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AMC's "The Killing" an Investment in the Banal

AMC The Killing TV Show Mireille Enos Joel Kinnaman Credit:Chris Large

Since AMC first dipped its toe into the waters of original programming, they have found startling critical success. Their first two shows, Mad Men and Breaking Bad are unqualified critical successes, and they have even found a blockbuster program in The Walking Dead. Even the late, lamented Rubicon, while not nearly as popular as their other programming, was heralded by critics.

Yet, warts are beginning to show on the network’s stellar record. Mad Men has, until a few days ago, been embroiled in a vicious contract renewal fight, which resulted in the next season’s postponement until 2012. The Walking Dead fired their entire writing staff at the end of the first season, a move this reviewer can’t help but commend. Rubicon was cancelled! Cancelled! Thus, AMC’s latest endeavor, The Killing, is premiering under a cloud of concern.  Will AMC, in grand Don Draper fashion, rise to the occasion, or will a shit-storm of Walter-White-ian proportions strike?

Unfortunately, from the initial episode, The Killing doesn’t recall either the sordid confidence of Draper or the intense failures of White. The show tells the story of a teenage girl brutally murdered in contemporary Seattle. Two detectives, one a seasoned veteran a day away from retirement, the other a seedy former undercover narco, investigate the crime, and find that (surprise, surprise) everyone has secrets. In fact, the show is startlingly similar to David Lynch’s legendary foray into evening soaps, Twin Peaks.

Unlike Twin Peaks, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, however, the show fails to strike an exciting tonal style. The best television shows were not mere high concept mysteries, but had unique settings that the viewer was excited to return to each week, be it 1960s New York, a town of surreal dreams, or an Arizona populated by drug dealers and scum.

Perhaps the best example of setting driving a show was HBO’s much praised series The Wire. In the first season, the plot was startlingly banal. Cops try to bust drug dealers. That was about it. Yet, the viewer came back each week to be in the city, to spend time with the unique characters, to feel the sense of the show. This sense of show is so particular that it could be translated into a 19th century novel, yet remain itself.

The Killing, on the other hand, is hard-working and effective, but not particularly interesting. The characters, with the exception of Joel Kinnaman’s hilariously inappropriate narco, fit genre specifications (the detective who is tired of the job, the family mourning the dead child, the good girl who has a dark past, the politician who hides secrets behind a charming veneer, etc.), but rarely stand apart as complex figures. The shots are workman-like, without a sense of artistry. In many ways, the show feels like a high-brow version of the common police procedurals found on network television.

Ultimately, The Killing fails at what made Mad Men and Breaking Bad such groundbreaking shows: style. Each scene in Mad Men and Breaking Bad are indelibly stamped with the style of their creator. Watching them is exciting and cool, while still substantial and thoughtful. AMC introduced basic cable to television programming that was indisputably art. The Killing is indisputably television.




I get the sense (hope?) that the series is being set up with this standard, generic plot and cast of characters in order to smash all those preconceived notions. I could be wrong -- the banality may very well continue. The second episode certainly didn't quash them. 

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