TV NotesCan ‘The Killing’ Make a Comeback?
By Adam Sternbergh, The New York Times Sunday Magazine
- Mar. 18, 2012
In an ideal world — or, at least, in Veena Sud’s ideal world — we would be talking about her history as a Hemingway-loving women’s-studies major at Columbia, or the time she took a master class with Spike Lee at N.Y.U. film school, or her years as a gloomy loner growing up in Cincinnati, reading “Helter Skelter” and wearing a Jennifer Beals perm — anything, basically, other than the ending of the first season of the show she created for AMC, “The Killing,” and why so many people hated it so much.
When “The Killing” had its premiere last spring, it seemed, at first glance, like a slick and intriguing spin on the cop procedural: a moody murder mystery set in rainy Seattle, based on “Forbrydelsen,” a moody murder mystery set in Denmark. The show’s tagline, in a self-conscious echo of “Twin Peaks,” was “Who Killed Rosie Larsen?” And most of the show’s loyal viewers, after sticking it out through an up-and-down first season, assumed the season finale would answer that question.
It didn’t. Instead, the finale offered a last-second switcheroo that was intended to prod viewers toward Season 2, but that instead prodded them toward their computers, where they howled in rage.Here is Maureen Ryan, TV critic for The Huffington Post
: “YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME.” Here is Alan Sepinwall, influential critic for Hitfix.com
: “This will be the last review I write of ‘The Killing,’ because this will be the last time I watch ‘The Killing.’ ” Here is James Poniewozik, TV critic at Time
: “I no longer counsel patience with ‘The Killing’! You may unlock the toolshed and get the pitchforks!”
And those are the professionals. The amateurs were somewhat less kind.
So that’s how we found ourselves, Veena Sud and I, having dinner on Valentine’s Day in a hotel in Vancouver, where she was working on an episode for “The Killing,” Season 2. A publicist from AMC was also seated at our table, giving the proceedings the air of a slightly hostile Senate subcommittee hearing. And, sure enough, Sud reacted to questions about the finale of “The Killing” with the defensive mien of a politician hoping to weather a stubborn scandal. “We set out from the very beginning to do something different,” she said. “Sometimes that worked. Sometimes things about it didn’t work.”
This is a variation on the response that Sud and AMC have stuck to since last season, when AMC found itself in the awkward position of having to mollify furious fans while not explicitly admitting to any wrongdoing. As Charlie Collier, the president of AMC, said in a kind of pseudo-apology to angry viewers a week after the finale: “If I could do anything differently, it would be to manage expectations.”
As Joel Stillerman, head of original programming for AMC, told the Television Critics Association gathering in Los Angeles in July: “If we had to do anything differently, I think we would certainly have taken a different approach with respect to managing the expectations of what was going to happen within that season.”
As Sud said to me in Vancouver: “I was definitely surprised by the level of expectation of closure. I didn’t expect the expectation.”
The real problem for AMC, though, is not that it angered its audience. Audience-angering has happened before. (The finales of “Seinfeld,” “Lost” and “The Sopranos” were all met with degrees of bewilderment and displeasure — no doubt there was some furious faction somewhere when “Bewitched” swapped out Dick York for Dick Sargent.) The real problem for AMC is that “The Killing” has aggrieved exactly the kind of viewers that it most wants to entice.
Not long ago, TV was a relatively simple three-legged stool: you had creators, you had critics and you had viewers, i.e. the passive, Nielsen-monitored masses. But the Internet, and specifically social media sites, has served as a kind of electrocharged amniotic fluid for the gestation of a powerful fourth entity: what I’ll call the superviewer. These people are engaged, passionate and vocal, an online jumble of professional critics and opinionated amateurs who gather together to watch and discuss and dissect their favorite shows. Early fan forums like Television Without Pity gave these viewers a voice; now sites like Twitter have given them a megaphone.
Superviewers can’t make or break a show — if they could, “Community” would be the highest-rated TV show in the history of ever. But they do influence programming, particularly on cable, where intangibles like buzz can be as crucial as overall viewer numbers. HBO, for example, recently canceled several series — “Bored to Death,” “How to Make It in America” and “Hung” — while sparing another one, “Enlightened,” despite it’s being the lowest-rated of the bunch. This was in part because those other shows had not generated the kind of significant fan engagement or critical support that can lead to award consideration. They had not, in short, earned the passion of the superviewers.
For AMC, the calculus is slightly altered — unlike HBO, AMC sells ads against its shows, so it values ratings in a different way. Still, its hits, like “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead,” are among the most superviewer-friendly on TV. Thanks to the communal nature of social media and “its ability to metastasize, you have to take that stuff seriously,” Stillerman told me. “You want those early responses to be positive — and help guide the rest of the responses.” At first, “The Killing” offered that kind of viral potential, sparking a mini-phenomenon of live-tweeting and parlor-game guessing. Then the superviewers turned on the show. It didn’t help that, in interviews after the finale, Sud suggested that her show was a “holistic journey” and that disgruntled fans might be happier watching something not quite so sophisticated. “The irony is that these are exactly the kind of viewers networks are trying to engage,” Maureen Ryan told me. “And that’s great. Go after them. Just know that, if you disappoint them, that’s the worst thing that can happen to your show.”
In advance of the second season, AMC has tried to court back these fans, or at least placate them. “We had an interesting case study on ‘The Killing,’ ” Stillerman said, “where we had a very vocal group of people telling us something that, frankly, we listened to. We’ve even gone so far, in one of the more surreal moments in television programming history, as to literally let our audience know when they’re going to find out who the killer is.” (NONSPOILER ALERT: The final episode of Season 2.)
But will the superviewers come back? “I’ll take a look at a couple of episodes,” says Sepinwall, who publicly swore off the show. “Sometimes shows learn, and sometimes they don’t.” The premiere, on April 1, should reveal whether “The Killing” can stagger back to life after being gang-stomped by the Internet. Either way, though, the moral for TV creators is clear. Expect the expectation.Adam Sternbergh is the culture editor of the magazine.
Editor: Greg Veishttp://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/ma...ref=television