Hating “The Killing”

After a legendarily despised first season finale, \"The Killing\" is back -- and begging for you to hate it

Published March 28, 2012 2:45PM (EDT)

Rarely, if ever, has a show arrived for its second season with as much baggage as AMC’s morose detective drama “The Killing.” The series, which premieres Sunday night on AMC, infamously wrapped up its first season last June without revealing who killed the teenage Rosie Larson, a resolution the series’ press materials had strongly implied would take place. (“Who killed Rosie Larson?” was the season’s tagline.) This unsolved mystery was greeted in some parts of the internet with so much outrage, you might have thought God had abolished Sundays forever. The brouhaha leaves “The Killing” in a singular position: How do you top a television catastrophe?

Under normal circumstances, without the ending heard round Twitter, “The Killing” would be the sort of series — a middling, dull cop show — that would fall out of the critical conversation and DVR lists, leaving only the fans (they exist, as the comment section below should prove). To ward off another disaster, AMC has said that the murderer will not be revealed until the end of the season. 13 more episodes of red herrings, shoddy policework, and bockmail accounts would normally be too much for people who didn’t like the show very much and were only looking for a resolution to stick around. But these aren’t normal circumstances: the show is a curio. How will it rebound?

Having had nine months to calm down, I intended to find out in a state of equanimity. I didn’t expect the show to get much better, but it could hardly get worse. Long before the last episode, “The Killing” had problems. After an enticing and atmospheric pilot, the series devolved thanks to poor pacing and plotting, becoming a soggy whodunit, each week as decreasingly appetizing as a cornflake left out in the Seattle rain. The show's two most interesting characters, the lead, taciturn Detective Sarah Linden, and her partner, the former addict, present homeboy Stephen Holder, did regular damage to the show’s plot mechanics. The two were demonstrably, inexcusably bad at their jobs. Through poor policing they, not once, but twice, got innocent suspects seriously, permanently injured and no one in the universe of the show seemed to notice.

And so, in a state of resigned zen, I watched the two-hour premiere. Though it opens with Linden yet again at the airport, where she missed enough flights in season one to likely hold the world record in missed trips to L.A., the rest of the episode is an improvement. Yes, it’ still raining, and Linden’s still a bad mother, and the police work that should have been done weeks ago is only being done now, but there’s a plot and it’s moving. It seems that Rosie’s murder was in fact part of a larger conspiracy, which may have the retroactive effect of making all of season one even more useless. At least that means there should be more digging to do, without many false leads.

But here’s the thing, watching the show this way -- all deep breathing, big picture, don’t sweat the small stuff enlightenment -- was absolutely no fun at all. Part of what was so mystifying and infuriating about “The Killing” creator Veena Sud's response to the anger at the finale was her disdain for fun. Justifying the ending, she defended “The Killing” as an “anti-cop cop show” one not meant to “tie things up in a bow,” as if the beat-by-beat genre pleasures of a well-crafted detective story — of a pro-cop cop show if you will — were beneath her. The fact that so many audience members found the ending to be unpleasurable was not a flaw, because she and her show were up to something more noble than delivering the old fashioned, predictable, genre satisfactions of, say, “Law & Order.”

But TV is supposed to be fun: that’s why we watch. And while there are all sorts of ways to be fun — from the cheap, dirty, shallow, voyeuristic, escapist, to the challenging, mind-expanding, emotional, intellectual— “The Killing"  misses them all. It’s not nearly as highbrow and well-constructed as it needs to be, and it’s far too serious and plodding to be a zippy break from reality. Watching it, even this pretty solid season premiere, feels like a chore, like humoring the dull blowhard at the dinner party just because he means well. This leaves, for me anyway, one option, the TV equivalent of the irrational nuclear strike. To make "The Killing" experience an enjoyable one, I choose to unapologetically and a little irrationally hate it.

My favorite moment of the premiere — the scene where I was most engaged and most entertained — comes 20 minutes in, when Linden gives a fake name to a desk cop while looking for some information. She says her name is Sally Hayes. A few seconds later, while she's still speaking with the same officer, Linden’s cell phone rings. She turns away to take the call, walks one step away from the law enforcement official who, to reiterate, believes her name to be Sally Hayes, flips open her phone and answers, at regular volume, “Hello. Linden.”  There's my bad cop! There is my stupid thing to do for no reason! There is my “Killing”!

This is how you top a catastrophe -- you keep right on being yourself, and more will materialize. When I let myself hate “The Killing,” I can honestly rave about it: If you liked it before, you will like it again, and if you hated it before, you can hate it again. When it's all over, we can compare notes about who had a better time.

By Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

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