I haven’t seen the first season finale of AMC’s The Killing.
In fact, I haven’t seen the last five episodes of the show’s first season – I fell behind a few weeks ago, struggled to find the motivation to continue, and then traveled away from my DVR before I could get around to catching up.
Accordingly, this is not a piece about the emerging debate regarding the show’s first season finale, which has sharply divided the show’s viewers (and created some extremely strong reactions from some television critics, with Maureen Ryan’s being the most pointed). While it is quite possible that I will some day watch those final five episodes of the season, and that I will have an opinion regarding the show’s finale (which I’ve willfully spoiled for myself) at that time, this piece is not about the finale.
What I’m interested in is the way that this response reflects on larger questions of brand identity that are unquestionably caught up in this response to The Killing. This weekend, I read a piece on AMC’s growing dominance at the Emmy Awards at The Hollywood Reporter in which Sud was quoted quite extensively as she waxed poetic on the freedom of the AMC model. Her first quote was perhaps the one that stuck out most, as she notes that the AMC approach is perhaps best defined by the following: “Always assume that your audience is smarter than you are.”
Given how often I felt The Killing insulted my intelligence as a viewer, this quote struck me as odd. And then I read the rest of her quotes in the article, and discovered the same issue: when she was only spouting a series of platitudes regarding the genius of the AMC brand that we hear from other writers (including a Breaking Bad writer in the same piece), I could take none of them at face value given the fact that The Killing has done little to earn them. In a climate in which The Killing has squandered nearly all of its critical goodwill, Sud’s comments were charmlessly naive, and this was before she made many similar comments in defense of the season finale.
I have nothing against Sud personally, and I think she is entitled to her opinion that her show wasn’t a failure. However, so long as her defense of the show is being framed in the same terms of the AMC brand, the network has a serious problem on their hands. This is a network that feeds off of critical attention, and that has been very protective of its brand identity, but it now finds itself becoming represented by a showrunner who has none of the credentials or the evidence to back up her rhetoric.
It’s a scenario that risks turning AMC into just another brand hiding behind rhetorical statements of superiority, and which should be creating some big questions within the network’s executive structure as they head into an important period for their future development.
A Nascent Brand
HBO could not pull off “It’s Not TV” in this day and age. When the network first introduced the slogan towards the end of the 1990s, it could logically argue that it was not “normal” television given its focus on movies, sports and other forms of programming. Then, as it became a larger player in the world of original programming with shows like Oz, The Sopranos and Sex and the City, they had evidence to back up their claims: these were shows you didn’t see anywhere else on television, and thus shows that served to differentiate HBO from network television based on subject matter and (arguably) quality.
Over time, of course, “It’s Not TV” became a bit less tenable for the network: network television became more ambitious, embracing seriality and expanding budgets to push the broadcast model in new directions. HBO also began to focus more on original series, to the point where the network’s brand identity became more invested in “television” than in the other genres/media they were initially known for. The saying is largely extinct now, absent from almost all official HBO correspondence, but the rhetorical flourish of “It’s Not TV” lingers in the air. It was a bit of hubris that wasn’t entirely unearned when it first debuted, but it became a liability once it was clear that the gap between HBO and TV was closing.
The AMC rhetoric has never been quite as prominent as “It’s Not TV”: “Story Matters Here” is a pretty innocuous and generalized slogan, and the network largely let the quality of Mad Men and Breaking Bad speak for itself. While they obviously made a huge splash at the Emmy Awards, it was never through extravagant or excessive screener strategies (like we usually expect to see from Showtime and HBO). In fact, I imagine that the lack of pretensions was part of what allowed AMC to rise to the position they did so quickly: yes, the subject matter of Mad Men was obviously helpful given how much it appeals to the Emmy voting base (read: older viewers), but there was something charmingly small about the AMC approach to drama.
However, over time AMC has moved to expand its presence within the field of original programming, and it has run into some roadblocks. Rubicon and The Walking Dead created two very different problems for the network. The former was comfortably within the AMC style, but that subtlety was rejected by viewers, who tuned in to lower numbers than the network wanted for a new series and necessitated its cancellation after only a single season. The latter, meanwhile, performed incredibly well with audiences but was the precise opposite of subtle given its genre flair. Renewing The Walking Dead was an easy decision, and a smart one from a business perspective, but it created a clear schism within the network’s brand.
That schism, of course, was on the level of genre. That creates a lot of questions for the network, to the point where they actually rejected all of the pilots they commissioned this year; for me, this said less about the quality of the pilots and more about the network’s uncertainty of where they want to go in the future. However, there is a question of quality rippling through the network. It started, one could argue, with the disastrous miniseries remake of The Prisoner that AMC burned off quickly in early 2009 so as to limit its drain on their brand, and it continued last fall: the post-premiere episodes of The Walking Dead were met with some degree of skepticism by critics and viewers alike, while early episodes of Rubicon felt a bit muddled (even if the ship would right itself later in the season). In other words, the network had lost its Midas touch as far as the critical community (comprised of critics, engaged viewers, etc.) was concerned.
I raise these points both because I really love talking about brand identity and because I think we need to remember the environment within which The Killing premiered earlier this year. I also think it’s important because I’m ready to argue that these questions of brand identity were more influential in AMC’s decision to renew the show than the actual quality of the show in question. If The Killing had not been renewed, the network would have had two failures in a single television season, something that a small network like AMC wouldn’t be able to afford. While FX suffered a similar fate with Terriers and Lights Out, those shows both struggled mightily in the ratings, and the network has a diverse stable of pre-existing programming and a more well-realized brand identity that can be adapted/shifted to meet such challenges (and was managed through interviews in which John Landgraf spoke honestly about the failure of both series). By comparison, AMC is still in its nascent stages, and The Killing was a watershed moment for its brand identity: this could be the show to prove AMC was capable of consistently producing quality drama series, or it could be the show that indicates they lucked into Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
I am aware that both of these notions are somewhat ludicrous: no network can actually bat a thousand with new series (not even HBO), and there’s no way that those three shows were simply a fluke. However, network brands are carefully managed to avoid the impression of failure and to exaggerate the impression of success. When HBO released its HBO Go application, it featured an extensive collection of series…but it only featured the successful ones. This wasn’t a true archive of HBO programming, but rather the brand-approved selection of series which create the impression of a flawless legacy. However, since HBO has over fifteen years of original programming to pull from, those gaps are largely unnoticeable – AMC isn’t in a position to create the same gaps, and is likely more paranoid about what back-to-back failures will look like to viewers, voters, and critics (all of whom are probably given equal weight in their brand management strategy).
This is actually a fairly sound brand management strategy provided you pretend that The Killing lived up to the hype. After a strong premiere and a lot of positive buzz, the show’s goodwill began to falter midway through the season, and it never entirely recovered. What started out as a promising adaptation of an international success story became a decidedly mixed bag, with prominent critics (and many viewers) citing some pretty substantial issues relating to the pacing and execution of the series’ narrative. While I would not go so far as to say the show became objectively bad, given that I didn’t watch the final five episodes, its quality became a much larger question mark than it was at the beginning of the season. As we headed towards the finale, and the unrest started to fester just a bit, I wondered how AMC would handle the show’s future given that their decision to reject all of their pilots signaled that a renewal was likely.
A Blind Renewal
The answer, it turns out, was to pretend as if nothing happened. The show was renewed without any creative changes, leaving showrunner Veena Sud intact and citing the critical acclaim for the show using quotes from reviews based solely on the early episodes screened for critics. Their decision was to sell the show as yet another AMC success story, pretending that the fall in critical opinion never happened. I wasn’t surprised that the show had been renewed, for the reasons I cite above, but I was kind of stunned that they were making no effort to respond to the concerns being raised by a majority of critics. While I would not claim that critics hold a great deal of power over viewers, they have generally held a great deal of value for AMC, and to see the network show complete confidence in the series’ creative direction signaled a shift in brand management: instead of protecting quality by taking an active role in shaping their programming, AMC projects quality by emphasizing the freedom it offers its visionary showrunners.
It’s a great strategy when you have the pedigree to back it up, which AMC has with showrunners like Matthew Weiner, Vince Gilligan and Frank Darabont running their other series. By comparison, Veena Sud is a first-time showrunner whose previous experience is on CBS’ Cold Case, a work history that has certainly been used against her as the show has fallen in quality (given the general distaste for both CBS and procedurals for those who tend to watch/discuss serial dramas). However, AMC nonetheless insists on selling her as an auteur figure: their renewal press release suggests that the show is “from” Sud, while a quote from a Fox Television Studios executive promises that the show will return “with Veena Sud masterfully at the helm again.” Despite what I’d argue were pretty blatant problems within the construction of the season’s narrative, Sud has been elevated to the same position as her more well-seasoned (and well-tested) colleagues.
This means one of two things. First, it is entirely possible that AMC doesn’t think the show has had creative issues this season, although I would like to think that the network is smarter than this. However, it is more likely that they were simply too afraid to appear as though they lack confidence in the series, and therefore decided to go through the motions: renew the show based on critical acclaim that has since worn thin, valorize the showrunner to give the impression the show can stand alongside pre-existing hits, and worry about the actual content of the second season later.
A Miring Mouthpiece
The problem with this strategy is that Veena Sud has proven an incredible liability in the wake of the show’s divisive season finale. It is one thing for a press release to sell the show as an unqualified success, as we expect executives to talk about how they “elevate the crime drama with this series” or how the show is “incredibly powerful television.” However, Sud’s post-finale interviews have been peppered with this kind of executive doublespeak, relying on broad statements of purpose instead of any actual evidence of the show’s success: take, for example, her repetition of “this is the anti-cop cop show” in several interviews, including twice in her interview with Alan Sepinwall. That interview, which is somewhat contentious given that Sepinwall has been one of the show’s most vocal critics, also raises some questions regarding Sud’s control over the series’ narrative:
[Sepinwall:] One of the ways in which the story progressed was that it seemed like Holder and Linden would settle in on one person at a time. This person would seem like the obvious suspect, the end of an episode would point at them as clearly the one who did it, and we’d come back at the start of the next episode, learn that it was a misunderstanding, and move on to the next one. In your research of these kinds of investigations, did you find that the cases tended to unfold in that way, or was it something that simply dramatically expedient?
[Sud:] We based a lot of the red herrings on what the Danes did. They did an excellent job, and we did that until they locked in on Bennet Ahmed, and he became a suspect for multiple episodes, and the suspicion deepened. I does feel like, initially, there’s a bit of juggling between the “he did it,” “she did it,” “he said,” “she said,” the natural course of an investigation, and then landing on someone who the cops think potentially did it. And then we spent a while on that, until the twist that happened.
Despite being positioned as an auteur figure, this answer (among many in the interview with Sepinwall, and in many other interviews) reveals a pretty disappointingly elementary understanding of her own show. It reads like a summary more than an explanation: Sepinwall didn’t ask what their process was, he asked why they chose it, and Sud seemed entirely unwilling (or unable) to answer those types of questions. For every question that Sepinwall asks which is clearly looking for some kind of explanation for a divisive creative decision (like the choice to focus so much attention on the political campaign, or the repetitiveness of the storylines for the grieving family), Sud responds with why she was personally invested in it, with no discussion of narrative form, storytelling, or other such trivial things.
The interview reads as though Sud is the television showrunner equivalent of the Manchurian candidate, someone who has been programmed to respond in a certain fashion but who lacks the actual experience to understand the context of his or her statements. While auteur figures are often somewhat insular in their storytelling, following particular whims, they also have a clear sense of their personal vision that feels intricately linked to television as a medium (or storytelling as an art form, at the very least). It also helps, of course, when the show they’re defending is widely acclaimed, as opposed to a show which has been highly criticized as the season has worn on: in fact, that Sud’s interviews appeared in the midst of the enormous backlash against the season finale only made her seem more oblivious to the disconnect between her vision and the way it was received.
Of course, Sud is entitled to her opinion, and I do not want to suggest that it is fair to take her answers in interviews as a sign of her intelligence or her abilities. However, the larger problem is that all of her comments are being framed in terms of the AMC brand. In the Hollywood Reporter Emmy piece, Sud suggests that “AMC allows us to surprise ourselves and the audience,” one of many comments that creates a clear (and logical) link between her show and the network’s philosophy. In Sepinwall’s interview, she even reveals her attempts to find clear signifiers of that brand, suggesting that “it’s very much an AMC tradition, to take this rapid, unexpected detour from what we think might be a linear story, and find ourselves…lost and trying to make sense.” It’s one thing for Sud to be unwilling to offer explanations for certain storytelling decisions: that is simply a reflection on her own approach to serving as showrunner. It is quite another, however, for her to be explaining storytelling decisions based on her personal effort to boil the AMC brand down to episodic tropes and broad claims of difference unsubstantiated by the text itself.
A Cautionary Tale
While the backlash against The Killing‘s first season finale may be the most immediate problem for AMC, it is far from their largest one. People get angry about finales, especially ones which end in a way that contradicts everything the network has used to promote the show (including their transmedia web extensions and their network-approved Twitter hashtags), and that is to be somewhat expected. However, I don’t want us to focus on the finale, as the larger question is why the network has made no effort to address the larger threat that The Killing represents to their brand.
That threat is not Veena Sud herself: although she certainly did not help her own case, or the network’s case, with her unwillingness to even entertain a critical reading of her own show, she is the product of a network that found itself in a difficult place and chose to pretend as though everything was just fine. Sud has become representative of the network’s brand management strategy, which currently amounts to putting on a set of blinders and towing the party line with no acknowledgement of outside criticism. However, while Sud seems to have actually put on a set of blinders by avoiding any and all commentary surrounding the show, we know that AMC has been reading reviews, and so they can’t claim they didn’t know about the decline in critical opinion. While Sud may come across as oblivious, AMC comes across as willfully ignorant of any criticism of the series, which will only breed further criticism of the network for not taking a stronger stance on this issue.
Say what you will about HBO, a network known for its hubris, but it has generally had something to back up its rhetoric. This is largely because they have been vehement in the protection of their brand, policing their content and controlling access to that content so as to avoid situations like this one. While I think that it is unfortunate that timing made The Killing more important to the AMC brand than is ideal, and I certainly wouldn’t argue that its struggles reflect negatively on the rest of the network’s programming, their non-interventionist stance on the show has allowed their brand to become synonymous with vague promises of quality that have limited evidence in reality.
Could they still possibly dramatically rehaul the series? Yes, technically, but the way they approached this situation would suggest that they would consider such a move as a sign of weakness. This entire scenario seems designed to avoid looking weak in light of Rubicon‘s failure, but all it has done is saddle them with an injured series that will do more to hurt their brand in life than in death. I don’t know if it’s that AMC has started to believe its own hype, or that they are truly completely confused on where they’re heading in the future, but renewing The Killing set off a chain reaction of events that have thrown a light on what AMC wants to keep shrouded in darkness: the fact that they don’t really have any clue what their future looks like.
And, unfortunately, they hedged their bets on a show that had precisely the same problem.
- Given all of this, I’ll be very interested to see how AMC handles Hell on Wheels in the fall – Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead are returning with some fanfare this year, but their hopes for another tentpole rest on what to this point has been a pretty under the radar series, so how they choose to sell that show will give us a sense of how they’re respond to this situation (if they choose to respond at all).
- It is very possible that the show will pick up an Emmy nomination – it won’t beat Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire or The Good Wife, but the show gained a lot of attention early on, and has been considered a frontrunner for a nomination (with Mirielle Enos considered a potential acting nominee as well). I’m sure Tom O’Neil is already preparing a piece on how the backlash will affect its Emmy chances, but this is a case where the question is quite unique: has there been another show in Emmy contention that has experienced this much of a fall this close to the nomination process?
- There are some more positive takes on the finale, but the most prominent has its own set of problems: Ginia Bellafante wrote a review of the finale at the New York Times that was published yesterday afternoon despite featuring spoilers for the episode (which actually ended up being proven wrong by the episode itself, if what I’ve read is correct), and was published in the paper this morning with a headline that suggests a sense of closure despite the fact that the finale didn’t offer one. It’s just a tremendously bizarre review, for reasons that extend well beyond its raving positivity.