Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Killing

Who did kill Rosie Larson?


I fell for AMC’s new (and recently concluded) drama series “The Killing” right from the first damp episode. Everything about the show intrigued me: the endless Bladerunner-like rain, the slow-but-steady reveal of the various character’s hidden lives and secrets, and the stark contrast between Seattle as seen from above in serenely gorgeous aerial shots – a gleaming, beautiful city -- with the dark, messy little lives of the citizens down below, grappling with the moral ambiguities endemic to modern life in the post-Industrial Age. The production values were stunning, the acting sublime, the setting perfect.

Surface vs. reality has long been a staple of urban crime dramas, often using the sun-splashed cities of Los Angeles and Miami to underline the vast gulf between a glitzy public image and the sordid truth behind the palm trees. Setting the show in a dank and dreary Pacific Northwest allowed “The Killing” to till fresh, fertile ground. A city that became a major cultural force thanks to Microsoft, Starbucks, and an outpouring of great grunge bands during the 90s turns out not to be the Mecca of Everything Hip and Cool after all, but just another troubled urban dystopia riddled with corruption and populated by legions of wounded people enduring their quiet, desperate little lives -- which means that on screen, Seattle is a lot like every other big city in America. If Raymond Chandler was starting his writing career now, he might well have chosen Seattle rather than LA as the backdrop for his beautifully written, hauntingly atmospheric novels.

This show worked for me (and a lot of other viewers) during the first twelve episodes, but a surprising conclusion in the last minute of the season finale – which turned out to be no conclusion at all -- spun heads all the way around from coast to coast. Mine too. Those final scenes juked me out of my shoes and into the weeds, unsure just what was going on, and judging by the subsequent Internet shit-storm, my own confusion was mild. Many viewers went ballistic, and there was no shortage of critical commentary from the professional media. Tim Goodman (chief TV critic of the Hollywood Reporter) turned thumbs-down in his own post-mortem, concluding that “The Killing wasn’t able to save itself in the end.”

I’m usually in sync with Tim’s media criticism, but not this time. Although his analysis of what caused the love/hate audience schism on “The Killing” is (as usual) spot-on, to suggest that the entire 13 episode season was a failure simply because the ending hit a sour note – in the final minute of the final show -- strikes me as absurd. Having been fully engrossed every Sunday night for the previous three months, how could I dismiss the whole season over a last-minute fumble? To borrow a phrase from Jimmy Carter, this was no failure, but rather an “incomplete success.”*

My own views are more in line with those of Mary McNamara (LA Times), who ended her measured, sober analysis of “The Killing” like this:

”No show is going to live or die by its season finale. When you try something new, you're going to make mistakes; if you don't, you're not trying hard enough. For those who need closure, there are all manner of admirable crime procedurals on the networks.”

Nicely put.

It’s not that I don’t sympathize with those who feel burned by the trick non-ending of “The Killing” – I’ve had similar reactions to a movie or two over the years. The worst offender that comes to mind was No Way Out, a Kevin Costner spy/thriller from 1987 that ended with a whiplash-inducing twist which turned the previous 113 minutes completely inside out, and not in a good way.** Oh did that piss me off. Had the Internet been around back then, I’d probably have flamed that piece of cinematic junk until nothing was left but a smoldering cinder. “No Way Out” was an excellent description of the box canyon the script writers rode (and wrote) themselves into, then were unable to escape. It worked out fine for them – they still got paid – but in the meantime they screwed me and countless other ticket-buyers out of our five bucks.

Although I feel the pain (to quote another ex-president) of those now excoriating “The Killing” for a similar transgression, I don’t share their outrage. This isn’t a matter of logic – it’s just personal taste, which cannot be objectively quantified or explained. Yeah, the ending was a head-snapper, but not enough to ruin the series for me, and truth be told, I never really cared who killed Rosie Larsen. Like every other loyal viewer of the show, I expected the answer to come in that final episode, but it didn’t, and so what? Patience, people, patience. As one commenter responded to Goodman’s criticism:

“The Killing is a subtle, character driven-show with a SERIES question that explores how unspeakable crimes change individuals, the community as a whole, politics, legal and ethical boundaries, etc. This show is also about the fact that absolute truth - if it indeed exists - isn't easily knowable and is rarely clear cut. It was clear from episode one that we weren't going to get an easy, clean solution by the end of the season. I cannot fathom why so many viewers seemed to expect one. And for those who thought there were too many "red herrings" in the show - those are called leads. Even real life detectives know you follow them all - hundreds of them in fact - no matter how unlikely they seem.”

Yeah, what she said...

I didn’t much care for the way that final episode show ended either, but found the vehemence of outrage expressed by so many disappointed viewers a lot more disturbing. From the bitter tone of some comments, it sounds like a few of those people are ready to lynch showrunner Veena Sud for her apparently unforgivable sin. I’d never heard of Veena Sud before this show, but having thoroughly enjoyed the 12 excellent episodes of her show -- and 9/10 of that last one – I’m willing to cut the lady some slack.***

But slack is in short supply these days. There’s so much free-floating anger out there, like gasoline fumes just waiting for a spark – and as “The Killing” tempest in a teapot demonstrated, it doesn’t take much to ignite the firestorm. It's just a TV show, folks...

So who killed Rosie Larsen? Who cares? I'm happy to wait for Season Two of "The Killing" to find out.

* I borrow only the words. Carter was referring to a disastrous attempt to rescue the Iranian Embassy hostages, which ended in the fiery deaths of eight people. That was a very bad day.

** Yeah, I know – Kevin Costner... but I met him back when he was still a kid sweeping stages at Raleigh Hollywood, and will always give a break to anybody who manages to rise from such humble beginnings.

*** Kim Masters interviewed Veena Sud on The Business, provoking yet more outrage from disgruntled viewers. Being up in the hinterlands – and thus unable to access the podcast – I haven’t had a chance to listen to the interview, so can’t comment.


Ed (sloweddi) said...

I liked the danish series that this is based on (Forbrydelsen) a little better. It has finished 2 series (seasons). And [spoiler redacted to save ones life] so that was a real surprise right there. Who would have thought that [spoiler redacted to save ones life] was the real killer. :)

Have a Happy 4th

Devon Ellington said...

I'm going to catch up on THE KILLING. Somehow, I didn't manage to see any of it, and the very fact that the finale caused such uproar interests me.

I can't take Tim Goodman's reviews too seriously.

In fact, his fit about THE KILLING makes me want to see it even more.

Tim Goodman believes GAME OF THRONES is the best thing ever, and I beg to differ -- there was a lot of good stuff in there, but there was also a lot of gratuitous stuff, it was often directed heavy-handedly, it was uneven, and Jane Espenson's episode was, without a doubt, head and shoulders above all the others.

Michael Taylor said...

Ed --

Everything I've read or heard points to the Danish original being a terrific show, marred only by the subtitles required for those of us who don't speak Danish.

Which would be me.

And thanks for not revealing the true killer...

Devon --

Tim has turned me on to so many great shows -- and has such a lively, entertaining writing style -- that I'm a big fan of his reviews, and thoroughly respect his perspectives. But taste truly is individual, and none of us are going to agree 100% of the time. For whatever reason, I just happened to click with "The Killing" in a big way. Big enough to forgive that final minute of the season.

Lacking HBO, I'll have to suspend judgement on "Game of Thrones" until Netflix can fill me in - but oh Sweet Jesus am I looking forward to "Breaking Bad"...

Ed (sloweddi) said...

We who live in the country, away from the bright city lights, have this store that you might have in LA called a "video rental store". This is a place that you can get DVDs to watch for a shot time in exchange for money. Do as I did and carve out a long weekend, get lots of snacks and do a a "Breaking Bad" marathon. :)

No guarantees on mental health. ;)