The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime TV.
Every once in a while, a film or TV series makes a choice that changes the game. Premiering tonight on HBO, the six-part Danish-language series The Investigation is one such work.
A scripted series based on the real-life investigation into what's known in Denmark as "the submarine case," The Investigation tells the story of Kim Wall, a journalist who went to interview Danish inventor Peter Madsen on his midget submarine in August 2017, but didn't return. After the sub sank the next day, Madsen was rescued nearby, arrested, and immediately began generating non-credible explanations for Wall's disappearance. As authorities began to find Wall's remains over the course of the next few months, Madsen continued to offer unconvincing explanations for her death and dismemberment.
If this sounds like the sort of horrifying puzzle that would have a true-crime reviewer scribbling notes nonstop, it is — or it should be, anyway — yet I found myself so absorbed by The Investigation that I fhad little reason to note where it was falling short. There are a few baffling misteps, and I'll get to those, but let's start with the pluses.
Writer/director Tobias Lindholm is probably best known for his well-regarded Danish political drama Borgen, but also directed a couple episodes of Mindhunter, the Netflix series about the birth of the FBI's psychological-profiling program. He's also worked on multiple projects with Mads Mikkelsen, who played the TV version of Hannibal Lecter, an amalgam of various serial killers, making it all the more thought-provoking that Lindholm subtracts the killer from The Investigation entirely. It took me an episode and a half to notice the space that leaves; it took me another episode and a half to stop thinking about what a smart choice it is.
The Investigation really is about the investigation: no moody flashbacks of the crime; no clichéd focus pulls from a suspect sitting smugly in an interrogation room to our frustrated cop hero's reflection superimposed on the suspect's face. The killer is deprived of agency, of importance. It's quite a statement about whose perspectives true-crime narratives tend to privilege, and how we've gotten used to that — especially from a creator with experience in crime stories about analyzing killers. The shift in stance from "why'd he do it" to "how do we prove what he did and punish him" is disorienting at first, then just feels right.
So does The Investigation's respect for Wall's family, and for the many people who worked hundreds of hours to try to disprove Madsen's claims. A lot of those people appear as themselves in the project, and Lindholm includes a shot of his protagonist, Copenhagen homicide chief Jens Møller (Søren Malling of Borgen and the original The Killing), shaking each dive-team member's hand after endless searching of the sound between Denmark and Sweden finally yields (gruesome) evidence. It's just one of many shot compositions in The Investigation that struck me; Lindholm has a way of making visuals that seem on-the-nose — Møller heading up the ramp of an underground garage, into the light; or fading into the darkness of his backyard with his dogs — into tonally effective grace notes. Malling is a great choice for the role, too, playing Møller as largely impassive, so when flashbulbs are reflecting off a building behind him at a press conference like a lightning storm, he's able to center the scene.
It's a shame that Malling's performance is also obliged to include one of my least favorite tropes in the crime genre: the conflict between a homicide detective's job and his family. I'm not saying this isn't a real problem, and I'm not saying Møller's kid didn't deserve better, but in a series that otherwise focuses so narrowly (and so effectively) on its titular investigation, it's not clear why we're shilly-shallying around with a predictable estrangement subplot. Like, of course the detente coffee date he has with his pregnant daughter is ruined by a long-awaited discovery out on the water. Of course he and Maibritt (Laura Christensen), a detective his daughter's age, end up falling asleep on each other's shoulders while waiting for the coroner's report. And of course there are cellos to tell us how to feel about the conflict.
Lindholm absolutely knows better than to waste his time (and ours) with this hackneyed garbage, and yet the runner stays in place for the length of the series.
Ditto the chief of the Royal Navy's diver corps, who shows up no fewer than a dozen times to complain to Møller about how difficult it'll be to find discarded evidence at the bottom of the sound. Again, he's not wrong, this was a real complication in the investigation, and it did start to be almost amusing after the fourth or fifth time LM (Henrik Birch) showed up... but it's too bad Lindholm, taking such a daring chance elsewhere in the project by subtracting an entire point of view, falls back on banal devices like these.
That said, the pacing of The Investigation is excellent, and you may not even notice these stumbles while you're watching — which you should absolutely do. Despite a couple minor frustrating aspects, Lindholm's take on the case is ingenious, and it's faithful to the "one step forward, two steps back" quality of real-life fact-finding without getting bogged down in its own realism. At its best, The Investigation makes the case for new ways of telling true-crime stories. I can't wait to see what's next.
The Investigation premieres on HBO tonight at 10:00 PM ET, with new episodes airing Monday nights through mid-March.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.