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TV Review: Third Time Not the Charm for AMC's 'The Killing'

Mireille Enos The Killing - H 2013
AMC
Mireille Enos is back in "The Killing" on AMC.

The Bottom Line

The Killing should have stayed canceled if all it was going to do was prove, emphatically this time, that it was a network procedural masquerading as a highbrow cable drama. While it’s good to see some of the fine actors return, they are not enough to overcome the show's mediocrity.

Airs

Sunday, June 2, 8 p.m., AMC (two-hour premiere).

Starring

Joel Kinnaman, Mireille Enos, Peter Sarsgaard, Elias Koteas, Amy Seimetz.

Season three only proves that, despite fantastic acting, "The Killing" is really just a network procedural.

It has been a strange existence for The Killing, a series with massive potential that first dissipated and then was squandered in season one, had its merits restored by two brilliant acting performances in season two, then was left for dead before being surprisingly revived for season three, which premieres on AMC on June 2.

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Maybe The Killing should have stayed canceled. Renewing it (thanks to lower licensing fees from Fox TV Studios, which owns the show, and a little help from Netflix -- which will stream the series three months after the season ends), has only put an exclamation point on what was already pretty obvious:

The Killing has always wanted to be a top-tier cable drama but it’s nothing more than a glorified network drama, infused with predictability, overly familiar dialog and the unmistakable sheen of a series playing at, without success, something much grander. It has always tried to pass as a show in the Big Leagues, and only the striking, standout performances of Joel Kinnaman (as Stephen Holder) and Mireille Enos (as Sarah Linden) allowed that fragile comparison to even exist.

But this third season is unlikely to let that subterfuge continue, despite the addition of three strong actors: Peter Sarsgaard, Elias Koteas and Amy Seimetz.

That’s because the writing is weak and the structure too familiar, each scene a seeming reflection from some past police procedural.

Series creator Veena Sud, who adapted The Killing from the Danish television series Forbrydelsen, was previously the executive producer and writer for Cold Case. Thus the worries back in season one -- when the veneer began to chip on The Killing -- that maybe she and AMC were in over their heads in this pursuit of greatness.

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Despite being too coy with endless red herrings, what poisoned the water in season one was that the mystery of “who killed Rosie Larsen?” was never revealed. Sud’s dismissal of fan and critic complaints didn’t help after the fact, and season two was met with derision as it also teased along, not revealing the killer until the final episode. But what kept season two worth the dragged-out, less-than-intriguing plot reveal were the continued strong performances of Kinnaman, Enos and some of the supporting cast.

Who, then, saw a need for season three? Whatever plot twists come around this time, none may be more mystifying than that question.

It doesn’t help that season three hinges on a serial-killing spree (done to death) and an enigmatic convicted killer (see: The Following, plus dozens of others), has a twist that brings Linden back after she quit to lead a quiet life (predictable snoring sound here), pairs Holder with a veteran, corner-cutting, jerk of a partner (gasp at the originality!) and places the need for depth and grit on a string of young actors who don’t seem capable of pulling it off.

It’s like The Killing decided to stopped pretending to be a cable show and just unzipped its clothing to reveal a standard network procedural. But instead of jumping up and down in sanctimonious schadenfreude glee, there’s just a heavy sigh.

Season three begins a year after the Rosie Larsen case has ended. Linden lives and works out on Vashon Island, away from the Seattle hubbub, working for minimum wage on the ferry. She’s dating a younger man. She’s happy. She smiles (yes, actually smiles, sometimes a lot -- to the point you want her to stop overdoing it). She’s stopped smoking. Hell, even her sweaters seem thinner. (But she’s still the World’s Worst Mother -- her son lives in Chicago and she won’t visit because, well, he’s the only person she knows there. Wow, Linden. Just, wow.)

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Holder has gone through even bigger changes. He wears a suit now (!). He’s calmer, more confident. He looks less like a street rat. His diet has improved tremendously (vegan, etc.). He’s dating an assistant district attorney who gets him. He’s studying for the sergeant’s exam. At least he still talks like the Holder we know.

And Seattle is still dark and dreary, still wet with rain. But it still looks darkly beautiful from those helicopter shots.

The Killing kicks into gear because Holder catches a case: a murder that resembles the same one that Linden had years ago -- the one that drove her into the hospital and made her the recovering wreck we met in season one as she tackled the Rosie Larsen case with too much passion.

It’s a little too pat, obviously. You know that Holder is going to pull Linden back into it. And nothing will be as it seems. Is Ray Seward (Sarsgaard), the man that Linden and her old partner James Skinner (Koteas) arrested for the murder of his wife, actually innocent? Certainly he can’t be -- he seems crazy and proves to be volatile. But as he faces execution, similar murders keep popping up (17 and counting, as the AMC ads like to show).

So, yes, we have a network-type scenario here. Other than Sarsgaard's lines (the actor can make magic from words that have none), much of the dialogue seems both forced and familiar -- that procedural patois that comforts TV viewers. And while it’s great fun to have Holder back -- you could make a TV show out of him just walking and talking and it would be fantastic, because Kinnaman is so compelling -- the Seattle street urchins at the core of the murder mystery are almost unbearable to watch. The acting, writing and scenarios for the latter are all mediocre, making you long to return to Kinnaman and Sarsgaard and Enos (who is far more enjoyable to watch while dour than happy).

AMC only sent two of the 10 hours of The Killing, so maybe it gets exponentially better as it goes along. But that’s what so many people hoped would happen in the last two seasons. Fool me three times?

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine