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Hackery in the First Degree

Bill Simmons hate-watches the Killing finale.

If I invited you to my house for dinner tonight, you would come over and expect me to serve you food. Right?

Well, imagine we were having drinks in my living room for two hours. You’re looking at your watch. It’s 8:30. You don’t smell any food. You don’t say anything. Another half hour passes. You’re on your third drink. You’re getting legitimately hungry. You still don’t say anything. And then, a half hour later, I stand up as if I’m ready for you to leave. We have this exchange.

  • Me: “All right, it’s getting late, we should probably wrap this up.”
  • You: “I thought we were having dinner?”
  • Me: “Tonight? No, I never specifically said that — I invited you over for a dinner.”
  • You: “Well, you asked me if I wanted to come over for your house for dinner. I said sure. You said, ‘Come over at 6:30.’”
  • Me: “Exactly. But I never said we were eating dinner tonight!”
  • You: “You said you were making lamb chops. You e-mailed me that you couldn’t wait for me to taste your lamb chops.”
  • Me: “I know, I know … I meant down the road though!”

I don’t apologize. We shake hands. You drive away. You’re kind of in shock. And as you’re looking for a McDonald’s or a Carl’s Jr., hungry, light-headed, and pissed off, part of you wants to drive back to my house and punch me in the face.

That’s how everyone who stuck with The Killing for 13 meandering episodes felt last night. There were two reasons we didn’t bail: because we wanted to find out who killed Rosie Larsen, and because the season was promoted (at least implicitly) as having a beginning, middle, and end. Only that turned out not to be true — the final episode ended with a plot twist and two “cliffhangers” — and now the showrunner (I can’t remember her name; let’s just call her Judas) is claiming in interviews that they never definitely said this storyline was ending within the course of one season.

Oh, really? You never said that? Let’s see, Judas …

1. You remade a Danish show, also named The Killing, which featured the same premise (a girl gets killed, the detectives try to solve the murder) and many of the same characters, and wrapped up the case in one season.

2. Your show wasn’t picked up for a second season until two weeks ago, and when it was, everyone made a big deal about it. Like, “I wonder who’s getting killed in Season 2! Can they keep this show going? Would it be a new location? New detectives?” You never contradicted them or said, “Hey, wait, nobody ever said this story arc was ending in Season 1!” In fact, you never said that — not ever, not at any point.

3. You allowed everyone to assume Season 1′s story arc was ending in Episode 13 to the point that (a) online betting sites were taking “Who killed Rose Larsen?” action last week, and (b) Cousin Sal and I nearly wagered on Gwen.1

4. Any decent television critic who wrote about the show, invariably, mentioned that at the very least, we’d be wrapping up this storyline within one season. Again, YOU NEVER CORRECTED THEM.

Really, this was the first TV show to pull a pro wrestling-like betrayal on its fans. (When the last episode ended, we were only missing former WWE announcer Jim Ross screaming: “Noooooooooooo! NOOOOOOOOOOOO! WHY? WHY?”) You can’t even calculate the amount of time we wasted watching/talking/dissecting a show that, fundamentally, sucked to watch. Every episode covered a day in Rosie’s murder investigation (thirteen in all). By about Episode 7, everyone watching it was in “this show royally sucks, I screwed up, I shouldn’t have gotten sucked in — but at least we’re going to find out who killed Rosie” mode. It was like being stuck in an amusement-park line for what you thought would be 45 minutes, only it turned out to be 90. Halfway through, you can’t bail. You just can’t. You just have to hope the ride is worth it.

This ride was not worth it. To say the least.

Even the line for it sucked. Forty-three percent of the show consisted of gorgeous helicopter shots of Seattle, as if Judas watched the cool helicopter shots in The Town and thought, “I wonder if I could milk a whole TV season out of an aimless murder investigation and nifty helicopter shots?”2 The weather was another crucial character: Every one of the 13 days was exceedingly gloomy, as if the show was being filmed in Alaska, only we knew it wasn’t being filmed in Alaska because, again, 43 percent of the show consisted of helicopter shots of Seattle. (“Hey look, it’s the Needle again!”) The other ingenious move: Every episode ended the same way, with pulsating music and wrapping-it-up shots of four different characters (and then one last tiny cliffhanger shot), so that when you heard the pulsating music, it was almost like crunch-time of a basketball game.

Here we go! Stuff’s wrapping up!

But not really, because again, nothing ever happened. Our heroine was a redheaded detective named Sarah Linden, a poorly written character who didn’t wear makeup, kept her hair in a sexless ponytail, and wore the heaviest sweaters anyone has ever worn on television. Halfway through the season, she chased a suspect through a farmer’s market and we suddenly realized why she wore those heavy sweaters: because the actress (Mireille Enos) is, um, amply endowed, so they covered her assets up so we never got distracted. I know this because, during the chase scene, her breasts nearly beheaded someone who was selling corn.3 By the way, this was the single most exciting Killing moment for about four weeks.

In the first episode, Linden was leaving Seattle to marry a guy who was seedy enough that my buddy Jacoby believed he was the killer. You know what? This was the single best “Who did it?” theory I heard for three months, and here’s why: They wasted dozens of scenes with Linden either talking to this loser, talking about marrying this loser, cancelling plans to leave Seattle for this loser, or telling her son that he needed to know this loser better.4 There had to be an answer beyond, “Judas the Showrunner is trying to turn four episodes of material into 13 episodes, so she’s just going to waste our time with these scenes with no payoff whatsoever.” Nope. She postponed the move because Rosie’s murder haunted her right away, so she needed resolution or something. When they ran out of ways to bore us with the seedy fiancée’s making her feel guilty about not moving, they dragged her degenerate ex-husband into the mix. Could he be a suspect? Nahhhhh. There was no reason for him to be on the show, either. I think they were trying to humanize Linden, which was obviously hard because you can’t humanize a “strong” female character when she’s dressing like a lumberjack.

My favorite character was her detective partner, who my wife and I nicknamed “Jacoby” because he kinda sorta reminded us of a much druggier, darker, shiftier version of my friend Jacoby (mentioned earlier), and also, because we couldn’t remember his name.5 Jacoby was always up to stuff, so you couldn’t rule him out for Rosie’s murder, only every time you started thinking, “I wonder if it’s him,” they’d close the door on it. (HALFHEARTED SPOILER ALERT FROM THIS POINT ON.) You can imagine our surprise when, with four minutes left in the last episode, it turned out that Jacoby had framed mayoral candidate Darren Richmond for Rosie’s murder, and that he was working for a mystery conspirator who we never saw, which was a problem, because, you know, they made us believe the show was ending last night.6

The other good characters were Rosie’s parents, whose marriage slowly dissolved over those 13 days because of their suffocating grief. Here’s the one defensible thing about Season 1: people get senselessly killed all the time in television and movies, but we rarely if ever see the effects of those murders on the people who loved them. Just about any worthy Killing scene involved one of the two parents; in particular, the father (played by Brent Sexton) put up Monta Ellis-type numbers on a lottery team. There’s a great scene in the final show when he runs into the pregnant wife of Rosie’s teacher — someone he had beaten into a coma a few episodes earlier, only she didn’t know it was him, you know, because when someone beats your husband into a coma and gets arrested for it, and it turns out to be the grieving father of the biggest murder case your city has seen in a couple of years, you definitely won’t ever want to know what this person looks like — and as they’re making small talk, she asks him how many kids he has. He hesitates for a second and says, “Three” (still counting Rosie as one of the three), and we can see the pain in his face.

See, that’s the problem with The Killing — it was one of those shows that, once or twice an episode, had a moment like that, which led you to believe they knew what they were doing, and that everything was so painstakingly paced so that there’d be a worthy payoff at the end. The show looked cool (“Hey look, it’s the Needle again!”), and at the very least, it was decently acted and it was definitely going to end after 13 shows. Except it didn’t. Now I’m looking back at those 13 days and wondering why I didn’t realize that it was so massively sloppy and poorly thought out. For instance …

  • If the Larsens loved their daughter so much, why didn’t they know she was working as a prostitute, and why didn’t they care that she came and went as she pleased?7 Why did Stan Larsen spend all of their savings without telling his wife? And why was I supposed to be OK with her ditching her husband and two sons in the final episode? Because she kept a journal from when she was a teenager in which she dreamed of going to all these countries, and Rosie found that journal, which is why Rosie led such a free life (and worked as a prostitute, but whatever), and now that Rosie’s dead, it’s time for her mom to follow her destiny, and wait … what????8
  • What was the point of Linden’s fiancée, kid, ex-husband … I mean, why?
  • What possible motivation did “Jacoby” have to frame Darren Richmond for a murder? After 13 episodes, shouldn’t we have gotten a hint or three?
  • How did Stan’s sister in law (a waitress/escort) have enough money to bail out Stan after he beat someone into a coma? Why didn’t such a boring show have a little more fun with a prostitute ring or Richmond’s love for call girls? Why did the casino episode have to happen?
  • Why did the detectives wait 13 days to check the gas in the campaign car that killed Rosie?
  • Why did Linden show up at Richmond’s apartment in the second-to-last episode (seriously, what was she doing there?), and why did she fearlessly return in the last episode to berate him, by herself, when (a) she thought he was a murderer, and (b) he was a foot taller than her and easily could have just killed her and stuffed her in his closet for a few weeks?
  • Why didn’t they make even a halfhearted attempt to make me like Rosie or care about her?

In the Danish version, the killer turned out to be Belko, the bearded half-wit who worked for Rosie’s father. In the American version, Richmond gets arrested for the murder, makes bail, then leaves the courthouse surrounded by cameras … and Belko pulls a Jack Ruby on him. Or so we think. Because that was one of the two cliffhangers; we never saw Belko shoot him. So you have to watch Season 2 to find out what happened. You know, the season that we didn’t think existed.

I will leave you with four thoughts. First, Sunday night shows have a built-in competitive advantage because the best HBO shows (Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, etc.) got us into the groove of watching the best possible television every Sunday night, then AMC kept the momentum going with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and somewhere along the line, that became our Smart Television Night and it doesn’t really matter what’s on anymore, as long as it feels like a good show. We never cared if Walking Dead or The Killing were great, just that they were good enough to keep us interested on Sunday nights, because that’s the night we like to watch well-acted shows with well-developed characters that creep along from week to week and keep us guessing. So really, we’re to blame for letting The Killing happen — we always knew it sucked, but we didn’t care. We allowed this catastrophe to happen.

Second, The Killing is destined to become the first example anyone brings up when the subject is, “What show did something that made its fans hate it the most?” It’s not like other shows haven’t antagonized their fans before: The Sopranos cutting to black on its final episode, Seinfeld and his buddies getting arrested, and Dallas executing a retroactive “everything you just watched never happened” season-long dream sequence are the three most famous examples. But has a TV show ever willfully misled its viewers like this, to the point that it made you hate yourself for ever watching the show? No. Never. We made history here.

Third, I always judge television shows by the dueling metrics, “If I could travel back in time and tell myself to either watch or NOT watch this show, what would I say?” and “If I could have done the MJ’s Final Shot in 1998 with a TV show and gotten out at the perfect time, then never watched another episode, when would that time be?” A good example: Lost. I would absolutely watch that show again, only I would tell myself to stop watching right before the final season started. Or Seinfeld. I’d keep watching right until George’s fiancée dies from licking the envelopes, then I’d be done.

With The Killing? I would beg March 2011 Me to not watch a single second of the show. So there’s that.9

Fourth and most important, I can’t remember a single show damaging a network’s brand this severely, to the point that AMC either needs to apologize, offer the entire Breaking Bad series on DVD for 85 percent off, or even publicly distance itself from the show the same way a sports team distances itself from a star player who does something horrible. That’s how bad this was. AMC had won our trust over the past few years; because of that trust, we endured The Killing because we trusted AMC enough that we assumed they wouldn’t screw us. It’s unfathomable that none of the people running such a seemingly intelligent network said, “We better leak to Tim Goodman or Alan Sepinwall that they’re not wrapping things up in one season, we don’t want people to be pissed off.” Nope. The ratings mattered more than the viewers.

And yeah, that’s happened before in television … but not like this. The Killing turned out to be aptly named: AMC just killed any “most creative network” momentum it had. People will not forget what happened. I know I won’t. And in case you were wondering, hell will freeze over before I watch Season 2.

Bill Simmons is the Editor in Chief of Grantland and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball, now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. Follow him on Twitter and check out his new home on Facebook.

Filed Under: Bill Simmons, People, Simmons, The Killing, TV

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Bill Simmons is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland.

Archive @ BillSimmons