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August 30, 2015

AMC Addresses 'The Killing' Controversy, Plus Five Myths About the Show That Make Me Crazy

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jul 28th 2011 4:05PM
The big TV story of the week has been Frank Darabont's departure as the showrunner of 'The Walking Dead,' AMC's biggest hit.

But during the AMC panel this morning at the Television Critics Association press tour, which is taking place this week and next in Los Angeles, AMC executive Joel Stillerman also addressed the heated reaction to the network's crime drama, 'The Killing.'

"The major takeaway for us after the finale of 'The Killing' starts with the headline that, for everybody who was frustrated, we hear you," said Stillerman, AMC's senior vice president of original programming.

Stillerman said that the network's mistake with the show was to imply that the mystery would be solved in the first season.

"If we had to do anything differently, I think we would have certainly taken a different approach with respect to managing the expectations of what was going to happen within that season. I can tell you because I was in on it, [the show] was never intentionally meant to mislead anyone," he told journalists. "Our goal was to create... a piece of character-based storytelling that was mixed with a genre we all loved, which is the murder mystery, and try and do something cool and different than what had been in that space before. We think we got there, but we definitely didn't manage expectations the way that they should have been managed."

As several critics noted in a number of pieces published before the show ended, 'The Killing' had uneven pacing, problematic characterization and, ultimately, a predictable weekly format -- a one-dimensional character would be brought forward as a suspect, only to be inevitably dismissed from consideration. Yet during the panel, Stillerman made it sound as if the network was content with the show's reception right up until the finale aired.

"I will just say I think we're incredibly proud of the show as a whole, and the storytelling that was involved in it, and I think the feedback was largely positive leading up to the finale, but we always hear feedback of all kinds and appreciate that," Stillerman said during the panel. "But obviously it built to a bit of a crescendo at the end. And again, I think that was about managing expectations. I think it would have been a very different scenario had people not been so convinced that they were going to find out who" killed Rosie Larsen (and Stillerman said we will definitely find out who killed her in season 2, in case you were wondering).

I would have thought it would be clear to anyone following the coverage of the show that quite a few critics, including me, began to have problems with 'The Killing' midway through its first season and that well before the season finale aired, there was a general sense that the crime drama, despite an interesting pilot and a good cast, had not fulfilled its promise in many fundamental ways.

With a couple of other TV writers, I tracked down Stillerman after the panel to ask a few more questions. Didn't he notice that there was less-than-flattering coverage of the show well before the finale?

"I take that point, and I will say I am not oblivious to the face that some people developed issues with the show," he replied. "I'm not surprised to hear there was some frustration and certainly wasn't oblivious to it along the way."

Critic Alan Sepinwall noted that there have been showrunner changes on other AMC shows -- obviously on 'The Walking Dead,' but also on 'Rubicon.' He asked if the network is having those kinds of discussions regarding 'The Killing.'

"Not even close," Stillerman said. "I would say we have complete confidence in [executive producer and head writer] Veena [Sud] and her writing team."

I asked what he thought of the interviews Sud gave after the show's finale aired, when she compared 'The Killing' to an array of television classics and implied that most television viewers just weren't sophisticated enough to understand what she had done all season long and in the finale.

"I think Veena was in a very tough spot, if I can just be blunt," Stillerman said of Sud's post-finale press tour. "We do feel like we didn't handle the expectations well, and I would have preferred that Veena not be in that situation. Regular, run-of-the-mill 'I don't like the show' or 'I don't like the style of storytelling' [reactions] -- I think would haves been one thing. But this kind of intense spotlight and the intensity of it was a very difficult situation for anybody. I would have had a tough time handling that, and I think Veena did the best under tough circumstances."

You may be asking yourself why, after taking the show to task so strongly in my finale review, I am devoting more space and time to writing about 'The Killing' and why I tracked down Stillerman to address these topics again. Here's why: It seems to me that there are several emerging myths forming around the reception to 'The Killing,' and though I don't spend nights grinding my teeth about this, I find it frustrating that these myths are gaining traction in the media -- to some degree because various people associated with the show are propagating them in post-finale interviews.

Stillerman and AMC clearly still believe in Sud and her conception of the show. That's their prerogative, and if you liked the season and the finale, more power to you.

But what I'm going to do here -- before I go on a 'Killing' vacation and stop talking and writing about the show, ideally forever -- is take on some of the myths that keep coming up when the Seattle murder mystery is written about, discussed or debated. This is just my take on the kinds of assertions that I keep seeing in stories and interviews related to 'The Killing':

Myth No. 1: People just had a problem with the finale.
My take: In my view and in the view of many viewers and critics, there were, as I said above, huge problems with the show well before the finale rolled around. The pacing was off, the storytelling was clunky and, aside from Holder, the characters never really emerged as distinctive and compelling people. The finale was extra-frustrating because everything about the show had become so lackluster -- and then Sud pulled the rug out from viewers who had stuck around to find out the one thing they wanted to know.

Myth No. 2: People only wanted to know who the killer was.
My take: Sure, people wanted to know that, given that the show's marketing, advertising and media campaigns all strongly implied that we'd learn the identity of the killer by the end of the first season. Would I have taken a character drama as good as 'Mad Men' that didn't reveal who the killer was? Well, let's face it, 'The Killing' wasn't nearly in 'Mad Men's' league -- and again, given what the network's own marketing had told us would happen, not finding out the identity of the killer would have felt like a dodge and a cheat no matter what. But let's be clear -- through much of the season, people weren't watching only for that. Early in the season, we wanted and hoped for more, but by the end of the season, many of us had just accepted that we weren't going to get it.

Myth No. 3: People don't like cliffhanger endings -- most people want everything wrapped up in a season finale.
My take: This is laughable on its face, and it's the most persistent and ridiculous 'Killing' myth. It's laughable, I tell you. I can point to dozens of season finales that featured great cliffhangers that kept me on tenterhooks until those shows returned. A good season finale wraps up substantial parts of a season-long story while setting up interesting questions for the future. A crappy season finale makes you feel you wasted your time watching the season and that you were a fool to attempt to follow the trail the storytellers were laying. In my opinion, that's what we got with 'The Killing.'

Myth No. 4: People just couldn't handle the fact that 'The Killing' was a character drama, not a police procedural.
My take: If it had been a character drama, a la 'Rubicon,' I would have been far less hard on the finale. I still wouldn't have liked it, but I wouldn't have felt quite so cheated. The fact is, most of the 'Killing' characters were so underdeveloped and uninteresting that by the last third of the season, they barely held my attention, despite the fact that there were some excellent actors in the cast. 'Rubicon's' finale wasn't that great, but I was willing to be fairly forgiving of that last hour, because the majority of that show's episodes painted compelling portraits of people I liked learning more about. 'The Killing' failed on that count (though it did make me care about Holder -- just before revealing him to be a lying douchebag). And as long as we're on the topic of police procedurals, the show missed the mark on that basic level as well. There were plot holes and convenient developments aplenty, and the police work, such as it was, was shoddy and haphazard.

Myth No. 5: Viewers don't want to be challenged.
My take: This is the myth that makes steam come out of my ears. The implication that people aren't willing to start watching and stick with complex, challenging narratives is unbelievably annoying. Look at any roster of the comedies and dramas that regularly show up on critics' top 10 lists -- those shows all have rabid audiences (and yes, some of those shows even air on AMC). It's preposterous for anyone -- especially Sud -- to imply that the reason 'The Killing' got a pounding is because people couldn't handle the fact that it was challenging, complex or took risks. I think Sud wanted the show to challenge the audience and take risks. Saying those words isn't the same as actually doing that. What she came up with was a show that had, by the midpoint of its first season, devolved into an awkward, lumbering mess that lurched and flailed and failed to deliver on what it had set out to do.

Viewers are fine with challenges. The problem was that 'The Killing' wasn't.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Lou Sytsma

You go Mo! Totally agree and those 5 Myths succinctly summarize my issues the show and the showrunners inability to acknowledge them.

July 30 2011 at 10:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Here here! I applaud your effort to get more concrete answers, but I'm not surprised by what he said. I for one will NOT be watching season 2. EVER!

For all the issues I had with the LOST finale, they did every season ender perfectly: answered some and left some open.

July 29 2011 at 4:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
eddie willers

"We have to go back, Kate!"

See....it can be done right.

July 29 2011 at 2:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to eddie willers's comment

That's the exact line I was going to write. Cliffhangers can be done well (eg, Lost) and they can be mangled (see The Killing). Lost's season 3 finale had people's eyes popping out and steam rising from their heads. But in a good way. It had fans talking about the implications and the future of the show for months afterward. The Killing's finale had me not wanting to ever think about the show again. Granted, I'd already decided to give up after the finale.

July 29 2011 at 4:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Captain Spork

Mo, I'm really interested in why there seems to be so much vitriol directed at Sud? If I'm reading between the lines it sounds like you, Alan and others basically walked up to Stillerman and asked him "You're not seriously considering bringing her back for season 2 are you?"

I've read her interviews and listened to one as well and if I'm being completely honest she sounds no different than many other showrunners I've read about. They all seem to want to recontextualize they're projects and make them seem better than advertised. Isn't that part of the job to a certain extent? I can remember reading/listening to countless interviews with Lindelof and Cuse after a Lost finale and grinding my teeth way more than after " The Killing" finale. And if I'm not mistaken both Cuse and Lindelof (both relatively small time writers in the business at the time) comparing their one-season show to not only the Harry Potter series but Stephen King and Charles Dickens' best works. Guys like Kripke and Sutter weren't exactly lacking in confidence/brashness right out of the gate either.

Granted, Sud and "The Killing" aren't anywhere near those shows (even in there first season) but the level which you and other critics seem to be hanging on to this one seems disproportionate to the actual crime. I can only assume Veena Sud must've been a complete jerk on a teleconference call or showed some kind of massive disrespect in some other way. I'm just being honest because I like your writing and your style, but this just seems like overkill to me.

And I'd just like to state for the record, that for me personally "The Killing" after the first 4 episodes was a gigantic tease/time-waster that still made me fume even though I skimmed through the latter half of the season in one day on dvr. I guess I'm just not that surprised by the idea that AMC is trying to spin things positively. They're a TV network after all.

July 29 2011 at 2:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I watched the Danish version before the US version aired and thought it had some of the same plot and pacing problems I've read about the remake. I did enjoy it but the blind leads and red herrings got old enough by the middle that I decided to skip the AMC showing altogether.

July 29 2011 at 12:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You know what? I bet Sud changed the finale as soon as she found out AMC was renewing the series. I bet she planned, and may still, on divulging the same killer as in the original version. Meanwhile, “devolved into an awkward, lumbering mess that lurched and flailed and failed to deliver” Amen. I haven’t heard of Myth 1 among my friends and family who watched – like me, they all also wondered if the execs and AMC were on vacation and unaware just how ridiculously scattershot The Killing was becoming after episode, say, 5 or 6. Regarding Myth 2, um no – anybody watching for the exclusive whodunit payoff is sick, tantamount to snuff film sick. Myth 3, no way – who doesn’t like cliffhangers? In fact, we pretty darned trained to expect them. I don’t think a network series television drama’s last episode has ended on a 100% cheerful, all’s well with the world note since Little House on the Prairie! Myth 4 – whoever started this rumors really grabbing at straws. The actor who played Holder, the one who deserved an Emmy nomination for at least trying to infuse his portrayal with character is, of course, shut out. And, Myth 5, if “people aren’t willing to start watching and stick with complex, challenging narratives” how in Hell does Sud explain fandom over some of the greatest series ever committed to the airwaves from The Fugitive to LOST? I, for one, will not be watching season 2 of The Killing. I know the actors have to eat, but I believe, if they could contractually, even they’d likely bail

July 29 2011 at 9:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jeffrey Hanff

I haven't seen the US show, only the Danish original which I liked a lot. Mo, have you seen the original? If yes, do you think it sucked in the first place or is the problem with the US remake alone?

July 29 2011 at 3:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jeffrey Hanff's comment
Mo Ryan

I haven't seen the Danish original, but I've heard from many people who've seen it and read UK critics who wrote about the subtitled version that aired there -- seems to me that the problems that affected the AMC version were not really present in any significant way in the Danish original. I could be wrong, but the dozens of comments and reviews and assessments from others that I've read lead me to believe that the US version was simply not nearly as good as the Danish original.

July 29 2011 at 2:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Grrr...if it was really a good character drama rather than a bad police procedural, the writers should have been able to advance the plot without having the police screw up over and over and over. There are better ways to get info from character to character than 'oops, they leaked info again.' They could, well, talk to each other on occasion?
I stuck around because I enjoyed some of the actors' performances and wanted their characters to live up to them...too bad they never did.

July 28 2011 at 10:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mo--I agree with your assessment of The Killing season 1. Like another commenter, I gave up after 4 or 5 episodes but my reasoning was less analytical--I simply forgot it was on after a few Sundays. Then, after reading critics comments on the later episodes, I could find no compelling reason to go back to it. And I don't think Veena Sud can possibly be helping her cause to retain or bring in new viewers by insulting the ones who bothered to stick with the show throughout the full season.

July 28 2011 at 8:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

Oh, and as for Myth No. 4: (People just couldn't handle the fact that 'The Killing' was a character drama, not a police procedural). If that's the case, could someone explain to me why 'Prime Suspect' scored Helen Mirren two Emmy wins off six nominations. While the show was, at its best, a pretty damn effective police procedural I think it would be fair to say the magnificently flawed Jane Tennyson was always front and center.

July 28 2011 at 8:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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