*steps up onto soapbox*

There are many moments when I wish I could turn back time and erase a past action. If I could, I’d go back a decade or so and refuse to buy that pair of green jeans that I thought looked stylish.1 More recently, I wish that I’d never penned this unfunny, poorly-written satirical piece about The Killing. It was written the day after the season finale had aired, and I had gotten caught up in the angry mob of pitchfork-and-torch-wielding fans who were out for blood. I’d delete the entry, but I’m honest about my mistakes, and I see no sense in covering them up. With that in mind, I’d like to apologize to my (admittedly small) readership. I wasn’t thinking clearly when I wrote that piece. Sorry.

After having a week for reflection, I suspect that there are a lot of other people who have regrets related to The Killing: AMC executives who realized that their marketing campaign was possibly misleading; TV critics who wrote reviews that focused too much on the lack of resolution in the finale and not enough on its other many missteps; and angry fans who unleashed invective-filled, misogynistic tirades about showrunner Veena Sud on comments sections all over the Web. From the vitriolic tenor of the online discussions, one would think that someone had crapped in the Internet’s collective bowl of Cheerios on Monday morning.

As for me, I haven’t spent the past week doing much reflection about The Killing. I’ve been reading, exercising, watching movies, and generally doing things that are unrelated to the heavily-criticized AMC show. But now I’m far enough removed from the drama surrounding the season finale that I can sift through the mess of press releases, interviews, reviews, editorials, and message board threads to glean some lessons that we can learn. I’ll make no attempt to synthesize them into a coherent thesis, but I hope they’re valuable nonetheless.

Lesson #1: Watch your words
Anyone who has spent more than five minutes on the Internet knows that angry Tweets and message board comments like, “omg worst season finale evar!!!!!!111” are to be expected. Less expected, however, is seeing the same message in a professional review, written by AOL TV critic Maureen Ryan. Now, far be it from me to tell professional critics how to do their jobs. TV criticism is subjective, and anyone who expects critics to be “objective” has unreasonable expectations.2 But it is reasonable to expect critics to be rational, to take a step back from their emotions, and to apply an analytical eye to the work being critiqued.

What irked me about the review that I linked isn’t Ryan’s bold assertion that “Orpheus Descending” was the worst season finale of all time. While I disliked the episode, I didn’t think it was that bad.3 However, Ryan is certainly entitled to her opinion. What irked me was the fact that the review claimed that the show had “betray[ed] its viewers” and that the writers and executives behind the show displayed “tone-deaf arrogance.” That may very well be true, but it has nothing to do with the show itself. The show could have been written by a crack-smoking monkey who flings his feces at anyone who speaks ill of him, for all I care. While I appreciate the review’s attempt to place the show in a broader context and to examine it on a meta-level, I’d rather that TV critics stick to what happened on screen, not behind the scenes, in interviews, or in ad campaigns. In this case, calling the writers4 and executives responsible for The Killing arrogant could have fuelled the fans’ hurling of vitriol at the people behind the show. Ryan should not be held responsible to any degree for what fans choose to say about the show or the people associated with it. But there’s no denying that once a respected critic uses emotionally-loaded language to describe a show’s staff, then angry fan criticism that is normally derided as unreasonable or irrational is legitimized.

It’s unfair of me to single out that one review of the season finale just because its claim of “Orpheus Descending” being the worst season finale ever makes it an easy target.5 In fact, there were many other angry reviews of the season finale, the most prominent among them being Alan Sepinwall’s, which included the inflammatory assertion, “Every single thing this show tells you is a lie.” That’s clearly hyperbole. But once a statement like that is put on the table, fans are wont to run wild with it. Sepinwall also made the mistake of including his reactions to his interview with showrunner Veena Sud in his review. This made it difficult for readers to disentangle what was wrong with the show with what was wrong with the press surrounding the show.

I’m not asking critics to self-censor. In fact, anyone who knows me well knows that I abhor censorship. Critics should be free to write about their feelings for a show, whatever those feelings may be. But words do have power, and anyone with respect and a large readership should be aware of the level of influence that he or she can exert over the nature and tone of Internet discussions.6 While critics shouldn’t be held responsible for the hurtful – and in some cases, hateful – remarks that fans have made about the people who work on the show, they should know that they have a tiny degree of complicity in fanning the flames.

So, if critics shouldn’t soften their approach, what can they do to stop an all-out flame war? Easy. Nip it in the bud. In this case, I have to applaud Ryan and Sepinwall, both of whom are known for their low tolerance for racist, misogynistic, or just plain stupid comments.7 Fostering a respectful environment is the key step to creating a forum for reasoned, intelligent discussion.

As for the notion that critics should separate their comments on the press and on show production from the show itself, I may be alone in advocating for it, in which case critics should continue to do whatever they’re paid to do. Indeed, many readers, maybe even most readers, may expect critics to look beyond the screen. I can only hope that at some point during the review process, critics make a mental separation between what’s happening on screen and what’s happening behind the scenes.

Lesson #2: TV doesn’t owe you anything
One source of audience rage is clear: we still don’t know who killed Rosie Larsen. From reading some of the discussions, you might think that not revealing the killer’s identity was a crime on par with eating puppies or feeding poisoned bread to ducks. I can understand where some of the anger is coming from. There were no doubt many viewers who had become frustrated with the show and were clinging onto it to find out who the murderer was, and when the season finale couldn’t even given them that little bit of info, they were mad.

But I can’t help but feel as if anger isn’t the most rational response. AMC’s marketing campaign for the series, even with its “Who killed Rosie Larsen?” tagline, never explicitly promised that the murder would be solved this season.8 Audiences generated their own expectations of what the outcome of the season would be, possibly based on their past experiences with mystery stories.

More importantly, AMC didn’t force anyone to watch The Killing. I wonder why those who were watching just to find out who the killer was (and how the detectives arrived at that conclusion) kept watching. If finding out the murderer’s identity was the only reason to watch the show, why not just read recaps online? The common line, “I’ve already made it this far; I might as well watch the whole thing” doesn’t make any sense.9 Watched episodes are a sunk cost; one can’t unwatch them. Regardless of whether watching more episodes will engender more frustration, the frustration of past episodes can’t be erased.10

Unfortunately, the culture of entitlement that pervades North American society conditions people to believe that television shows owe them certain things.11 But that line of thinking couldn’t be further from reality. TV doesn’t owe anyone anything. Viewers aren’t television’s customers; advertisers are.12 Networks owe advertisers eyeballs. That’s it. If you sit down for a television programme, expecting to be entertained, and the programme fails to live up to your expectations, then by all means, be mad that you weren’t entertained. But don’t think for a second that you were owed a programme that met your expectations.

Could you imagine what television would be like if writers were forced to incorporate fans’ expectations or desires into their TV shows? It would be a disaster. There’s no way that TV writers can accommodate conflicting opinions and please everybody. More importantly, a show that tries too hard to please people won’t take any storytelling risks, thereby resulting in boring television. TV writers should write the stories that they want to write. If I like them, I’ll tune in. If I don’t, then I won’t. It’s that simple.

If I feel I’m “owed” anything by a show’s staff, it’s their best possible effort. Bad television abounds, yet I’ve never seen a showrunner admit, “Yeah, I didn’t try so hard this season. I kinda got lazy and half-assed it.” The truth is, there is probably not a single showrunner on this planet who doesn’t try his or her best. Even if they often fail, they try to entertain their audiences. They’re not trying to piss anybody off. With that in mind, feeling personally insulted by a television show13 or being angry that it failed to meet one’s expectations is just puerile.

I have to agree with the idea that TV critic Dan Fienberg expressed in this edition of the Firewall & Iceberg podcast. There was plenty of nonsense in The Killing’s season finale already. Failing to reveal the killer’s identity wasn’t an especially egregious sin, and while I completely understand that it’s a point of contention, it’s not worth the amount of criticism that has specifically been lobbed at it. The Killing didn’t owe anyone the killer’s identity. Why should people be furious that the show didn’t deliver something that was never promised?

Lesson #3: I did get it, thank you very much
While The Killing’s detractors posted angry comments about how much the season finale sucked, the show’s defenders adopted an infuriating position: “you just didn’t get it.” This was often followed with a, “If you wanted a nice, neat story, you should have watched CSI.” Excuse me, but I did get it. The show just wasn’t very good. Moreover, I tuned into it because I didn’t want a nice, neat story. I wasn’t disappointed with the fact that there were red herrings or that we didn’t get a resolution. I was disappointed because the red herrings weren’t interesting and the story was poorly told on the whole.

The other thing that irks me about these types of comments is the implication that The Killing was somehow superior to standard procedurals that resolve their cases within the span of one episode. I’ve never watched CSI specifically, but I have watched enough procedurals14 to know that those types of shows are generally better-scripted, have more compelling cases, and even often have more detailed character development than The Killing. Adhering to an unconventional formula doesn’t automatically make a TV show better than those that follow a time-honoured one.

It’s alright to defend The Killing. But it’s not alright to insult other viewers or TV shows while doing so.

Lesson #4: It wasn’t just the final 5 minutes that sucked
Up until now, I’ve focused on critics and fans. But the people behind the show are also responsible for some of the mess left in the wake of the season finale. Their defense of the finale has focused on the fact that people were disappointed with its final few minutes, in which it was revealed that Holder had fabricated evidence, Belko had gone to assassinate Richmond, and the case wasn’t resolved. Sud’s contention that such cliffhangers were acceptable because “this is the anti-cop cop show” merely reinforced the empty arguments espoused by some of the show’s defenders, as I outlined in the previous section.

Sud’s comments are understandable. She’s the showrunner. Speaking ill of her own show would be incredibly stupid. It would undermine any confidence that viewers have in her abilities. I don’t necessarily agree with what she’s saying, but I have to respect her for standing up for her show. Unfortunately, the arguments that Sud presented have been taken up by the show’s defenders, and they’re missing the point: the final 5 minutes weren’t the only things that sucked about The Killing. The show had been sliding downhill since the middle of the season. There were certainly viewers whose sole points of contention were the cliffhangers at the end of the season finale, but there were many others who were frustrated with the show as a whole and were disappointed that it didn’t cohere into a sensible story.

Even AMC president Charlie Collier, in his defense of Sud, failed to address the underlying issue, instead choosing to focus on the audience’s frustration with the cliffhangers. I wouldn’t have expected him to criticize the show to any degree. In fact, I’d expect him to do so even less than I’d expect Sud to. Collier, as the president of the network, has to stand up for its programming. Showrunners’ comments are read by the small number of people who comprise the critical community and the fans who follow them. But when a network president talks, the industry listens. Collier might have been speaking directly about fans, and that’s probably why he didn’t cite any statistics like viewership numbers, but he was also indirectly addressing potential advertisers, as if to say, “Hey, The Killing is still prime real estate on which to air your commercials.” Viewed in that light, it’s surprising that Collier didn’t speak about the show as a whole. He didn’t say that The Killing was a high-quality show. He didn’t say that it had a compelling story. He just talked about the cliffhangers.

Collier’s comments placated some viewers, who were pleased that he had taken the time to address fans’ complaints, but annoyed others, who were disappointed with his failure to address the show’s larger problems. Unfortunately, the latter group will never be satisfied; nobody is going to come out and say, “Sorry, we screwed up.” But when the show’s defenders are regurgitating Sud’s and Collier’s words, it’s unlikely that those who were disappointed in the show as a whole will be heard by those behind the show. However, those viewers can take comfort in the fact that at least critics have heard them and have voiced some of the same complaints.

Lesson #5: AMC isn’t screwed
There’s an interesting piece written by TV critic and analyst Myles McNutt about how The Killing threatens AMC as a brand. McNutt admits that TV critics’ influence isn’t all that far-reaching, and their highly negative reactions to the season finale likely will have no impact on business decisions, but he’s surprised that AMC didn’t address their complaints. Ever since it began airing Mad Men, AMC has been a network that has prided itself on quality, and a show as poorly received as The Killing is certainly a blemish on its otherwise strong record.

That being said, AMC is first and foremost a business, and this business’ clients are its advertisers. Ultimately, what matters to AMC is the number of eyeballs that watch it.15 A critically-panned show that racks up a lot of viewers is going to stay on the air, and for that reason, The Killing’s renewal isn’t surprising at all.

What I’m guessing AMC’s executives recognize is that, as McNutt points out, TV critics’ influence can be wide, but it is ultimately limited. Most viewers don’t read what the critics are saying. They also likely recognize that the Internet is an ideal platform for voicing extreme opinions, where moderate viewpoints are often drowned out. Message boards and comment sections are in no way an accurate snapshot of what the fan base of a show is thinking. Consider this: the average person who thinks that The Killing is an okay but not stellar show isn’t going to waste his or her time posting that opinion on the Internet. Recognizing that the anger of fans on the Internet was likely not reflective of how the show was generally received by its viewers, and seeing that the show had solid viewership numbers, AMC decided to renew The Killing.

As long as there are enough eyeballs watching AMC, and as long as ad campaigns (posters, billboards, etc.) can convince viewers to watch AMC shows, The Killing’s renewal should have little impact on AMC’s future. Its brand identity may change, but it’s almost certain to survive as a network.

So, what’s the big lesson here?
As I stated in the introduction, I’ll make no attempt to synthesize these little lessons into a big one. There’s no point. I will, however, leave you with one final lesson. Now that more than a week has passed since The Killing ended its first season, the anger seems to have dissipated. The Killing is no longer today’s hot topic. This piece probably would have been more relevant four or five days ago. While some people were undoubtedly wishing that the Internet would take a collective chill pill in the days following the season finale, they failed to realize an important lesson. Let’s call it Lesson #6: everything, in time, comes to an end.

*climbs down from soapbox*


1 Helpful fashion tip: green jeans never look stylish.

2 I’m not even sure what “objectivity” would mean in this context. Are we to expect all critics to take a moderate stance on everything? That’s just silly.

3 My list of season finales that are worse than that of The Killing’s first season: Bones, season 5; Community, season 1; Freaks and Geeks, series finale; White Collar, season 2. To some, including Freaks and Geeks on this list probably verges on blasphemy. But in my mind, Freaks and Geeks was one of the most overrated television series of all time.

4 As far as I know, Veena Sud is the only writer from the show who gave post-finale interviews. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.) Calling all of them arrogant is unfair and unwarranted.

5 And I really want to emphasize again that I’m not here to “criticize the critics” or tell them how to do their jobs, disingenuous as that may sound by this point. This is just a lesson about the power of words, not the nature of TV criticism as a whole.

6 There’s a limit to that influence, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

7 There is perhaps an element of hypocrisy in my support of comment deletion in this case. But the presence of a no-holds-barred, uncensored discussion board at The A.V. Club makes it worthwhile to have moderated fora elsewhere.

8 Whether or not executives or Veena Sud mismanaged audience expectations and implied that the crime would be solved this season is a separate issue. I don’t think that anybody deliberately misled the audience, and I’m not going to waste my time trying to read between the lines in interview transcripts to prove otherwise.

9 More hypocrisy: no matter how irrational it is, I’m still sometimes guilty of this kind of thinking. Then again, I don’t blame TV shows for wasting my time. I make the decision to watch or not to watch a given show. If I end up disliking a show, it’s my fault for wasting my own time. (This doesn’t extend to professional critics, who are often paid to write about shows that they don’t like.)

10 Presumably, there’s some sort of psychological reward to seeing the “complete story.” But I can’t imagine that it’s very large if a show is mostly unenjoyable.

11 How else to explain the presence of insane “shippers” who threaten to boycott shows unless a certain couple gets together? People can watch TV shows for whatever reasons they want, but I have little patience or respect for people who insist on reducing entire shows to relationship debates and stubbornly refuse to consider alternative perspectives. Such behaviour is counter-productive, impedes intelligent discourse, and to be frank, disturbs me deeply.

12 Even for a subscription-based channel like AMC, most people subscribe to it through a package offered by their cable or satellite provider. They’re, at best, indirect customers. And even so, people still have to pay for basic cable or satellite service, so really, no channel should be treated any differently from any other channel as far as entitlement goes.

13 At the risk of splitting hairs, I feel that this is different from feeling as if a show has insulted one’s intelligence. An insult to one’s intelligence is simply a matter of a show expecting an audience to believe or go along with something that doesn’t make sense. It’s a sentiment that I’ve often felt, and it’s really not a dealbreaker for me. Even my favourite show of all time, Pushing Daisies, insulted my intelligence on more than one occasion.

14 I’ve watched every episode of Castle, Bones, White Collar, Human Target, and Hawaii Five-0. I’ve also watched every episode of some shows with strong procedural elements, namely Chuck, Fringe, Pushing Daisies, Terriers, and The Chicago Code. I’ve even seen a few episodes of Burn Notice, Warehouse 13, Psych, and Murder, She Wrote. (Don’t laugh.) I’m also pretty sure that I’ve caught a few episodes of Law & Order here and there. I know how procedurals work.

15 Fine, go ahead and make jokes about how one-eyed people matter half as much.

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