It’s utterly impossible to talk about the second-season premiere of AMC’s The Killing without addressing the end of the season one. And unless you’ve been under a rock, don’t follow television critics on Twitter and have steadfastly avoided pretty much any story on the series, you’re probably aware about the damning conversation at hand.
The Killing might be the poster series for social media backlash, or at least the first major dramatic series in the Twitter era to go from critical embrace to critical chokehold – all because the question, “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” wasn’t answered after 13 episodes.
Here you have a drama that scored a whopping 84 – “universal acclaim” – on Metacritic (which aggregates reviews from critics across the country and compiles ratings on a scale of 100), then suffered widespread grumbling about too many red herrings and finally an explosion of rage when the killer wasn’t revealed.
In many ways, The Killing became a cautionary tale for modern-day series creators: Don’t take us on a 13-hour trip and then not reward our devotion.
Fanning the flames was the reaction of showrunner Veena Sud, who dismissed the backlash and essentially said that any press is good press and as long as people are talking about the show, it was a good thing.
Except it wasn’t. The outrage was unrelenting, eventually turning to mocking jokes, and the implicit message was that those fans wouldn’t be coming back. Based on that, it wouldn’t be surprising if The Killing was down – possibly way down – when the ratings for the season two premiere (on April 1, fittingly) come in.
Strictly in terms of failure analysis, The Killing is a fascinating story about the new world order of making high-end, niche television series in a superconnected world with increasingly savvy viewers.
That is, it’s one thing to make a network series, with lower creative expectations, where mass appeal is the goal and falling short of that is a pretty clear indication of getting renewed or canceled. For a show like The Killing -- on a small ad-supported cable channel like AMC, which is going after prestige (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) and pop-culture domination (The Walking Dead) -- loyal fans and critical buzz can make relatively small ratings seem acceptable. Lose that and what’s the point?
To its credit, AMC admitted it misjudged the reaction (and probably the reaction to Sud’s reaction) and that if it had to do it over again, it would imply strongly that The Killing was a complicated journey that might not resolve itself over one season.
Yes, that might have been helpful. Except it didn’t actually happen, and theoretical woulda-shoulda pronouncements aren’t much of a salve after the fact. But what came from that was the almost unheard-of declaration by AMC that Rosie Larsen’s killer would be revealed in the final episode of season two.
Think about that for a second. Unless AMC and Sud are lying, that declaration reveals the extent of the public relations disaster of season one. Because, first and foremost, it pretty much sucks the mystery out of The Killing’s season two storytelling. In the first 12 episodes, viewers will never believe a suspect is about to be revealed or that detectives closing in on a suspect in, say, episode seven, has any real relevancy. It certainly doesn’t make that storytelling immediately essential. Secondly, it’s telling viewers that they will be rewarded with a resolved mystery after 26 hours of television.
If you see the appeal in any of this, please fire off a flare.
That said, the two-hour premiere of season two almost immediately underscores the real tragedy in betraying fans and the ensuing backlash: So many great acting performances were forgotten. Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman as Seattle Detectives Linden and Holder; Brent Sexton and Michelle Forbes as Rosie’s grieving and angry parents, Stan and Mitch Larsen; Billy Campbell as politician and prime suspect Darren Richmond; and Eric Ladin as Richmond campaign manager Jamie Wright -- they all did exceptional work. Enos was nominated for an Emmy, but there was no buzz to it, and she lost. Nobody else got significant attention. It would be hard to argue that the critical slaughtering of The Killing didn’t have an effect on that.
Going into season two, the acting performances are the primary reason to tune in. Yes, some fans, having invested 13 episodes, will enlist the final 13 to find out Rosie’s killer. Why not? You’re halfway there. Others might not have minded the endless red herrings and lack of movement/resolution in season one and thus were unaffected by the backlash and will return willingly for season two. But if disappointed fans decide to come back (and the guess here is that a great bloc of them are still bitter), it will be the acting that's the magnet.
They won’t be let down. Kinnaman reminds viewers immediately why he’s so great and his character so compelling. Enos has found a determined resolution in Linden. Everybody, in fact, comes back strong. Does the plot have a similar resurrection? Hard to tell. There’s a conspiracy afoot – but that was evident at the end of season one. There’s just no history in The Killing that would make viewers think that conspiracy wasn’t just another red herring. And two episodes are nowhere near enough for critics to tell viewers there’s been an olive branch extended or at least some faith generated by Sud and her writers. Honestly, this is a series that can’t be trusted, and to make a pronouncement on improved plotting would be foolhardy.
So it will be interesting to see if season one completely and utterly burned to the ground any goodwill The Killing had. We should know immediately if fans will come back. What else is certain is that critics will be watching – perhaps more vigilant than ever. And if The Killing trips up in any way, you will no doubt hear about it on Twitter and in the pages of magazines and newspapers and websites everywhere. Beware performing in the “small tent” of niche programming: You might get accolades and awards, but as The Killing definitively proved, engaged fans can become enraged fans with alarming speed.