What Does A TV Show Owe Its Audience?
Do television shows owe their audience anything beyond entertainment? The backlash to the season finale of AMC’s The Killing has me wondering.
For those who missed either the show last weekend, or the online upset that followed, the final episode failed to answer the question that had been the basis of the show since the very beginning: Who killed Rosie Larsen? Instead, it turns out that that mystery will remain unanswered until midway through the show’s second season — a risk on the part of those making the show, considering the final episode was completed before the series had been renewed — leading a lot of people to complain that the show had failed to deliver the one thing that they’d been waiting for all year, and in the process, somehow cheated them by not saying upfront that they wouldn’t get an answer immediately.
The Killing showrunner Veena Sud seems to be enjoying the notoriety, saying that “the fact that people love us or hate us is a beautiful thing. I don’t want to be kinda liked. The fact that someone loves my show or hates my show is great,” but I can’t help but wonder whether AMC will feel the same way if those complaining really follow through on their threats and abandon the show when it returns next year. After all, there’s good passionate about a show and bad passionate about a show, and disappearing audiences? That’s definitely not the former.
Thing is, I wonder if the upset is slightly misplaced. I can’t help but feel as if the problem isn’t that audiences didn’t discover the identity of Rosie’s murderer in the final episode, but that they didn’t enjoy the way that they didn’t find out. After all, the penultimate episode had ended with what turned out to be the biggest red herring of the season, a “gotcha” that promised something very different than what was actually delivered in the finale. Could it be that people are actually upset about just not enjoying what they saw that much?
I don’t think that The Killing necessarily promised to reveal Rosie’s murderer within the show’s first season; certainly, it was a logical idea t0 gravitate toward, but I’m not sure that — once the show was renewed for a second season, everyone just naturally assumed that it would follow a second murder (if people did so, it was probably because the show’s inspiration, the Dutch series Fordrydelsen, followed that rhythm). That we didn’t find out who killed Rosie before the season finale? It’s not really the end of the world — but in order to make that really work for the viewers who’d invested their time in the series to date, there should have been some level of revelation or payoff toward the ultimate discovery make the entire thing feel less like the reveal had been punted for no immediately apparent reason — something to make them feel as if it had been “worth” the time they’d spent watching.
Ultimately, entertainment isn’t enough for things like The Killing, you see; audiences need not only to be entertained by shows like this — that’s the main thing, that should come first always — but also feel as if there is some value in their paying attention. I feel torn about this, to be honest, because it feels … greedy, perhaps? But it’s also respectful, if that’s the right way to put it: It’s a sign that the program makers are aware of the choices viewers have made to watch the show, and rewarding them for them (Also, I know that I can be a very entitled viewer at times). And that’s where The Killing‘s season finale made its real mistake: It’s fine to dodge the ultimate reveal for a few more episodes, but in doing so, the show had to offer up something of almost equal value instead, and what everyone saw on Sunday just … didn’t. It was another episode of the show, in scale, scope and plot twists, no greater (and arguably lesser) than other episodes so far. It failed to respect the audience, and in doing so, it accidentally risked losing that audience.
Is all lost? No, not really; the show’s second season could – and, really, should – open with something that makes the final episode more worthwhile in context, and build to something that really pays off the long wait for the identity of the murderer, and sooner rather than later. And, while Veena Sud is working out just how to do all that, it might be a good idea to think about why it’s really not that great a thing to have people hating your show …