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.
34 responses to “Hiding Behind the Brand: How The Killing Threatens the Future of AMC”
Good stuff, Myles. I have nothing substantial to add to the conversation but this was an excellent piece.
I don’t know if you read it, but the NYMag piece has some interesting insights into AMC’s perspective on its brand.
So is it realistic to say that in some parallel universe where the premieres of Rubicon and The Killing were swapped, Rubicon may have ended up being the one renewed?
haha, for the extremely long comment I just posted, I actually haven’t seen this. Thank you for posting it!
If you feel like writing a follow-up, Myles, I would like to see more on the genre schism post-Walking Dead. I was extremely dissatisfied with the end to that season, and my fear has been that it augurs a different downturn in AMC’s brand – one that values easy, (relatively) low-quality action series with big ratings over prestige dramas that almost nobody watches. Hell on Wheels certainly seems closer to The Walking Dead than Deadwood.
Obviously, it makes sense for them to support TWD (which could get better in season 2) as it was a huge success for them. But it worries to me to see that the most successful shows on the two basic cable networks capable of making ‘great’ series – TWD on AMC, and Sons of Anarchy on FX – are, well, not very good.
‘The golden age of TV’ has been a popular concept the last few years, and its promise was more shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad; instead, the ascendance of cable seems to be resulting in shows that are only a bit more complex than broadcast dramas. Clearly, not every new show is going to be as good as MM or BB, even if that is what we would like to believe from the AMC brand; and these shows’ tiny audiences cannot sustain a network on their own. A network needs actual successes to operate, and those seem to come from shows that are not nearly as good as the greats. Maybe the ascendance of these mid-tier series would be easier for me if it meant their success could subsidize the great shows – like how Mad Men loses money for AMC, but it stays afloat.
My fear, though, is that Mad Men and Breaking Bad were a fluke, and are going to hang around because they are the basis of AMC’s brand, but not its future. What’s strange about The Killing renewal is that they could have just buried it, Rubicon-style, and moved on with TWD, Hell on Wheels, and whatever they’re developing. Its ratings are decent for AMC (and better than Breaking Bad last season), but not so great that it would have been unconscionable for them to cancel it. And after that finale, I imagine only a small amount of the viewership would care that they’ll never see resolution.
So although my worry has been that AMC’s brand will shift to more popular genre series instead of my favored unpopular prestige dramas, The Killing has now upended that somewhat. Perhaps, though, doubling down on The Killing in the face of its utter implosion makes it less likely they’ll attempt another slow-burn, moody drama in the future, and focus on more dudes-with-guns series.
I don’t want to babble on about it all morning, but this is an issue that’s been on my mind as I’ve watched The Killing deteriorate, and one that your post got me thinking of again.
I also want to note that I am not disparaging ‘genre’ series because of their content. I am a nerd, and I would love to see more genre series succeed on TV, ala Game of Thrones or Deadwood or Justified or even Falling Skies. But the genre series that are currently successful on AMC/FX, be they zombies, detectives, or bikers, just are not reaching the creative highs we have come to expect and hope for from original cable series.
With respect to the laughable NYT review, it is, I think, worth noting that it was written by the same Ginia Bellafante who was widely criticized for writing a review of Game of Thrones which made it difficult to tell whether she’d watched the series before writing it. This one clearly takes the next step and makes it completely clear that she hadn’t. I have to say that I’m baffled by the whole situation
Regarding the substance of your piece, I have to think that at this point AMC is hoping like mad that Hell on Wheels catches on (as I am, and have been since I first heard about it 10 or 12 months ago) and that they have a decent development year. If HoW is up to the standards of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, I think that The Killing can limp through another season without causing too much harm to the AMC identity. Seasons of BB, HoW, and a hopefully improved Walking Dead should cleanse the palate enough to let Killing S2 fill the gap until Mad Men comes back, and then they can let it die and move on to something new and, hopefully, better.
On the other hand, Hell on Wheels could flame out, Walking Dead could be the same old slightly flabby show that it was, and we could be sitting here next spring thinking that AMC is in really massive trouble with Veena Sud ready to put the knife in. Either way, I think that you’re right and it’s a fascinating story.
correction: It’s “story matters here” not “happens.”
AMC’s brand strength remains intact despite The Killing’s disappointing season finale because I think TV brands are — and should be — the byproduct of strong starts. AMC’s track record of picking promising material remains unblemished: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Rubicon, The Killing. All of these shows had strong pilots and strong first 5 or so episodes. Thus, my interest in AMC’s future shows remains high, and my trust in their taste remains strong. They routinely accomplish the tasks I most want from a network: Picking cool projects, supporting those shows with strong marketing, and giving the creators of the show room to do their thing. After that, it’s all about my relationship to the show and its defining storytelling intelligence; the branded entity that brokered the introduction falls away and becomes a non-factor, unless they meddle with the relationship.
Speaking of which:
One of the things I love about AMC is commitment to and support of the showrunner-as-storyteller model of making (and marketing) TV. They have thrived by trusting their writer-artists. And TV is better for it. The very fact that they trusted Sud’s vision, even as it produced disappointment, underscores a brand value in AMC that I admire and hope they never lose.
One more thought:
I don’t think you earned the right to comment on Gina’s defense of The Killing — not when you haven’t watched the last 5 episodes of the show.
Thanks for the comment, Jeff – always great to have your input.
First, I don’t feel I’m commenting on Ginia’s defense in terms of her opinion – I have no issues with that. Actually, I do have some issues with that, as the eight episodes I saw were certainly too problematic to result in a rave of that magnitude (in terms of her general comments about the season) in my honest opinion, but I don’t see that as a way of discrediting her review.
My larger issue is how the piece appears in the context of the finale, being published before the episode aired and suggesting a degree of closure that the episode didn’t offer – her post-review addendum, trying to explain her reading of the finale, just takes a really bizarre approach to the critical exercise that I think should be interrogated on a level beyond the credibility of her theory (which, as you noted on Twitter, is not entirely far-fetched).
Second, you raise an interesting point in that our understanding of branding is variable. Personally, for me, branding is based on follow-through: it’s not about strong starts, but about delivering on the promises made up front, and I do think the network plays a role in that (especially in circumstances where retooling seems necessary). And while I see where you’re coming from, and appreciate those same qualities in AMC as a network, I think I need more transparency if I’m going to give the network credit for letting a show turn into a disappointment. If they had ADMITTED that they were giving Sud a chance to right the ship amidst the storm based on conversations they had had with her, or if it seemed like she saw this was a second chance to get things right, then I would applaud the network.
As it is, I’m not sure I’m willing to give them that much credit.
I don’t expect such transparency from a network. They’re never going to give it to us, the media, because they don’t trust what the media would do with said transparency. If AMC did what you wanted them to do — offered mea culpa with renewal — our headlines wouldn’t be: “LET’S ALL GIVE NEXT SEASON A CHANCE!” No, our headlines will just be “AMC TO FANS: YEP, WE FUCKED UP.” Which will unleash a tidal wave of snark and cynicism and general negative energy, discouraging ANYONE from giving it a second chance. I’m not saying networks and showrunners shouldn’t be transparent OR should worry about these consequences. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the launch of season 2 is marked by at least a few notes of crow eating humility you’re seeking. But you know what? If they succeed in making a better show next year: Great. That’s all I want. They can be as opaque as they wannabe about it, as long they give me what I want: A better show.
If branding is based on follow-through, then at what point in a show’s life do we begin to assess their contribution to a network’s brand identity? The Walking Dead has only fielded six episodes; have they produced enough “follow through” to reflect on AMC? The Killing — to our frustration — now reveals itself to be one single story told over multiple seasons; don’t we need to give them more “follow-through” time against that mission before assessing the integrity of the AMC brand? By “follow through” logic, can we even say that AMC — the land of “story matters here “– has a brand, as none of its shows have completed their stories?
Of course, maybe the real issue is that network “branding” is just bullshit.
(Of course, the irony of “follow-through” logic is that networks aren’t in the business of even letting their hit shows “follow-through” on their stories. US networks are all about the prolonged middle — delaying resolution until all vitality in the series is drained.
I think “follow-through” is certainly in the eye of the beholder: some want immediate satisfaction, while others want consistency (like the issues of The Walking Dead losing momentum after its strong premiere). Some of these expectations are unreasonable, and I’d agree that judging Walking Dead on any level based on the short six episode season is pretty sketchy, but it happens, and I’ve seen a lot of “Forget The Killing, AMC already lost me with The Walking Dead” responses to the idea behind this piece. Anecdotal, sure, but that single disappointment did increase their skepticism of the network’s output.
I concede that networking branding is sort of bullshit, but it’s a reality of the business, and I think it’s something that AMC (being as it focuses its attention on critics and award shows) is very concerned with. They depend on new shows being noticed based on their track record, and depend on awards momentum to ensure they maintain a presence after their initial success stories are gone.
The way to handle a situation like The Killing is to suggest that you love your cast, you love the idea of working within the cop show formula, but you want to take the show in a different direction. Yes, it’s possible that this would still be sold as “AMC says: they screwed up,” but I don’t see how viewers would turn against the show based on a measured executive response along the lines of John Landgraf’s recent post-mortems on the death of Terriers and Lights Out for FX.
I disagree with you re: if AMC had pulled a Landgraf it would have engendered goodwill. Apples and oranges. Those shows were never coming back. They were also well liked. He could afford to be humble, apologetic. The Killing is hated and coming back. But history shows that admitting to being “wrong” doesn’t win back lost viewers. The Killing reminds me of Heroes: When the showrunner publicly apologized for storytelling sins in season 2, hoping candor and humility will buy back trust and earn a second chance, the alienated audience processed it as: “I was right! They DIDN’T know what they were doing!” This is grossly unfair, but it’s true: Like sports fans and their idols, fans of autuer TV demand infallibility from author-showrunners. When they cop to being capable of mistakes, the lost faith can never be regained among burned viewers Fool me me once, shame on you; fool me twice…
That said, I am willing to concede AMC may have done some damage to its brand. I find myself swayed by the argument that AMC had an obligation to correct the misperception among critics, journalists, bloggers and recappers that The Killing would resolve its mystery this season. They could have proactively managed expectations, and they didn’t. That lack of communication/passive-aggressive manipulation sets a precedent that doesn’t flatter the network and engenders distrust.
As a television viewer I feel that John Landgraf of FX is the standard bearer of which all networks and network executives should emulate. His commitment to entertaining audiences, creative freedom (Louie) , satisfying critics as well as his transparency in the cancellations of beloved shows like Terriers demonstrates to me as a viewer that he and his network are committed to tell entertaining and rich stories. Landgraf has earned my implicit trust and I will tune into pretty much anything he puts on the air.
To this point, if he put shows on the air that gave me only a couple of good episodes with pacing issues, character development issues and plot holes I would not return to his network. This is what AMC has done with The Killing. Coupled ratings but not critical success The Walking Dead I would get the impression that AMC is looking to emulate the bottom line mentality of network television which is what for a few years cable was looking to subvert with allowing smaller audiences to enjoy smart intelligent story telling. This also leads me away from thinking of a network positively.
One of the other promises of cable television is the ability to tell long form good serialized television which does not look to achieve the same bottom line success of a CSI, NCIS or Law and Order on the networks. This means that the television series must lead me somewhere and the episodes in between the pilot and the finale must indicate this. When a movie critic or more aptly a book critic reviews a movie or a book they look for a satisfying beginning, middle and end. In a movie the middle could be around minute 37 of a movie that is 1hr and 30 minutes. However, in a book. it maybe in chapter 10 on pages 230 of a 430 page book. Likewise for a television show the middle is is in episode 6 or 7 of a 13 episode season. The means two things one is that a movie requires a shorter attention span to evaluate its quality and decide whether the whole product is good. The second is the more important criterion for serialized television and that is criteria of returning. A movie does not require you to to come back to evaluate the whole product while both a book and a television series must hook you into returning. For a television series it is through commercial breaks and especially season long breaks. This is how television differs in its evaluative criteria and why it is very important for television programs to turn out a consistently good product and not insult its viewers through manipulative gimmicks and bad writings. An elite cable networks brand is in its serialization.
I’m amazed the NYT left that review up. I stopped watching the show after the pilot (I was already bored with the slow), but if she flat out missaid what happened…
Thing is, I guess this show IS a success by AMC’s definition, or at least it is for this year. Next year after the critics and audience have stormed off in a huff might be another story.
This is a good piece, Myles, but I think you’re seriously overestimating The Killing finale’s effect on the AMC brand. Maybe if this had been running concurrently with Rubicon — which was good to be sure, but only to a very small audience — more people might sit up and take note. As it is, we’ve seen enough commercials and read enough online to have the success — real and imagined — of Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead (despite that show’s own problems) burned into our brains. The Killing isn’t going to change that.
I know you’re saying this is the type of thing that could hurt AMC in a year or two and not right now, but I think the emphasis on branding is not as important to people as you think. (Purely academically, it’s worthy of discussion.) My mom, who is a good stand-in for an average TV viewer, knows about AMC’s shows through me and the Emmys, and that’s about it. She doesn’t read press releases or wonder about the meaning of marketing campaigns like we do. Specifically, she didn’t like BB or The Killing’s pilot because they’re “too depressing,” but if an individual concept came along that she found worthy, she’d watch it just like any other show. To her, it would just happen to be on AMC.
Meanwhile, people like you and I are going to keep watching AMC shows because it’s still better than most. Sure, the back half of this season has been laughable, but the first half was serviceable and TWD was decent. They’re not batting 1.000 anymore, but it’s better than most of the stuff out there. Maybe the flaw in this line of thinking is not differentiating between network and cable, but I usually think of the difference in terms of creative freedom, not success.
The last five episodes are not worth your time. Watch the last two at least – so you can experience the ludicrousness of the season’s final ‘surprises’ and so you can better appreciate the disappointment / annoyance / outrage that different viewers are feeling today.
To your point about the AMC brand- and the damage it may take for it’s recent missteps…. I agree- to sone extent.
I think within the Industry- the damage is done (though Sud is making it far worse with her shocking obliviousness and wholly unwarranted self-congratulations). Writers everywhere in Hollywood would kill for the opportunity that Sud was given. They are largely disgusted at the sight of a prestige network like AMC giving a full season to this ill-conceived, gimmick-driven Scooby Doo Marathon. (“They won’t even let me pitch- but they greenlit this sh–?!”)
Critics who celebrated the impressive early episodes are racing at a breakneck pace to distance themselves from their early endorsements. Dozens of apologetic mea culpas and infuriated post-mortems are being fired off in papers and online rags- they’ve got reputations as arbiters of good television to salvage. Sud would have us believe this is ‘buzz’. Yeah- the buzz of chain saws chopping the show down.
Executives inside AMC are not oblivious to the problem they have here- and your instincts about their motivations for renewal are spot-on. Better to coast on the early accolades and not do anything too negatory- lest more stories be penned about AMC’s apparent decline. Those stories have definitely been getting more attention – due to failures like The Prisoner, Rubicon, and to a lesser extent the post-pilot episodes of Walking Dead (which ultimately led to a writer purge by Darabont himself).
In the conference rooms at HBO, we can hear huge sighs of relief- as their latest high stakes gamble “Game of Thrones” has assumed the mantle of THE ‘IT’ SHOW OF 2011. The victory for them is made all the sweeter in light of AMC’s ever-more-visible high-profile stumblings – which you catalog nicely.
The Trades are cataloging the damages of the finale now- and we’ll see a LOT more stories about pissed audiences, bait and switch storytelling, slavish dependence on red herrings, and diminished Emmy chances for the “Little Network That Could Do No Wrong… (but did)”.
Audiences don’t feel strong connections to TV Network brands. The damage to AMC from the end viewer is far less acute. Most who are Mad about the show are not as mad at AMC as they are the people who created this particularly disappointing show. They’ll be less likely to tune in next season, however. A fact which will hurt AMC with advertisers.
Hopefully the show gets put out of all of our misery soon!.
As a viewer, I have to admit that it has been Veena Sud’s interviews that have turned my disappointment in the season finale to abject dislike and has engendered some mistrust of AMC . Not only have her interviews been full of arrogance and ego, she has come across as having zero regard or consideration for her viewers. Instead, her puffed up ramblings about eschewing formula and being anti-genre (really???) demonstrate that she doesn’t have a clue. I certainly won’t be so willing to give of my time to support their efforts if that is the attitude. One can only hope that someone at AMC sees that she should stop talking already as she is doing the show, the actors and the writers a huge disservice that is only further separating the viewers from AMC.
AMC’s brand is having the best hour long shows on TV overall among the major and basic cable networks. Name another network that even comes close. The Killing was excellent and I can’t wait until season 2.
FX may have the lock on consistently having the best half hour sitcoms among basic cable networks whih may become thier brand (since the hour showes didn’t work out even though they had potential); I’ll need to see the new shows that start Thursday to confirm
the misspellings were intentional because of FX’s slacker brand, yeah right, i just can’t type
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Great article Myles! it’s going to be very interesting to see how it plays out in the coming months (and years).
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hmm i fall into the camp that just like rubicon, the slow build up of The Killing is excellent – it drew me in and kept me there – and no i wasn’t expecting a neat wrapped up series by the end of the season – i do love the twist and turns, else why bother watching if it is neatly packaged – this is also why Game of Thrones by HBO drew me in and left a number of open questions, something to look forward to in the seasons to come.
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I am very upset of the way the rosie larsen story ended. The producers did a awful ending. They need to redo episode 14 because it seems the mayor was behind everything but the cop set him up. He is not the only person that was part of the murder. I need to see the continuation.
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Hey! This is kind of off topic but I need some help from an established blog. Is it hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast. I’m thinking about setting up my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Many thanks
I didn’t actually read the last paragraph of your little thesis here.
In fact, I haven’t read the last 6 or so paragraphs of your rant on “The Killing” ‘s first season – I fell behind a twenty minutes ago, struggled to find the motivation to continue, and then traveled away from my computer before I decided I could just speed through and read the comments.
Let me put it this way though, in a less mocking tone:
lighten up bro. It’s television. It is entertaining, which is what TV is supposed to do. Entertain.
You have a weak argument and you back it up with a lot of rambling about “how often I felt The Killing insulted my intelligence as a viewer,” (which you never actually explain — and don’t tell me I stopped reading before you did. a) You should’ve included it before your plethora of jarbled gobbledygook. b) You didn’t finish watching the show either so what would that say?) and then you get seriously monotonous when you start separating your argument into sections. That part was great… (Zzzz)
Also, take into consideration the fact that tonight is the second season season premiere.
Where’s RUBICON again? Sorry Myles, sounds like you’re just crying for the show you liked and upset the one you weren’t so hot for made it.
Just looked up some info on Rubicon. Wow, that sounds interesting! If I had known what the series was about, I would have watched it. I don’t even remember seeing any Rubicon commercials. They must not have been as frequent – or as vivid — as for The Killing. For some reason, I thought Rubicon was about logging on the mighty river Rubicon! (sorry)