The structure of Den Som Dræber, the Danish series that gave rise to Those Who Kill, was subtly different from many other Nordic noirs, coming closer to something like The X-Files or Hannibal. There were often cases of the week (or of every other week, as the series has aired in most countries as a series of two-hour movies), but there was also an overriding mythology to guide the characters and their backstories. Those Who Kill borrows this structure, more or less, spending a little time making it seem like it will be about the identity of one particular killer, before revealing his identity about halfway through the pilot. There’s a larger game Those Who Kill is playing, though, and it’s only revealed at the very end. Sadly, that’s about the only thing interesting or unexpected in the pilot, and it’s so heavily foreshadowed from scene one on that most viewers will have guessed it as soon as they get a good look at the protagonist’s apartment.
Said protagonist is Catherine Jensen, played by Chloë Sevigny. Sevigny’s television work hasn’t always been perfect, but it’s tended toward the adventurous, and her work on Big Love is one of the finest female performances ever aired on television. That makes it all the more depressing to have her pop up in such an ultra-generic role here, one that she can’t liven up, no matter how hard she tries. Catherine is scrappy and resourceful, until she needs to play damsel in distress, and her character description is basically Clarice Starling with all edges completely removed. (She is “driven” and “headstrong” and “wise beyond her years,” but always, always in air quotes.)
Catherine teams up with criminologist Thomas Schaeffer, played by James D’Arcy, and the scenes between Sevigny and D’Arcy are the sole highlights of the pilot. The two have a surprisingly crackling chemistry, one that makes the viewer wish Schaeffer weren’t married to a wife (played by a thoroughly wasted Anne Dudek) who seems to have wandered in from an 1980s cop drama to worry about her non-cop husband getting too close to the cases. The connection between Sevigny and D’Arcy is teased throughout the pilot and bolstered in the final scene, and it’s the one thing that suggests there might be something here worth following. (The series’ other major player is James Morrison, as the chief who takes Catherine under his wing. Morrison knows all of these notes forward and backward, but he’s always a fun presence in this sort of role.)
Other than that, though, the series colors solidly within the lines. Making this all the more disappointing is that Those Who Kill has been shepherded to the screen by Glen Morgan (The X-Files and Space: Above And Beyond), the kind of writer who doesn’t always connect when he takes a swing but is always aiming for something more than a quick bunt up the middle. There’s little to no life to his writing here, and what excitement there is comes from director Joe Carnahan, who finds some nice images and uses the Pittsburgh locations well. The world has so many series about dark humans doing dark things that it becomes all the more difficult to stand out, and Those Who Kill is so generic it doesn’t even seem interested in trying. It’s the kind of show where the killer can knock out a police officer, make a face that suggests he drew “orgasm” in charades, then snarl, “Officer down!” It’s, sadly, also the kind of show that doesn’t realize how ridiculous that is.