For those of us grown weary of the tortured white male detectives/criminals who occupy so much prime television real estate, “Those Who Kill,” which premieres Monday on A&E, offers some small comfort. Not only is the tortured detective lead a woman, she’s played by Chloë Sevigny, a performer of inevitable creativity and fearlessness.
Here, she’s Catherine Jensen, a new but fiercely brilliant homicide detective in the great city of Pittsburgh. Adapted by Glen Morgan (“The River,” “The X-Files”) “Those Who Kill” is based on a Danish program of the same name, and if the visual palette is less bleak than other Scandinavian programming, it’s bleak enough. The psycho-social tone, meanwhile, is slate gray to ebony; Jensen, like so many TV detectives before her, is driven more by personal trauma than professional ambition.
Also like so many others before her, she seeks aid from an “unlikely” source. In this case, it’s academic forensic psychologist Thomas Schaeffer (James D’Arcy), a guy so attuned to the criminal mind that he can feel the “energy of fear” left behind at a crime scene. (That his character bears a disturbing resemblance to Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham in NBC’s “Hannibal” is not D’Arcy’s fault, although his unfortunate decision to sport the same sort of scruffy non-beard as Will may be.)
In the premiere episode, the two come together too quickly, as in with near-miraculous speed, discover and then solve a series of serial murders Before the Killer Strikes Again. Not surprisingly, they are often working at cross-purposes with Jensen’s actual, and senior, partner (played by Christopher Michael Holley) and her boss (James Morrison). Indeed, the premiere is as by-the-numbers as it gets in the already bloated genre of moody procedural, enlivened only by a viciously scary killer and, of course, Sevigny, who roils in significant silence even when she is forced to reveal that her character is a cutter.
So, to repeat, some comfort, small in nature.
Still, when a brush with the killer prompts Jensen to admit: “I’ve been put in a box before,” it’s difficult not to take the metaphorical leap. Sevigny, and D’Arcy for the matter, may be able to turn “Those Who Kill” into something more than it appears to be in the premiere, but they will have to struggle and strain against the Troubled Detective box in which they find themselves.
A box that Sevigny now shares with several of her former “Big Love” costars: Mireille Enos, who starred in AMC’s “The Killing,” and Jeanne Tripplehorn, who recently joined the cast of CBS’ “Criminal Minds.”
That three women would go from a truly ground-breaking show like “Big Love” to broody procedurals (Ginnifer Goodwin at least went to “Once Upon a Time”) says quite a lot about the current state of television, no matter what “age” it may be in.
Crime drama, long a television staple, has all but taken over prime time. This year’s new hits — NBC’s “The Blacklist” and Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow,” may offer a few significant twists (art thieves, baby farms, demons) but they remain, essentially, investigative procedurals. As is ABC’s “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “Grimm,” Fox’s “The Following,” “Hannibal” and, of course, the slew of more traditional murder-mysteries like ABC’s “Castle,” Fox’s “Bones,” CBS’ “Bluebloods,” and “CSI” and “NCIS” in all their various forms.
ABC’s “Scandal,” which began as a political-publicity episodic, quickly turned to more murder ‘n’ mayhem plot lines. Even the more rarefied cable networks remain crime-and-punishment oriented — HBO’s “True Detective,” FX’s “Justified” and “Sons of Anarchy,” and Sundance’s “Top of the Lake” last year, “Red Road” this year.
That potentially prestige dramas like “Those Who Kill” offer women equal opportunity to the tortured crime-fighter role is both encouraging and disheartening. Crime dramas are popular for many good reasons. They are a familiar, and therefore reassuring, format; they allow writers, and actors, to explore primal human emotions in high-definition circumstances.
They also provide a “natural” showcase for the graphic violence, random sex and personal anguish that has become prerequisites for serious drama.
But familiarity can breed contempt, and the genre is in danger of overexpansion. More and more, shows like “Those Who Kill” serve mostly to reinvigorate our appreciation for series that don’t just think outside the box but ignore the box entirely.
AMC’s “Mad Men,” Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” NBC’s “Parenthood” and, of course, PBS’ “Downton Abbey” manage to create drama without serial killers, disparate timelines or guns among characters dinged by life or even damaged, but not ravaged to the point of nihilism.
Sevigny, like “True Detective’s” Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, will no doubt bring something new and even bold to her version of the story. But wouldn’t it be better if she were allowed a different type of story altogether?
‘Those Who Kill’
When: 10:01 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)