Friday, March 7, 2014

Rating the Underrated: How the Critics Killed "The Killing"

(Note: This is a discussion of AMC’s series The Killing, which is a murder mystery show. I try to avoid spoilers, and my discussion is going to be mostly about the reception the show received rather than the show itself, which I think could potentially be just as interesting for those who have not seen the series as for those who have. However, if you care heavily about spoilers for a television show that aired two and a half years ago, please do not read this—I do have to bring up some details which are fairly surprising and crucial to the plot. Otherwise, enjoy!)

In 2011, AMC was easily the most exciting network in terms of original programming. Mad Men and Breaking Bad had both distinguished themselves as two of the best shows on television and continued to bring in numerous accolades for the fledgling network. But they were looking to get another hit show—at the moment, they were known as a two-show network and needed to prove that these series were not a fluke. The only other original show they had produced was Rubicon, a critically acclaimed series which was canceled after struggling to find an audience. Needing a show on the scale of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the network picked up two new dramas with massive potential. One of these dramas was The Walking Dead, which has since become AMC’s most popular show, although its audience tends to hate-watch it at times. The other drama AMC picked up was a show called The Killing. And the way that critical reception towards the show shifted is both fascinating and baffling.

For those who are unfamiliar, The Killing is a cop drama following detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). Based on the acclaimed Danish series Forbrydelsen, the idea was that, rather than solving a new crime each episode like on most cop dramas, the investigations would take longer. In the Danish season, each season was a new crime. This meant that the murders could be more complex and examined more thoroughly. For obvious reasons, The Killing gained a lot of comparisons to Twin Peaks—with the murder victim Rosie Larsen filling in for Twin Peaks’ famous Laura Palmer— and was similar in how it went about examining the crime. Ads for The Killing even featured the slogan "Who Killed Rosie Larsen," a clear Twin Peaks allusion. Although The Killing was obviously a significantly less weird show. While the investigation for the murderer was the main plot, the show wasn’t about solving a crime, it was about the death itself, and how Rosie’s death affected those around her. For example, we see how her family reacts. The parents of a murdered teen are a part of any such story in any drama—but by giving an entire season to let their emotions play out, the Larsens (played by Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton) become more than just grieving parents. Yes, they feel sadness, but over time, that sadness evolves into desperation, fear, withdrawal, and anger, and we get a chance to see this complicated progression. But Rosie’s death has other consequences—for example, we see how the tragedy factors into and alters a local mayoral election. Perhaps most interestingly, we see how the murder takes a toll on the detectives. Obviously it is their job to solve the crime, but we see the emotional devastation that comes with being a homicide detective. Since it takes longer than an hour to solve the crime, Linden and Holder make mistakes, and have to deal with the consequences, and the performances of Enos and Kinnaman are reason alone to watch this series (for fans of Breaking Bad, Kinnaman’s character of Detective Holder is basically if Jesse Pinkman got out of the drug business, grew up, and became a cop).

A cop who would then grow up to become a Robocop.

But, I digress. As you can probably tell, however, I am a huge fan of the show and what it set out to accomplish. And at the start of the series, the critics agreed with me. The two-part pilot episode was some of the best two-hours of television in recent years—and received several accolades, including a Director’s Guild of America award for best direction of a drama series (director Patty Jenkins was only the third woman to ever win the award). Critics praised the performances in the show and the gritty, bleak tone it set. As the first season rolled along, The Killing was on its way to becoming AMC’s next big drama, garnered considerable Emmy buzz (and earned deserved acting nominations for Enos and Forbes), and was renewed for a second season. In the season 1 finale, Orpheus Descending, it looked as if everything in the Rosie Larsen case was going to be wrapped up. Linden and Holder made an arrest and seemed to have irrefutable evidence as to who the murderer was. The case was closed and ready to be reset for the next season.

And then, in the last four minutes of the episode, something happened. We found out that the evidence incriminating our supposed murderer has been tampered with and he’s not the killer after all.

The season ended on a cliffhanger—the case still unsolved and the big question of “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?” was still unanswered. Now, the show had already been picked up for a second season at this point. It wasn’t as if the murderer would never be revealed—it just meant they weren’t going to be revealed yet. And, yes, cliffhangers are rough, but they’re not particularly unheard of. There are numerous acclaimed series which end a season on a cliffhanger—it’s one of the oldest tricks in the book. And it didn’t exactly come out of left field—like many AMC dramas and murder mysteries, The Killing was no stranger to cliffhangers, and would almost always end an episode just as the detectives make a new discovery that completely changes the course of the investigation. When I watched the season 1 finale, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. Yes, I was screaming at my television screen, but that was the point. Showrunner Veena Sud knew exactly what she was doing. After a season, I was completely invested in the show and couldn’t bear the thought of having to wait a year to see how the rest of the story would unfold. But this is the mark of any great drama. You become so invested that you want to watch more to see where the show leads.

Fans and critics were staunchly divided in their opinions on Orpheus Descending. Many felt like I did—that it was a surprising end of the season, and were excited to see how the new developments would fuel the investigation in the second season. But, many fans were outraged, and in this age where everyone can make their opinion so readily known, the internet exploded. People took to twitter and facebook and tumblr and more to say how they hated the season 1 finale. But some took it farther. Some claimed that they felt betrayed by the show. Some called for Veena Sud to be fired. Some even went so far as to claim that they would never watch an AMC show again because the network had let this ending go through. By not answering the core question on all of the show’s advertising—“Who killed Rosie Larsen?”—many felt that the show had actively lied to its fans, and had not followed through on what it had promised.

The response was akin to other controversial TV finales—such as The Sopranos and Lost. Except, for those other series, they were series finales—and the frustration of fans came from the fact that their unanswered questions would forever be ambiguous. But, and I can’t stress this enough, this was a season finale, not a series finale. It’s true, the show had not answered the question of “Who killed Rosie Larsen,” but it still had more episodes to go. And no one involved in the show or at AMC had ever actually promised or even implied that the case would be solved in one season—it was just assumed by the audience. Now, to be fair, many pointed out that in the Danish series the season was based on, the case was solved in one season. But that season was 20 episodes long instead of 13, and the first and second halves had been aired a year apart (the way AMC aired the 5th season of Breaking Bad, for example). So, actually, this should have been a clue that the show might do just what it did. Showrunner Veena Sud said, “I am aware there’s been both excitement and frustration around the twist at the end of the season. Our goal was not to mislead but rather to do something different, to take the time the story needs to fully unfold.”

Detectives Linden and Holder investigate

Despite the negative response of some fans, there were still many viewers, like myself, who stood by the show and, in fact, liked the season 1 finale. But, then, the reviews came in. Now, I want to talk about the nature of critics in the world of art—I think they’re important. Critics facilitate a discussion of media. The best critics do not simply pass judgment, they provide commentary on the subject framed by their own opinions. The best critics are not always going to be the ones that you most agree with. For example, I disagreed with a lot of Roger Ebert’s reviews, but even if he loved a movie I hated, or vice versa, his reviews provided intelligent commentary and he was able to articulate his opinions well.  And reviews are important. Bad reviews can sting, but by the same token, a positive review is extremely validating, and can encourage people to see something they ordinarily would not have. So, my comments below are not attempting to speak out against critics. After all, this is an entertainment blog where I am going to be reviewing entertainment. Like a critic. It would be hypocritical for me to denounce the role of the critic. Especially if I discuss something that is really, really, really awful.

But there are some critics who thrive on writing negative reviews. And, with the mixed reaction from viewers for the season finale of The Killing, critics smelled blood in the water. Several reviewers published irresponsibly scathing reviews. Maureen Ryan of The Huffington Post was notoriously. As a critic, I hold Maureen Ryan in very low regard and find myself disagreeing with her more than I agree with her, and had felt this way before her review of The Killing’s finale. In her review, she came across as actually offended by the show—as if the show had done her some personal harm in some way. But it didn’t—it just ended its season on a cliffhanger.

Mitch and Stan Larsen-- the parents of the fictional victim of The Killing

The second season did what everyone wanted it to do: it solved the murder of Rosie Larsen. But at this point, nobody was watching it. The Killing became known for its critical backlash as opposed to its distinct mood and out-of-this-world performances. Critics went into the second season ready to pounce, ready to criticize. One of the number one online communities for discussion of media—The A.V. Club—was particularly harsh. While I typically love the reviews on the website, reviewer Brandon Nowalk, who was assigned to season 2 of The Killing, appeared to go into the season with an absolute disgust for the show—a place from which a reviewer should never approach the media that they are reviewing (the site, by the way, also featured a harsh condemnation for Orpheus Descending, which it rated a D+). For me, the actual case of who killed Rosie Larsen was solved the best way that it could be. The identity of the murderer tied in the multiple storylines of the series, and was unexpected without coming out of left field. But, like the rest of the season, it was panned by most reviewers for reasons I truly cannot understand, and which never seemed to me to be fully articulated. Due to the low ratings of the show, AMC had to cancel it, a decision which received cheers mostly from viewers who had long since stopped watching the show.

But, after the news of the cancellation, another surprising announcement was made—Netflix was in talks to pick up the series for another season. See, while the show did poorly in the United States, it was beloved abroad, by viewers who had not been privy to the backlash of the first season finale. Eventually, AMC ended up picking up the show for a third season, making a deal with Netflix that they could release the season online in Europe as it aired in the U.S. The third season was an exciting chance for the show to start anew—as they were solving a completely new case, only the two main characters (the detectives) were carried over to this new season. This was a new case, and a new chance for the show. As always, the gritty atmosphere of the show was spot on, and the performances were incredible. Specifically, a young actress named Bex Taylor-Klaus knocked it out of the park as a gritty tomboy named Bullet. And the series landed a big name in Peter Sarsgaard—a fan of the show who reportedly approached the producers himself asking if he could be cast—who portrayed an inmate on death row. Sure enough, critics began giving it high praise—many adopting a tone of surprise while doing so.

The fantastic Bex Taylor-Klaus as Bullet in Season 3

But audiences who had long written off the show were not willing to watch it, and articles praising the season were treated to a slew of comments from disgruntled former fans who, rather than give the show a try in light of its renewed critical acclaim, responded that the critic must be wrong and there was no way the show could possibly be good. The show once again had dismal ratings.

While, for me, the third season takes a while to get going, the end of the season was one of the most exciting I’ve seen in a while. Two of the episodes from this season—“Reckoning” (directed by Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme) and “Six Minutes”—were some of the best hours of television that I’ve ever seen, and could have competed with the episodes of AMC’s magnum opus Breaking Bad. Even if you’re not sold on my defense of the show as a whole and don’t intend to watch it, I really encourage you to watch “Six Minutes.” While it obviously will carry more of a punch if you’ve seen the season and have gotten to know the characters, the episode is mostly standalone, and I think that it would be impressive enough on its own (even the AV Club, which to be fair had generally nice things to say about the third season, assigned the episode a rare A rating). The episode follows Sarsgaard’s character—the inmate Ray Seward (who is in jail at the start of the season and is not a suspect in the case that the third season focuses on), in the 24 hours before his pending execution. By his request, he will be hanged—a decision he now regrets as he learned that if the noose does not immediately kill him, he could stay alive for up to six minutes before suffocating (hence the title). The head detective in charge of putting him in prison—Enos’ detective Linden—now has some doubts as to his guilt and is trying to obtain a stay of execution for him. It’s a tense, heartfelt, and gripping episode which reads like a fantastic short film. Watch it—I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. And I’m seriously hoping the episode somehow garners some awards for writing and directing at the upcoming Emmy awards. Although this is unlikely, they would be very much deserved.

Peter Sarsgaard in the episode "Six Minutes"

But, back to the series as a whole, I have one major question: if the show had really been as bad as people say it was, then why would it have experienced the backlash that it did? If people hated the show, then why would they have been so shocked and devastated when the case was not immediately solved? If they were not invested in these wonderful, well-rounded characters then how could the finale have garnered such a strong reaction? It makes me think of the hatred of the films of M. Night Shyamalan. If Shyamalan were just a hack director with no talent (and I’m not necessarily saying he’s not) then his films would just be ignored and acknowledged as bad, but innocuous. The reason that Shyamalan’s films are so wonderfully celebrated as being awful is because of his initial success. If not for The Sixth Sense, no one would care about how bad The Happening was. The finale let people down, and that’s fine. I disagree and thought it was brilliant, but I’m not going to discount the fact that people didn’t enjoy the finale and do not intend to put down any other viewer's opinion. But just as we shouldn’t let Shyamalan’s many, many, many, many, many, many failures blemish the fact that The Sixth Sense is a pretty brilliant film, the first season finale should not define The Killing in the way that it truly has. While it has generally been acknowledged that there are times when a show “jumps the shark,” I cannot think of any other show where a single episode so completely reversed any goodwill that critics had towards the series. It’s a true anomaly.

Brandon Jay McLaren as one of the initial suspects in Season 1

This whole incident speaks to the power of a critic. I think that critics are important, as discussion of the arts is always important, and reviews encourage that. But critics hold immense power—a poor review can kill a show. Just as a positive review can make a show. This becomes dangerous when a critic’s response so clearly dictate’s a supposedly autonomous audience’s response. Which is why I encourage you to not just take my word for it—watch The Killing. And if you hate it that’s fine. But watch it with an open mind.

The show is, actually, not dead yet. Someone at Netflix clearly loves this show, as Netflix has picked the show up for a fourth and final season, marking it the second time the show has been canceled and then renewed. Indeed, The Killing seems to be a show that can’t be killed. And the two main actors from the series-- Enos and Kinnaman-- have been seeing a tremendous amount of success in the show's wake, which is well-deserved considering their incredible performances. I for one am excited for what the fourth season will bring, and am looking forward to more episodes to spend with Linden and Holder (seriously, their friendship and partnership is really important to me).  My hope is that, with the show existing on Netflix, it will allow for newer audiences to experience the show without the swarm of hatred surrounding it. Perhaps history will be kind to The Killing. I certainly hope so.

Linden and Holder interview a suspect in undoubtedly the brightest-lit shot in the series. Yeah, that's Kacey Rohl from Hannibal. Seriously, the cast is great and you should watch this show.

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