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In Defence of AMC’s The Killing

I’m here to defend The Killing and the way it ended.

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Disappointment at a television series’ mismanagement is nothing new, this year I’ve invested my time to several that in a palpable existence would have lasted longer than their actual life spans. I was never a fan of any Stargate series until Universe and was bitterly disappointed that for once, a bunch of people jumping through giant stone hoops was both thrilling and engaging- only for it to get axed after it really got going (2 seasons worth). Then there was FOX’s ham fisted treatment of Shawn Ryan’s The Chicago Code (cancelled after 13 episodes), while restrained due to it being on FOX instead of FX, was easily the best procedural police drama on TV this year.

So now we come to AMC’s The Killing, whose season finale (or as we all thought, the series finale) came to its rather unfruitful conclusion this past Sunday. One of its most vocal critics, ESPN/Grantland’s Bill Simmons, has written a lengthy piece about its “hackery”, its broken promises and unserved dinners. He’s not wrong; I too was rather dumbfounded by the way it unraveled. After so much promise and poise through the season, we neared a much-needed resolve to the murder of Rosie Larsen, but all we got was trickery and overplayed season-ending cliff hangers (the creators of Dallas will forever be blamed) that bordered on justifiably throwing your remote through the television.

Bordered on, but not quite. As frustrating as it was, I’m here to defend The Killing and the way it ended, not so much the contents of the ending itself, but that the potential for the show and all the good things AMC did with it, warrants a second chance.

For those uninitiated, The Killing is AMC’s adaptation of the Danish series Forbrydelsen, a crime drama that took an entire season (20 episodes) to solve its one case. Much of the plot is kept the same; a young girl is murdered to the backdrop of a hotly contested Mayoral race as audiences get a harrowing look at the emotional and physical turmoil the events cause to the family of the victim, the suspects, and the law enforcement officers meant to solve the case.

– SPOILERS AHEAD –

It is a slow moving drama, punctuated by shady characters, ambiguous morals, and some heartbreaking pain- like a good BBC slog through the rainy streets and woodlands of Seattle. We are peppered all through the season with suspects- ranging from obvious to more obscure. I had money on candidate Darren Richmond, his sniveling campaign adviser (both of them), the teacher Bennet Ahmed, a potential terrorist that Ahmed was involved with, Belko and even detective (Sarah) Linden’s fiance who spent all his time trying to get her to move down the coast. All were potential killers- at least that’s the way the plot unfolded- often giving you hints that this particular character had an uncovered layer that led you to believe he or she was capable of such a crime.

By the penultimate episode, we are dropped the bombshell that the killer is evidently future Seattle mayor Darren Richmond. And we expected the final episode to see him finally put to rest as this long winding road finally came to a halt. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As Simmons points out in this piece, the series was recently picked up for a second season, and with this in mind, the brain trust at AMC must have decided to hell with the viewers, let’s stretch this thing out beyond what we initially planned for reasons that most definitely have nothing to do with the artistic integrity of the original series. So came the plot twists and new facts conveniently seeing the light of day as time expires derailing the show’s last hour. It’s like if a band were to re-record Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run and leave off “Jungleland”, or if they remade it as a, God forbid, dance/electronic number. They’ve done everything well up to this point, how could they possibly conduct the conclusion with the panache of a DJ horrendously remixing a really great song? Everything had been done the way terrific European television would for the majority of the series, but the show’s American producers decided to end it the way a trust fund kid would torpedo his/her father’s Fortune 500 Company. Sometimes you just have to end your journey the same way you began it. The Killing did not, and they’re getting their just criticism for it.

– END OF SPOILERS –

However, to write off the show and what it did up to the last episode would be unfair (mostly to people like myself who refuse to end it on a note like this) because of all the good they did do. So what’s left? A chance for television redemption. What if AMC took a cue from short run English dramas like Luther and structured the proposed second season as no more than 4-6 episodes? What if they wrap it up and give audiences the ending they hoped for within this short run, a riveting, gritty but concise ending? It’ll prove that AMC still care about the integrity of quality television and aren’t just another television studio playing the ratings game. I think it worked for The Walking Dead, why wouldn’t it work for The Killing Redux? Let’s not drag this case out longer than a few more episodes. Please.

So don’t write off The Killing just yet, and don’t write off AMC. The show is still leaps and bounds better than what any CSI or Criminal Minds can offer. And after watching the first episode of Game Of Thrones, I can stay that at least The Killing is not so uncomfortably ostentatious (medieval breasts are immediately nullified by gratuitous incest). AMC and the show runners made a mistake, but one they can fix if they get what happens next right.

Television

Another Case of Willed Amnesia: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue

Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work

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At a concert in New Haven on the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, someone in the crowd repeatedly shouted “Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan!”, just as the artist was setting up for a reworked version of “Tangled Up in Blue”. Dylan, in character as ever, replied: “No, I don’t think so. I think you’ve got me mistaken for someone else.”

This story appears in Time Out of Mind by the late Ian Bell, Dylan’s greatest biographer. Bell wrote perceptively about that tour, its participants, and what it might have meant, if anything at all. It’s helpful to have a guide, as Dylan wasn’t especially clear on things at the time, and is even less so now. At least at first glance.

What, exactly, was that legendary tour all about? In an early scene in Martin Scorsese’s unmissable Netflix documentary, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, Dylan tells the viewer:

“It’s about nothing. It’s just something that happened forty years ago. And that’s the truth of it . . . I don’t remember a thing about Rolling Thunder. It happened so long ago, I wasn’t even born, you know?”

Here, separated by decades, are two amusing and obviously insincere denials of Dylan’s participation in his own tour. Not since Dylan growled “Must Be Santa” on the Christmas in the Heart album have so many fans been left scratching their heads. What the hell is he up to now?

With perspicacity, Bell described the tour as;

“a kind of erratic developing essay on identity, on disguises, on human contact. The concerts would also be, by turns, pretentious, acute, self-indulgent and enthralling. Rolling Thunder would become a piece of theatre, a radical artistic gesture, a travelling circus, a movable movie set, a gypsy caravan and the realisation, intermittently, of a superstar’s old dream of creative emancipation. That was the general idea, at any rate.”

Scorsese has brilliantly captured and expanded these ambitions. And it’s quite a clever setup. We’re introduced to the central cast: Joan Baez, whom Dylan memorably describes as looking “like she’s just come down from a meteorite”; Allan Ginsberg, the beat poet of piffle, whose empty philosophising hints that maybe the tour wasn’t really about anything serious at all; and the absolutely mesmerising Scarlet Rivera, whose allure and haunting violin steal the viewer’s attention in every scene.

The unknown Rivera, as the story goes, was exiting her building when Dylan saw her with a violin case. He invited her to an all-night rehearsal, and she eventually joined the tour and became famous. Even though it sounds like fiction, or at least imaginatively embellished, that story is actually true. Much of the rest of the film, the real stuff, anyway, is interspersed with some rather inventive bullshit.

Dylan and Scorsese begin to introduce some other characters and talking heads, and their participation should immediately cause the raising of eyebrows, as well as a wry smile.

Stefan van Dorp, a haughty European filmmaker who allegedly contributed to a behind-the-scenes look at the tour, appears frequently to offer insights, claim unrecognised credit, and disparage everyone else. His unused footage is what we’re watching, and he even seems to have been there, in 1975, chatting with Dylan, Patti Smith, and various concert-goers.

He’s an actor, though. They all are, even the real ones. At one point, the older Dylan misnames him as van Dorf. An underage and mischievous Sharon Stone was there, too, apparently, as well as the former Congressman Jack Tanner.

A number of guides have already arrived on the Internet, alerting viewers to what’s true and what’s fake. The giveaway, after all, was always in the title: A Bob Dylan Story. This was never going to be a documentary with a concern for historical veracity.

And nor should we expect it to be, really. A straightforward recounting of events as they happened would somehow seem, well, out of character. Dylan doesn’t do things twice. Bell called this willed amnesia – Dylan’s commitment to a performance in the moment, and then its abandonment. Despite its success, there was never a repeat of Rolling Thunder. Bell noted:

Dylan had no patience whatever for the idea that he might, now and then, retrace his steps. The revue meant a lot to him while it was happening; when it was gone, it was gone.”

The French writer Paul Valéry claimed that an artist never finishes a poem; he merely abandons it. Dylan’s willed amnesia is a kind of rejoinder to that. At the Rolling Thunder concerts, Dylan began to reimagine and rewrite his own songs with new lyrics, melodies, and meanings. Bell observed that Dylan had been toying with this beforehand, but in 1975, it became a permanent feature. In the documentary, we see and hear the country ballad “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You” transformed into a blistering hard rock number. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” receives the same treatment, and a new energy. In “Tangled Up in Blue“, a change of voice, from first person to third, also seems to change everything.

Willed amnesia allows Dylan to reflect, at the finish, on what remains of the tour now:

“Nothing. Not one single thing. Ashes.”

That’s true, in a sense. But it’s also true to say that Rolling Thunder Revue is a masterly addition to both Scorsese’s and Dylan’s steady work. It’s also a reminder, not that we really needed one, that no one, especially in what passes for music in today’s scene, does things like Bob Dylan. Despite his protestations, you certainly couldn’t mistake him for anyone else.

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story is streaming now on Netflix.

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Television

Swamp Thing: The Futility of Saving a Good Thing

DC’s best show, Swamp Thing, creeps to its death with no one to save it

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Swamp Thing, the only good television show DC has produced in decades was abruptly canceled after just one episode. Despite glowing reviews and a small but devoted following, hopes for its survival and saving are unfortunately as futile as the idea of DC making good television and knowing what to do with it. It’s not like I haven’t given DC TV a chance either. But after countless attempts at trying to enjoy Arrow or Supergirl, hoping that one of their myriad of poor crossovers would ignite a desire to watch more, my hopes are all but dead in the swamp after they pulled the plug on the only good property they have. To make matters worse, Swamp Thing is not only great, but it was great right out of the gate- gripping, dark, and intoxicating. A wonderfully violent change to the cartoonish junk that DC is associated with.

When I was a kid, I remember watching the 1990 USA Network series of the same name. I drew to it on the back of my love for the Toxic Avenger and all things mutated humans. Sure, it was kitschy, but what television show from the ’90s wasn’t? Perhaps it was waiting for the right time or the right production, but the long-dormant franchise found new life in 2019. Produced by James Wan (who does horror well, big blockbusters, not so much), Swamp Thing has proven to be the very best of superhero television. Coated in dirty swamp green hues, it is beautifully gritty, and when it dives into the subject material, it does so with the fervor- unafraid of exploring mysticism and the darkness of the human soul. The new series follows the familiar story; scientist Alec Holland is turned into the Swamp Thing after meeting his untimely demise. Over the course of the series, he battles the demons and history of the swamp while trying to understand his new place in the world, flanked by familiar characters like Abby Arcane (the terrific Crystal Reed). The cast of the new series is rounded nicely with a slew of recognized faces – Virginia Madsen, Will Patton, Ian Ziering(!), Jennifer Beals – that adds to the series’ sense of gravitas. And regardless of whether you’re a long time fan of the creation, whether you’ve seen the original 1982 movie or watched the series in the 90s, this current iteration stands leagues above- which makes its cancellation all the more infuriating.

Television that resonates, like the current love for HBO’s Chernobyl, is driven by the desire to understand the deep seeded flaws of humankind and what critics have called; “a creeping dread that never dissipates“. It’s true to the latter that as you traverse the murky episodes of Swamp Thing, the crawl of inescapable horror and impending doom is ever looming. Like the swamps in which it festers in, the series slowly wraps its vines around your feet, character by character, mystery by mystery, and before you can scream for help its dragged you helplessly into the bayou.

It’s gutting to know that these 10 episodes are all we’re going to get, made more painful by the fact that this count was already cut down from the original 13-episode run. The show’s cancellation has been attributed to money of course. Early speculation pointed to errors in accounting, but in truth, most have said that the rising cost of production and the uncertainty of the DC Universe platform itself ultimately led to the show’s demise. The difficulty of an expensive, well-produced show is perhaps, far too great of a risk for a fledgling streaming service. One whose intellectual property is already average at best, hampered by the disastrous cinematic run of their most noted ones. Their TV often leaves me wondering how on Earth they have run for so long. My attempt at watching Legends of Tomorrow was spent laughing at the pilot’s campy cartoonishness. It was so bad that the idea of watching this series would be weekly self-flagellation. I wish The Flash was good (I enjoyed the 1990s series), Supergirl could be good if it wasn’t so afraid of offending anyone, and every time I think maybe Arrow could salvage the DC’s television property I’m reminded how terrible it is (if you google “Arrow is a terrible show” you will know my opinion is not a solitary one).

Abby Arcane
Crystal Reed stars as Abby Arcane

I’m not alone in wanting Swamp Thing to live. Fans were outraged by the immediate cancelation, and cast and crew of the show couldn’t believe it either. Unfortunately, we live in a world where network execs and bean counters are, as expected, more concerned about the tightening bottom line and the immense amount of content already out there. Why invest so much money into a quality niche product when you trot out B-grade characters in dopey costumes for 7+ seasons on the cheap? Sure, there’s a petition out there to #SaveSwampThing, and while I’m happy to sign it, a big part of me knows that it is just not feasible to save such an expensive and complicated undertaking. There’s just a sense of futility to it all, that while you can see a network saving average, cheaper fare like Brooklyn Nine-Nine or even Lucifer (why?), the thought of saving something as big as this is just unlikely. Is there hope for another network or service to pick it up? I don’t even think spend-happy Netflix are willing to put money behind a quality product when its easier to make crap Adam Sandler movies and incredibly generic racial pandering tripe. It’s too late for Swamp Thing. The swamp has literally been drained. And that’s a damn shame.

Good television lives in the darkness. It lives in the darkness of humanity and the darkness of our imaginations. Pick any great television property and you find will find it; Stranger Things, Westworld, The Wire, Breaking Bad. And for the first time, DC has found their darkness but clearly, have no idea. To make matters worse, we will probably get 5+ seasons of that horrendous looking Batwoman show.

Perhaps in a perfect world Swamp Thing would have been produced by a competent network. Perhaps in a perfect world, comic book television would be given the chance to flourish next to noted television that becomes regular discourse in our socialverse. Unfortunately, we won’t be finding out anytime soon. Netflix’s Marvel series’ limped to their end, and now DC, with the golden opportunity to become the torch bearer of great superhero television has once again shown why they are DC.

Fans of mystery and horror will find so much to love in Swamp Thing. It is a series that isn’t afraid to dive deep into the murk, bound by great writing and distinct and memorable visuals. It’s infuriating as you watch each episode knowing it creeps slowly to its end. From the house of secrets the Swamp Thing was born, and now in a shroud of uncertainty and unanswered questions, it dies again.

Swamp Thing airs on the DC Universe streaming service.

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