Tuesday, August 5, 2014

AMC'S "THE KILLING" - HOW (NOT) TO WRITE FOR TV


POSSIBLE SPOILERS. When The Killing (2011 - ) finally made its way onto Netflix, I was thrilled. Binge watching is a real problem in the age of instant gratification. It's the Achilles heel of modern entertainment. We want things right here and right now, with just about everything available on demand. I'm generally against this disease and don't partake in it, but binge watching is something that suits me quite well. I like the lack of commercials. I like to get things over with quickly, even the best things, so watching a season in one weekend is a dream come true. Which is exactly what I did a few years ago. It was a slow, bumpy start, but once it got going, it was "whoa" this and "ooh-aah" that. It hooked me. The pulsating "cliffhanger" rhythm that echoes through my speakers during the last minutes of every episode is truly chilling and thrilling.

One word to describe this show? Moody. Vancouver, BC stands in for Seattle.  Washington is my state, and I happen to love the grey, rainy, depressing atmosphere (it fuels the writer noggin). Initially, it was the only appeal of the show. The actors were unknowns to me at the time. All the better. The less faces I recognize, the deeper I submerge into the grey.

The Killing is not entirely original, and is based on a Danish serial of the same name. I haven't watched it yet, so any comparisons at this point are irrelevant. What is relevant, is the structure of the first two seasons, which managed to completely polarize the fan base and, arguably, contributed to the show’s swift cancellation after season 3, with Netflix picking up the tab and reviving it for what seems like one final hurrah. The first tagline was "Who Killed Rosie Larsen?" only to leave the audience hanging with a finale that resolved nothing. You just don't write for TV this way. Considering it takes anywhere between 6 months to a year for a show to start a new season, few came back for the big reveal. Having to wait 26 episodes is unacceptable. No show is brilliant enough to pull off such a cliffhanger and have viewers crawl back for more. The fans felt cheated, the creator, Veena Sud, came off as an entitled, arrogant twat, and AMC execs figured the whole shebang wasn't profitable long term considering their array of front-runners.  Believe me when I say, the reveal was fantastic, but not worth the wait, and the ratings reflected it.

Season 3 is where it got interesting. The hunt was now on for a serial killer of young girls, and the atmosphere spiralled deeper and deeper into an abyss of hurt and hopelessness. By this point, not many viewers cared. The most noticeable aesthetic was the lack of the "CSI" syndrome, where dolled up dames in skin tight clothes, stilettos, full faces of make up, and salon blowouts showed up at crime scenes. These detectives are tired, puffy, chapped, drab, and in need of a shower as they drive around in their equally lackluster grey sedans. No freshly waxed black hummers and obscene SUVs here.

Another observation - the supporting cast is what ultimately carries this show (especially in season 3 and 4). The acting is absolutely on the level. The writing however, is a total roller coaster, a mixed bag of either genuine moments of awe, or pitfalls of immense incompetence. Every episode has a few scenes that make you step back and think, "wow - that was damn good... damn good," while others make your brain ache as you ready to hurl your telly out the window. From a writer's perspective, the good ones can cause plenty of white envy, but only for so long, because the intricate puzzle pieces do not culminate into a show-stopping picture. There is plenty of lazy writing. And when it's bad - it is really bad. You see, good characters have flaws. Great characters are broken. But, these leads are shattered. In order to sell the "dark side," there has to be a point of return, some sort of promise to the viewer. The Killing, rather unapologetically, has none of it. I don't care for happy, saccharine endings, but I do require some sort of character growth, some dimension. The detectives are consistently on the same wavelength of insecurity, distrust, and co-dependence. The new season finale reaffirms this. If you are a writer, let your characters get better or get worse but, for Pete’s sake, don't let them stay the same.

And so, to finish off with a few blips about the new season, which was watched in a straight run for the past 6 hours - Netflix has left a notable stamp on its production. Get out your FUCK counters, because the detectives have a new vocabulary in tow. Don't get me wrong, there's a time and a place to swear like a sailor, and the word "fuck" is one of the most versatile to convey a range of emotions that can cover just about anything on the spectrum. However, this sort of dialogue...

Person A: You fucking asshole.
Person B: Fuck you.
Person A: Fuck you, too.
Person B: Don't give me that bullshit.
Person A: Oh, fuck off.
Person B: You first, fucker.

.... is very amateurish. When poor writers don't know how to end a scene, they whip up one of these Tarantino inspired "fuck you" exchanges, and it rarely gels. We get it, you're not on TV anymore, and you can get rid of the swear jar, but there are so many of these little chats in season 4 that listening to it became jarring and tired fast. Clearly, the makers have sucked me in once again, so one could say they're doing something right. However, there remains much untapped potential, and the dynamic between the main detectives, although occasionally chuckle-worthy, is the least interesting part of the show. The supporting cast of even bigger unknowns is the most surprising and rewarding part of the viewing experience, because they elevate what is otherwise a fairly mediocre batch of writing material.

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