Tortuous Readings

AMC

The Killing, Episode Seven: “Vengeance”

A while ago, Slate ran a great feature on the new landscape for television criticism online. Its main subject is Alan Sepinwall and his episode-by-episode, writer-as-fan, recap-based reviews. His style became the backbone for The A.V. Club’s “TV Club,” which has made itself into a review factory for television analogous and of equal quality to Pitchfork Media’s music criticism. There are differences in scale and in-house priorities – Sepinwall tends to think more about mechanics, the A.V. Club-ers about themes — but, as the feature nails, the nature of criticism has evolved drastically during the past decade’s golden age of serial television.

Reading The New Yorker‘s review of The Killing is, in this context, infuriating. For all the strength of Franklin’s language, and magnificent phrases like “Stygian dreariness,” she is writing out of her league. Franklin’s piece, like most criticism in her magazine, is unmatched in its observation of fine details. Yet because the ground of television criticism has shifted under her, and the medium has elevated in importance, drive-by wit is no longer sufficient. If The New Yorker wants to continue conveying its criticism through one-off assessments, then they have to be precise, urgent, and in touch with the pulse of the medium. Right now by publishing slight, effortless riffs like this the magazine is failing at being a relevant assessment of the most healthy art form in American culture, and that should be more of a problem.

For all that, Franklin, in her roundabout way, arrives at much the same territory as her better competitors. Alan Sepinwall has basically given up on the show as “not a reinvention of the police procedural formula, but an elongation of it.” Meredith Blake at The A.V. Club is still waiting for the show to “define itself,” and isn’t holding out hope it has an answer. And while Matt Zoller Seitz is more positive, the premise of his Salon article isn’t a defense of its current, ample deficiencies, but a hope for clever plotting in the back stretch.

Curiously, however, while Franklin’s approach is a teeth-grinding waste of the premier space in American letters, I’ve yet to read any truly great commentary on this show from the usual suspects, which is rare for writers well-suited to shows excellent and terrible. And that could be because Franklin’s holistic assessment may be close to the mark in how to handle the show; strengths or weaknesses aside, The Killing just doesn’t lend itself well to episode-by-episode scrutiny. The show piles up bad faith with its viewers through its reliance on reversals in order to provide the outlines of episodic format, and there’s not a clear sense that it has something much different to do or say from week to week. At times, it even has a Franklin-like ignorance of the past decade’s increasing sophistication; post-Wire, this isn’t going to cut it for a political plotline, and post-, well, Law and Order, you can’t expect viewers to buy every new theory as the final answer until we’re near the closing minutes. While Franklin’s flip dismissal of the show’s values is entirely unfair, she’s also not wrong to focus on the unrelenting darkness; the vividly rendered mood of the show is almost all it has left at this point. (With one big exception.) The wheels have come off, and regardless of the strength of its second half, The Killing will succeed in spite of, not because of, the preceding seven installments.

That is, except for our man at the top there. Because The Killing has itself one hell of a wild card in its shifty supporting player, Stephen Holder. One of the few actors to play against the prevailing mood, rather than reinforce it, Joel Kinnaman is running away with the show as a cop who is wildly uncooperative with the expectations of characters and viewers alike. He’s unruffled by it all, he exudes unearned confidence, and, most amusingly, he clearly resents not being the lead of his particular conception of the narrative. It’s quite unclear if the show deserves having a character this good, and it will be up to the endgame to see if the writers had a plan for what to do with their marvelous creation.

Even if they did, The Killing probably won’t wind up being a good dramatic series. I suspect that with its approach, and its inability to be engrossing for either unsophisticated observers or seasoned television diehards, it will never be labeled one. But Kinnaman’s Holder provides some hope. If his performance can keep up its frenetic allure, if the show has had a gripping endgame for him they’re able to deliver, if The Killing can pull off rising somewhere above its overdetermined, underdeveloped, one-key, hulking ordinariness, then it won’t just be a surprise. It’ll be cause for thinking that while Franklin’s particular brand of criticism is inadequate, she may not be the only one not up to this show; it may also be time to move away from taking regular photos and thinking you’re building to the whole image. The central premise of our current standard for television criticism is that you can get an accurate sense of the essence of art before it concludes. Having well earned the weariness of its reviewers, yet with some serious potential lurking, The Killing would be uniquely positioned to upend that assumption. And while it’s unlikely, Holder might well have it in him.

How intriguing a failure The Killing turns out to be will rest with the show’s remaining asset. Whatever the answer, though, “who killed Rosie Larsen?” has stopped being the relevant question.

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