By Paula Hendrickson
If you like complex murder mysteries that last several episodes, or even spill into a second season, you’ll probably enjoy two series that return this week: BBC America’s Whitechapel and AMC’s The Killing.
The British mystery, Whitechapel, is part of BBC America’s Wednesday night Dramaville lineup. The show — from the producers of Downton Abbey and starring Rupert Penry-Jones (MI-5) as Detective Inspector Joseph Chandler — has a central conceit that may have worked for the first mystery, but is a bit of a stretch the third time around: the crimes all echo (or flat-out copy) famous murders.
The first block of episodes tracked a Jack the Ripper copycat, the second block focused on a crime spree tied to the notoriously violent Kray twins who dominated England’s crime syndicate in the 1960s. The new season covers three separate crimes. One arc is tied to the 200-year-old Ratcliffe Highway Killings, another has a killer mimicking the Marquis De Sade, and the third suspect dresses as the Boogeyman.
What makes Whitechapel work is the cast. As a somewhat prim, OCD-afflicted detective working in London’s Whitechapel district, Penry-Jones’ Chandler is a far cry from the actor’s days as MI-5’s brash spy, Adam Carter. Philip Davis — a British character actor you’ll probably recognize if you watch PBS or BBC America with any regularity — makes grizzled, working-class veteran Detective Sergeant Ray Miles the ideal foil for the well-bred Chandler. The only reason for sticking with copycat crimes may be as an excuse to keep the delightful Steve Pemberton on as former “Ripperologist” and historical adviser, Edward Buchan.
While Whitechapel devotes two or three episodes to each mystery, AMC’s The Killing devoted an entire season to the Rosie Larsen murder and still never nabbed the real killer.
Sure, it was frustrating watching Seattle homicide detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) work the case all season only for the last moments of the last episode to completely turn the tables, indicating Councilman Richmond (Billy Campbell) was framed … with the help of Linden’s partner, Holder (Joel Kinnaman).
Some may argue the fact that the complex story is slowly played out actually helps viewers become more invested with the characters and plot. Another group might see Holder’s involvement as an exciting and unexpected revelation. While yet others might feel they were strung along without any resolution. Yes, when the season one finale was over, I was a bit annoyed — but I kind of enjoyed thinking about the many directions the story could go in season two.
I’ll happily endure the twists and turns because I love the cast, the setting and the laconic pacing, but I’ll bail at the first sign that The Killing is headed down the old Twin Peaks route (adding nonsensical suspects and stretching the story so thin it snaps, sending the show into a downward spiral). It’s a little infuriating going into season two not knowing who killed Rosie Larsen, but give me The Killing’s ongoing mystery over procedural shows that neatly wrap up every case in less than one hour.
Whitechapel debuts at 9 p.m., Wednesday, March 28, on BBC America.
The Killing’s two-hour season premiere is at 7 p.m., Sunday April 1, on AMC (regular time 8 p.m., immediately before Mad Men).
Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications, including American Bungalow, Television Week and TVGuide. Follow her on Twitter at P_Hendrickson and send your suggestions to email@example.com.
From the March 28-April 3, 2012, issue