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Spy vs. assassin? It's a pure and perverse matchup in BBC America's 'Killing Eve'

Spy vs. assassin? It's a pure and perverse matchup in BBC America's 'Killing Eve'
Assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer, left) and British agent Eve (Sandra Oh) come face to face and knife to throat in a scene from BBC America's "Killing Eve." (BBC America)

Murder is a funny thing, weirdly adaptable to tragedy or comedy, intellectual puzzle-making or romantic fantasy. That one person taking another person's life should be the stuff of such a range of entertainments is remarkable.

But we have paid good money to watch humans send one another into the void and have at least since plays were first written down. In "Hamlet," which is full of jokes, only Horatio is left standing at the end, unless you count Fortinbras (and you really don't have to). Even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. And that thing is still playing.

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One of the cinematic tropes that this fascination with killing has thrown up — and I apologize to the person who wrote me recently to say he was sick of reading the word "trope," and also sorry to everyone for the phrase "thrown up" — is the Hot Female Assassin. If you search the phrase "hot female assassin" on the internet, you get lists of things like "The Hottest 15 Female Assassins" and "723 Best Sexy Female Assassins on Pinterest," as well as cosplay instructions and links to pornography.

The latest exercise in this genre, premiering Sunday on BBC America, is "Killing Eve," an eight-part series (already renewed) created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge from a series of novellas by Luke Jennings, collected as "Codename Villanelle." It's a witty and lively show, fast-paced and suspenseful when it needs to be but not afraid to slow down and let people talk, or to bumble amusingly.

Waller-Bridge is also the creator of "Fleabag," and those who know that series know she has a talent for writing spiky comedy and women who don't quite fit the world around them, and here both the cat and the mouse — or cat and cat — are female.

Kim Bodnia as Konstantin and Jodie Comer as Villanelle confer in Paris in a scene from the BBC America series "Killing Eve."
Kim Bodnia as Konstantin and Jodie Comer as Villanelle confer in Paris in a scene from the BBC America series "Killing Eve." (BBC America)

The series begins quietly, with a sort of prologue in which a little girl and a woman we will come to know as Villanelle (Jodie Comer) regard each other across a Vienna ice cream parlor; it ends with the woman tipping the girl's ice cream onto her lap as she exits, smiling.

We then meet Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), who wakes up screaming at home in London, not because she has had — as a lifetime of movies would have us normally assume — some sort of traumatic flashback dream, but because she fell asleep on her arms.

Villanelle, it soon transpires, is a high-level professional killer, and Eve a very mid-level British intelligence operative with a side interest in criminal psychopathy. Her idea of pillow talk is to ask husband Niko (Owen McDonnell), a character the show treats almost as thoughtlessly as Eve can, how he would kill her.

"Flatter you to death?" he ventures. (He's a nice guy.) She, by contrast, knows just how she'd do away with him.

Her somewhat obsessive extracurricular activities have led Eve, who dreams of a life in real espionage, to notice a connection between mysterious killings across the world. (They are connected, as is sometimes the case in such stories, by their apparent lack of connection.) One thing and another lead her into the orbit of Carolyn Martens (a formidable Fiona Shaw), legendary head of MI6's Russia Desk, who thinks Eve might be on to something.

As a 46-year-old self-described Korean Canadian Angeleno, Oh is not your typical action hero. (She does not affect a British accent here; her character is British-born, but raised in America.)

And among her assassinating sisters in popular culture, Comer also is a little different. There is something alien, in the Area 51 sense, about the wide set of her eyes and unnerving in her ability to uncouple them from her thinking; at times, she looks like a CGI rendition of a human. Her Villanelle is an oddly kooky combination of cruelty and need, and though she has good taste and speaks many languages, she is refreshingly not a sophisticated polymath or a superwoman. Violence is pretty much life-size here.

Fiona Shaw plays a legendary M16 agent who has an offer for Sandra Oh's title character in the BBC America series "Killing Eve."
Fiona Shaw plays a legendary M16 agent who has an offer for Sandra Oh's title character in the BBC America series "Killing Eve." (Sophie Mutevelian / BBC America)

The series is not perfect, if you bother to think about it, and you may well be having too good a time to bother. Here's a short list of minor quibbles: The reaction of the characters to critical events and situations can seem unnaturally relaxed. Some of Eve's missions are a little too easily accomplished. That the shadowy enemy here is more SPECTRE than SMERSH, in James Bond terms, pulls the plot toward a corniness that clashes with the naturalism of the production. The songs on the soundtrack too literally reflect the action at times. Not least, the title is unfortunately similar to a series of books by Bill O'Reilly.

This would all matter less if the show were less good, but the show is so good that it really doesn't matter much at all. If the reasons advanced, sooner and later, for Eve and Villanelle's incautious mutual attraction, do not have the force of revelation, they are sturdy enough to go on with, and most everything else about "Killing Eve" is a pure, if sometimes perverse, pleasure.

I cannot swear that every location is authentically what the screen-filling titles indicate (Vienna, London, Paris, Bulgaria, Berlin, Tuscany, Russia), but the show has the tang of the real, with screens suitably filled with crowds where crowds need to be. It never seems a slave to its budget.

The dialogue has some of the snap of Alfred Hitchcock, both main and minor characters (again as in Hitchcock) are well-played and vivid. Followers of British character actors will be glad to see David Haig and Darren Boyd among Eve's associates; as Villanelle's handler, Konstantin, Danish actor Kim Bodnia makes a peculiarly warm impression.

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Seven episodes were available for review. That I could not immediately watch the eighth made me sad.

'Killing Eve'

Where: BBC America

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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