Friday, June 24, 2011

Spoiling the Unspoilable

Elton John recently released an album with Leon Russell titled The Union. The initial track (“If It Wasn’t for Bad”) contains a line in the chorus that reads “If it wasn’t for bad you’d be good.” It’s a great song overall, but that specific verse should be the tagline for The Killing, the new TV drama series on AMC that just wrapped up its first season. The show has garnered  a decent sized following for a Sunday night cable drama, which has in turn allowed for the bubbling vitriol and outrage towards how the season was handled overall, most notably the finale (which pretty much everyone has expressed distaste for in the immediate aftermath). I, too, thought the episode sucked. I also thought it was really smart.

The oddly ironic thing about The Killing’s Season 1 finale (a show based on mystery and cliffhangers from week to week) is that it’s almost impossible to spoil; discussing the episode might spoil things that happen within that specific episode (if, say, you have watched the whole season but have yet to see that particular one), but there is no big reveal that will ruin it for those who were planning on watching in the future (although after the recent fury surrounding the show, I’m not sure why you’d subject yourself to that). What’s also interesting is how the show overall relates to both the Hangover and Hangover Part II, yet for two separate and entirely different reasons.

Without going into extensive detail, The Killing is a police drama that abandons the serialized, week-to-week format of shows like Law & Order, NYPD Blue, or CSI. Instead of each episode featuring the cops trying to solve a different crime or murder, the entire 13-episode season focused on the murder of one teenage girl, with each episode representing a single day in the investigation. In addition to showing the police work, we also got to see how the family of the victim handled the incident, as well as a few other viewpoints that are too irrelevant or inconsequential to waste words on. The idea from the beginning (or at least the audience’s assumed idea) was that this abnormal format would allow for (1) deeper context of the investigation, (2) more in-depth knowledge of our characters, and (3) a big pay-off in which we discover who the murderer was. In the end, I suppose we (as the audience) got the first thing, didn’t really get the second thing, and (here’s the unspoilable spoiler alert) definitely didn’t get the third thing. There was no big pay-off. After a whole season, we still don’t know who the killer is. We have a better understanding of what happened, and we know a few people that are innocent, but we have no guilty party. The result is as clear now as it was during the first commercial break of the premiere. There’s nothing to spoil. We’re still in the dark.

This is the major thing that pissed off viewers, but we’ll get to that later. One of the things I found intriguing was how much the show (and more specifically, the finale) related to the Hangover Part II. Similar to The Killing, the second installment of the Hangover series is relatively unspoilable. Read any review of the film, or ask any one of your friends that has gone to see it, and you invariably hear the same thing, over and over: it was EXACTLY like the first one. It wasn’t as good as the initial film, didn’t have quite as many funny moments, and took place in a different location – but in the end, followed the exact same formula and storyline as the original. Sure, specific plot points or jokes could be spoiled or ruined if you haven’t seen it, but that’s about it. If you’ve seen the first, then you’ve already seen a funnier, more well-crafted and relatable version of the second. You can’t spoil something if you’ve already experienced it. Or, in the case of The Killing, if you haven’t really learned anything more than those that haven’t experienced it at all.

Nevertheless, the sub-par product that the Hangover Part II offers, and the fact that it’s unspoilable, provided no negative consequences for the amount of money the movie earned. This is all due to the original Hangover, which leads to how the first film also relates to the AMC drama, albeit in a backwards sort of way. The Hangover became a shocking success in the cinematic realm, far exceeding the expectations that were set for it (which really weren’t that high to begin with). The movie has made nearly $470 million worldwide, which for a while made it the highest grossing R-rated comedy ever. This mark was recently eclipsed by the Hangover Part II, which has already pulled in close to $490 million worldwide, and has a great chance to pass the $500 million mark soon. But the second film really owes all of its financial success to the critical and mainstream success that the first movie received. Think about it: no one really likes the second installment all that much, and certainly no one favors it to the first. But it’s still made more money, almost entirely because of the respect viewers had for the former.

For example, I knew that I would almost undoubtedly never like the second film nearly as much as its predecessor. Once the reviews started to trickle out, this was basically a lock. And then even after hearing friends and peers tell me how mediocre it was, and how much it completely copied the first, it was clear that I would ultimately be disappointed. And you know what? I still paid money to go see it. After all of that, I still knew how much I enjoyed the original, enjoyed the characters and the storyline and ridiculous plot, and I wanted to spend time in that realm again. I had such a good time the first go-round that I didn’t mind paying for a second trip, despite knowing it wouldn’t be as enjoyable. I guess it’s somewhat similar to why people go to Disney World twice.

Anyways, this all takes us back to The Killing, because in my mind, the creative team for the show has attempted to pull off the same feat that the Hangover achieved. Despite early favorable reviews, the show went south very quickly.  And yet, the ratings remained decent, due heavily to the fact that a lot of viewers were hanging around simply to find out who the killer was. By the time the show started to stumble, the audience had already been hanging on for 5 or 6 episodes. They may have no longer been as invested in the show, but they figured they might as well stick it out and see it through. I certainly felt this way, and I personally know others that did too. Hey, maybe the ending would even prove to be a worthy pay-off. But because all of these people hung around, the ratings remained good, which therefore led to the show being renewed for a second season.

At the time of this announcement, I figured I would just finish the season, find out who the killer was, and then abandon the show and any future episodes. I think the show-runners figured the same thing, which (in my opinion) led to the decision to NOT reveal the killer by the end of season one. No big pay-off. End it with just as much uncertainty as it began with. As a viewer, this totally sucked. It ticked me off. But as I mentioned before, it was also really smart. Now, I’ve already decided I’ll watch the second season, at least until I know who committed the murder. The show’s futility has brought me back, which is really the ultimate goal. Sure, the team behind The Killing would love to be critically successful and popular, but there are plenty of shows in that boat that didn’t last very long. In the end, viewership is what defines success, because that’s what brings in the money.

Very few critics would argue that Two and a Half Men is better than Parks and Recreation, but guess which has more viewers? Ergo, guess which brings in more money? It’s the same reason that the Hangover Part II is viewed as such a success, and really, an even bigger one than the first. It wasn’t as good, but it made more money and had more viewers. And just like the Hangover, The Killing is attempting to retain (and possibly bring in) an audience based solely on the reaction to the initial installment. Although the obvious difference is that the Hangover achieved it’s residual success by being a good movie, while The Killing is attempting to achieve some semblance of triumph (which I believe it can do) by…sucking.

I’m sure there are a lot of people that feel the same as I do, being dragged into a second season due to the shortcomings of the first. There are also a lot of others that are claiming to be done with the show forever, which I have a hard time believing. Those same people have already stuck through half of a crappy season, so what reason is there to think they won’t do the same thing again? They obviously want to know who the killer is, because that’s the only reason they were still hanging on. Something makes me think they’ll be around a little bit longer.

Ultimately, I was terribly unhappy with how The Killing ended its primary season. As a normal human being that likes to enjoy and be entertained by the TV I watch, I’m not at all content with the direction the show has taken. And yet, I can’t help but admire and respect the attempt to keep me as a viewer – the ruthless, patronizing, demeaning, seedy, and wickedly genius attempt.

If it wasn’t for bad, it’d be good.

Thanks for reading

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