Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on the industry. Fool me four freaking times? Shameless.
This Friday night, The Killing’s fourth season will debut on Netflix. How does this even happen? Like LinkedIn and the career of Ryan Reynolds, The Killing is one of those cultural non-phenomenons that somehow manages to slip through the cracks of reason and persist long after its expected expiration date. For those keeping score at home, by the end of 2014, The Killing will have run for three more seasons than My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, two more than Enlightened and Twin Peaks, and one more than Deadwood.1 If you need a minute to recover from that laundry list of appalling injustice, feel free to take it. The Killing isn’t going anywhere.
To quote a great man, I’m not even mad. It’s kind of amazing! Oh, sure, there was a time when this would have infuriated me too. As someone who had waded through every soggy hour of The Killing’s waterlogged freshman season, I felt personally offended when it was renewed for the first time. How could a show so shoddily made, so openly contemptuous of basic human entertainment be given a second chance? (Time to run back that classic quote from showrunner Veena Sud: “There are plenty of shows … [where] the audience can rest assured that at the end they will be happy and they can walk away from their TV satisfied. This is not that show.”) Still, it was hard to blame AMC outright. The network had a history of young shows growing into an audience over time. The Killing was no Breaking Bad, but it was hard to imagine it breaking much worse.
Oh, but it did! Season 2 of The Killing drowned in a morass of false leads, dead ends, and emo-indulgent glop. Not even a red herring could survive in fetid water like that. Sure, Rosie Larsen’s killer was finally revealed, but, after 26 hours of mildewed sweaters and misdirection, my feelings toward her had shifted from mourning to outright envy: The trunk of a Town Car is no way to go, but at least she was spared all the nonsense that happened in the wake of her demise. Ultimately, The Killing was a failed show not because of its laser-like focus on death but because of how it displayed absolutely no ability to illustrate life. AMC seemed to agree. It canceled the show a few weeks after the second season ended.
Then things started to get weird. Under the old, top-down TV model, when baby shows were cut down in their prime by heartless networks, it was the fans who rallied to save them. The uncancellation of Cagney & Lacey in the early ’80s led to a boom time in organized audience protests that lasted well into the new millennium: An outpouring of hot sauce earned Roswell a reprieve in 2000; a mailroom full of peanuts bought Jericho a second season in 2007. And by the time it finally ended its improbable five-year run in 2012, NBC’s Chuck was as much about Subway sandwiches as it was about its titular hero.
These days, however, the business of show salvation is a lot less appetizing. Though The Killing had its share of fans, there was no palpable sense of outrage when Season 2 sank slowly into the lake. The show had told its story; Sud had made her case. (Besides, what were they going to mail en masse? Damp sweaters?) Yet within moments of AMC killing The Killing, the show’s studio, Fox Television Studios,2 made it known that it wasn’t giving up on the patient so easily. The reason, of course, was money. As the American adaptation of a global hit show (the Danish series Forbrydelsen), The Killing was an attractive resale to programmers all over the world. Yet without a domestic partner to help offset the costs, Fox Television Studios couldn’t keep supplying the product.
And so Fox Television Studios did the one thing Veena Sud never quite managed: It got creative. First the studio offered a third season to AMC at a considerably reduced rate. As explained in this 2013 piece by Vulture’s Joe Adalian, networks pay studios what are called license fees for the right to air their shows. In the past, studios would tend to raise these fees precipitously when shows were hits (the example he cites is ER). Now, studios have so many other monetization options — foreign sales, streaming rights, etc. — they’re willing to nickel-and-dime themselves on the front end just to guarantee dollars on the back. In this context, The Killing was little more than a business-driving corpse. Forget about who killed Rosie Larsen. The Killing had become Rosie Larsen.
There are more dusty industry details to sift through, if you’re so inclined. AMC finally relented on the third season once Fox Television Studios brought in Netflix as a co-financier. (It was a sharing model that had been established by NBC and DirecTV for the last two seasons of Friday Night Lights.) But then the bottom fell out on AMC’s drama development department and a solo return trip to the Pacific Northwest suddenly didn’t seem so bad. And, I suppose, it wasn’t so bad. For those able to stick with it,3 the third season of The Killing was more or less the high-water mark for the series, as it took the inevitably icky whodunit and made it personal to lead scowler Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos). The gloom was brightened somewhat by the presence of capable actors like Peter Sarsgaard and Amy Seimetz, not to mention some increased screen time for Joel Kinnaman’s Detective Holder, that strange, behoodied string bean. In a break from the past, the killer’s identity was revealed without too many writerly gymnastics, leaving Linden, at season’s end, covered in blood instead of a poncho. The perpetual anguish on display throughout still struck me as overwrought. But at least this time it was earned.
Which is not something one can say about the fourth season! After being canceled for the second time by AMC last September, The Killing seemed well and truly dead. And then Netflix stepped in. By resurrecting The Killing for a supposedly final run of six episodes, the service has provided the world with a mystery far greater than the series could ever hope to create. Why this show? Why now? With so many worthy series just waiting for a reprieve, why would Netflix choose to save Barabbas?
Don’t expect an answer anytime soon. When it comes to its decision-making, Netflix is as opaque as its once ubiquitous red envelopes. Somewhere, buried in the oceans of data it collects on its users, there must have been something that suggested an enduring interest in miserable drizzle. Or perhaps it’s not even about The Killing at all. As a young, ambitious company, Netflix often looks past the present and toward the future. Its continued support of the drab Derek suggests an interest in being in business with stars like Ricky Gervais, regardless of what that business might be. So it’s possible to consider this resurrection as a pay-it-forward favor to Fox Television Studios that will lead to more favorable treatment between the two in years ahead. (Streaming rights for the studio’s The Americans, for example, are exclusive to Amazon.) Maybe Netflix feels that the first three seasons of The Killing will attract more viewers if it can be billed as a “complete” story. It certainly isn’t because it thinks Kinnaman is a superstar-to-be trapped in a favorable contract: His heavily hyped Robocop reboot came and went quietly in February.
And it definitely isn’t because of artistic merit. What I’ve seen of the fourth season — which picks up moments after the third ended — is highly unpleasant. Freed from the rigors of commercial cable, home to all of those lesser, “satisfying” shows, Sud uses the first of six episodes to cannonball completely into the abyss. The premiere begins with the image of Linden scrubbing herself raw in the shower (she really can’t stay dry, this one). Over the next half-hour, we bear witness to her multiple sobbing jags, an explosive temper tantrum at a pharmacy, and a numb walking tour through Seattle’s latest bloodbath. (“Must have been a pretty girl once,” says a helpful beat cop of a teenager with a gunshot wound to the face.) Sud is still a believer in unadorned emotional horror, but she has nothing particularly insightful to say about it. Only The Killing would take a buoyant performer like Kinnaman — his joke about kale sprinkles on office doughnuts is the premiere’s only human moment — and weigh him down with angst that fits him as well as Holder’s baggy jeans.4 On and on we go: Linden tears at her sheets like a wronged hotel maid; a character’s surprise pregnancy is greeted with the same enthusiasm as a triple homicide. The Killing’s relentless, formless darkness makes the similarly monochromatic The Leftovers look like Adventure Time in comparison.
It is in no way newsworthy to declare that The Killing’ inexplicable survival has more to do with accounting than audience. For proof that television is, first and foremost, a business, one only has to look at the entire recorded history of television. (The earliest shows were spaces between the commercials, not the other way around.) Still, it’s a lesson that has been easy to forget during this unprecedented run of broadcast excellence. With endless outlets and the potential for limitless streaming, content truly is king. But it’s far more important to remember that content is currency. The same market forces that have wrung 44 hours out of The Killing’s limp towel are the ones keeping the far more deserving Community alive, too, long past the point of sanity. No one can argue that these decisions are being made in terms of quality. In fact, it’s best not to think of these shows as traditional TV series at all anymore. Rather, they’re monetizable widgets to be bent and folded into whatever subprime shape makes sense in the current marketplace.
Look, I’m no naïf about the realities of the business; Fox Television Studios is out for profits, not kudos from people like me. But I do think it’s worth taking a harder look at the cynical nature of TV’s suddenly booming second-chance industry and the rapturous way it has been received. (You get a movie! And you get a movie!) Not every story deserves closure; not every rescue ought to be cheered. In other words, ignore The Killing. Pay attention to the companies that are increasingly desperate to make one.