Oh cable television, how you spoil us. I remember just a few years ago summer TV only offered reality fluff, and the water cooler discussions revolved around how the hapless schmucks got upended that week on “Wipeout.” These days, as if I needed another excuse to be a recluse during the warmer months and exacerbate my Vitamin D deficiency, we have the benevolent trio of FX, AMC and HBO serving up new seasons of some of the best programming in all of television, including “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad” and “Louie.” Summer shows are now relevant, and our months on break this year produced a remarkable occurrence: History bizarrely repeated itself and shined a light on our society’s viewing habits.
AMC’s “The Killing” debuted in April, bursting out of the gates with strong ratings and glowing reviews. The show, set in Seattle, follows an investigation into the death of a teenage girl — a premise brazenly cribbed from the short-lived-yet-extremely influential series “Twin Peaks”(1990-1991, R.I.P.). Beyond that, their narratives took completely different turns. Created by master surrealist David Lynch (“Blue Velvet”), “Twin Peaks” went nutso, involving demonic possessions, dancing dwarves and a cross-dressing David Duchovny, while “The Killing” remains firmly grounded in reality.
Yet, the two shows managed to suffer nearly identical fates. “Twin Peaks” wrapped up its first batch of episodes without revealing the killer, and audience frustration led to network pressure, which led to the premature resolution of the answer in the middle of the show’s second season, which led to hemorrhaging of viewers and its cancellation shortly thereafter.
Similarly, the first season of “The Killing” ended in June without revealing the killer, with yet another red herring cliffhanger. Two decades after “Twin Peaks,” irritated viewers have an outlet for their rage (haaaaave you met Twitter?) and their response was so overwhelmingly negative that AMC issued a public statement addressing the outcry. The show was renewed for a second season, but I’m guessing more than a few viewers will jump ship once the case is solved (if they haven’t already) and “The Killing” will soon be buried next to “Twin Peaks” in the television graveyard.
The truth is, two parties are at fault here. The producers of “The Killing” blatantly ignored history and should have realized that audiences are too impatient to handle a drawn-out murder mystery. Either they never studied the case of “Twin Peaks” or they thought “The Killing,” based on a popular Danish television series, would be different enough to work. The bigger question is: Why are audiences so impatient in the first place? Can’t they just wait?
The answer must lie in the nature of the medium. Murder mystery movies get solved right quick, in a snappy two hours or less. With murder mystery novels, you always know the precise number of pages you have left before All Is Revealed — you can even peek ahead if you’re into that sort of thing.
With television, I’m going to blame it on the procedural. Crime procedurals, from “Dragnet” in the 1950s to the current “CSI” franchise, introduce, investigate and solve crimes (usually murders) in a swift 44 minutes or less these days. If our minds are accustomed to the instant gratification of rapid resolutions, how can we be expected to tolerate “The Killing,” which has stretched over (approximately) 572 minutes without an answer? That’s a 1,200-percent increase in time devotion (so far). 1,200. As ’Ye would say, that shit cray.
But it’s those extra minutes that make “The Killing” — though it has its flaws — better than most police shows on the air. At the end of the day, the identity of the killer means diddly squat, just like how “Lost” was never really about the Island. “The Killing” is about the perpetually frumpy detective Sarah Linden and her struggle to be a good mother and fiancée, her partner the ex-drug addict yearning for a second chance, the mayoral candidate trying to win a campaign without sacrificing his soul and the parents of the murdered girl who have to, somehow, move on with their lives.
In fact, arguably the best episode of “The Killing” was “Missing,” where Linden and her partner spend the entire hour looking for Linden’s son and essentially no progress is made in the central murder case — it was just two protagonists talking, getting to know each other in a moment of crisis.
It’s said that David Lynch wanted to wait a long time to solve the murder of Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks,” had the show continued. The investigation was just a MacGuffin to bring Special Agent Dale Cooper to a kooky town called Twin Peaks, where he could interact with its citizens (like the Log Lady), uncover its secrets and eat slices of cherry pie. Twenty years later, American audiences are still about instant gratification, and can’t handle a serialized whodunit. We were robbed of the Further Adventures of Dale Cooper, so can we try for redemption with “The Killing?”