In the convenient binary of television fandom, network suits are always the enemy, the menacing smoke monsters looking to undermine and destroy the hopeful survivors who have managed to wash up on the broadcast shore. (In this analogy, critics are the polar bears: good at hanging around the action, bad at staying involved in it.) But the reality — reality reality, not Reality reality — is more complicated. Putting a series into production is an enormous expense: Contracts are signed, scripts are written, sets are built, attachments are made. Like all businessmen, those in the executive suites want to wring whatever return is possible out of such large investments. That’s why, unlike in film (where bombs detonate completely upon arrival), all but the most disastrous shows are given multiple opportunities to succeed, be it via rescheduling, recasting or, a personal favorite, “reimagining.”
For that reason, it wasn’t a surprise when The Killing — AMC’s ill-advised venture into precipitation porn — was granted a second chance last summer. Though the first season had ended in a gunshot blast of viewer frustration and storytelling incompetence, the network held out hope that showrunner Veena Sud could somehow get her soggy series seaworthy in Year 2. After all, having a known quantity on the air — even one averaging fewer (and older!) viewers than an episode of Masterpiece Mystery — can often be better for the bottom line than investing untold (and un-recoupable) millions in development. For network presidents, most of whom have the word “embattled” embossed on their business cards from day one, actively managing a failure looks a lot better than admitting one. That’s why when The Killing’s sophomore run came to a close earlier in the summer with a dash of resolution, but the same infuriating lack of both rhyme and reason, AMC boss Charlie Collier took more than a month to decide its fate. In mid-July he grudgingly announced his intention to stuff the show in a borrowed Town Car and shove the whole thing into a lake. Ultimately, Collier decided something most of the audience had realized weeks before: Some mysteries are best left buried.
But just as it is on another problematic AMC program, sometimes the dead don’t stay that way. News broke yesterday that The Killing may be granted another chance at life, with both Netflix and DirecTV sniffing around the still-warm corpse. As insane as it may sound to those of us who have had our fill of the grief-wracked Larsens and the Batman-voiced Richmond, the reports aren’t entirely surprising. An established show like The Killing is attractive to up-and-coming content farms like Netflix and DirecTV for precisely the same Rumsfeldian reasons it was nearly rescued yet again by Collier: It’s a known known. As with recent rescue jobs Friday Night Lights, Damages and — beginning next spring — Arrested Development, adding an existing show not only guarantees a set (if small) fan base, it also saves considerable time and development dollars for outlets that don’t yet have much experience creating their own hits. As for The Killing’s studio, 20th Century Fox, well, they seem to have managed the situation perfectly. With so many players hoping to get into the lucrative — and brand-building — scripted game, it’s a seller’s market. Even when you’re peddling damaged goods like The Killing.
The bigger question, of course, is just what it is the winner of this budding bidding war will end up buying. On the plus side, the Rosie Larsen case is finally sleeping with the fishes (like Rosie herself), meaning a potential third season would be free to focus on the only thing anybody liked about the show in the first place: the bad cop/worse cop dynamic between Mireille Enos’s Linden and Joel Kinnaman’s Holder. (Kinnaman’s controllable contract is almost definitely also a key component of the negotiations. The Swedish actor isn’t only the best thing about The Killing, he’s also the closest it has to a breakout star: He’ll be toplining the reboot of RoboCop right around the time new episodes of The Killing would likely debut.) But showrunner Sud showed neither ability nor inclination to deviate from her preferred snoozy pace, and the central problem with The Killing wasn’t that it didn’t deliver on its opening question, it’s that it didn’t deliver anything at all. Should a deal go through, either Netflix or DirecTV will be sure to institute a friendlier budget (cutting back on rain machines would help) and crow about how, in their multiplatform business model, a steady audience is extra valuable, no matter how niche. But The Killing’s older niche happens not to include very many of the demographically desirable viewers coveted by advertisers; the two-thirds of their audience above 50 just might have trouble adjusting to Netflix’s nontraditional broadcast strategy. (The service prefers debuting all new episodes of its original programming at once, not in the more familiar weekly installments.) Should The Killing be resurrected, the biggest mystery might not revolve around a new murder victim, but rather discovering if anyone truly finds leftover red herring palatable.