Since the debut of “Mad Men,”(*) AMC’s appearances at press tour have been unequivocal lovefests. Even when the channel has put on a show that hasn’t quite worked creatively (“The Prisoner” remake) or failed commercially (“Rubicon”), there’s been a sense that at least AMC was trying, and the twin debuts of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” earned them a lot of rope.
(*) Production on season 5 begins on August 8, and Jon Hamm is directing the season premiere. We still don’t have a more specific premiere date beyond early 2012.
Thursday morning at the summer 2011 tour, however, featured not one but two thorny subjects to discuss, and the first really obvious tension between the critics and AMC in this era.
In one corner, you had the still puzzling news that Frank Darabont had abruptly left his position as showrunner of AMC’s biggest hit, “The Walking Dead.”
In another, you had all of the viewer and critical discontent over season one of “The Killing” – not just the cliffhanger ending, but many of the creative decisions leading up to that ending.
On “The Walking Dead,” AMC’s senior vice president of original programming Joel Stillerman couldn’t say much, other than to officially confirm what we all knew: that Darabont was no longer the man in charge and that “The Shield” alum Glen Mazzara (who wrote the first season’s second-best episode) would be taking over.
He praised Darabont’s work, saying, “His fingerprints are all over the adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s source material.” But he couldn’t clarify exactly why Darabont is out of the top job – I don’t have much to add to the circumstances of it,” he said – what (if anything) his role might be going forward, why the timing was so strange (days earlier, Darabont had been an enthusiastic part of the show’s panel at Comic-Con), or any of the rest of it.
Stillerman had more time and space to discuss the controversy over “The Killing,” and he admitted that, “If we had to do something differently, we would have taken a different approach with respect to managing expectations with what was going to happen in the season.
“It was never intentionally meant to mislead people” about when the killer’s identity would be revealed, he insisted, then said, “Our goal was to create a brilliant – if I can be so humble – piece of character-based storytelling, mixed with a genre we all love, the murder mystery, and try to do something different. We definitely didn’t manage expectations the way they should have been managed. (Showrunner) Veena Sud has an incredible vision for that show.”
And here’s where Stillerman and I diverged. I agree that if the plan all along was to not reveal the killer’s identity in the first season, they should have done a better job preparing viewers for that possibility. But the problems of “The Killing” went far, far deeper than the (non)ending. Having seen the show, having interviewed Sud and read other interviews she’s done, I don’t remotely have the confidence Stillerman does in her.
The cliffhanger finale wasn’t the main reason why people were angry about “The Killing.” It was, rather, the straw that broke the camel’s back. The show had run aground creatively, had utterly failed at presenting the kind of deep characterization that Sud, Stillerman and others have talked about, had become such a drag that many of us began to look at the killer’s identity as a very small consolation prize. We’d sat through hour after hour of people staring off into the middle distance, through a pointless and silly political storyline that ate up far too much screen time, through so many red herrings and plot reversals that we’d been taught not to believe anything the show told us… but at least if we stuck it out through the final episode, we’d find out who killed Rosie.
And, unfortunately, we didn’t get that either.
I asked Stillerman whether the negative feedback he’d received was soley focused on the finale, or if they had a sense that viewers had grown dissatisfied well before that.
“I think we’re incredibly proud of the show as a whole, and the storytelling that was involved in it,” he said. “And I think the feedback was largely positive. We always hear feedback of all times… Obviously, it built to a bit of a crescendo at the end, and I think that was about managing expectations. I think that would have been a different scenario if people had been expecting something else.”
They renewed the show, and they kept Sud on as showrunner. Stillerman can’t exactly start slamming her in the media. I get that. But for the sake of people who are going to continue watching “The Killing” in season 2, I hope that the conversations that AMC and the creative team are having are much more frank.(**) Ordinarily, I’m a believer in letting the showrunner present his or her vision, as unfiltered as possible. And that’s been AMC’s approach with all of its shows so far: step out of the way and trust the creator.
(**) UPDATE: When I talked to Stillerman briefly after the press conference, we discussed the idea of when he feels the need to tell a showrunner, “Okay, we’ve left you alone, and now we have to talk.” He said it’s on a case-by-case basis, and when I asked if he had reached that point with Sud, he said “absolutely not.”
But Matt Weiner and Vince Gilligan turned out to be deserving of that trust. Sud didn’t, well before Detective Linden took the phone call on the plane to Sonoma.
“We didn’t have a bail-out plan,” Stillerman said when asked whether the finale would have been changed had they chosen not to renew the series. “We committed to that story fully, I think is the best way to say it. I’m happy to work at a place that allows us to take some risks.”
Risks are great when they pay off. But when they blow up on you…