Friday, April 15, 2011

[The Return of] Idiot Boksen - The Latest Salvos from HBO and AMC

Posted By on Fri, Apr 15, 2011 at 5:00 PM

A few years ago, AMC decided to follow HBO's format, aspiring to become the best place on cable television for critically-acclaimed hour-long dramas. Mad Men was a perfect first foray. It was stylish and sophisticated, yet broad enough to appeal to culture at large. Mad Men is, in effect, AMC's version of The Sopranos: a flagship show with enough innate cool to gloss over the rare imperfection.

Breaking Bad, AMC's second foray took the network to new heights. It would be easy to write Mad Men off as a fluke, but Breaking Bad has quickly become the best drama on television over its first three seasons, particularly after a Season 3 so taut it should be a case study for every aspiring screenwriter in Hollywood. Breaking Bad could be held up as AMC's version of The Wire: critically-adored with limited viewership likely due to its subject matter (the illicit drug trade) and less-than exotic setting (Albuquerque, New Mexico). It was only two shows, but AMC seemed like it had the golden touch. Additionally, with uneven shows like Hung and the sensationalistic True Blood, HBO seemed to be fading, and AMC was ready to step in as the new critic's champion.

Since then, it's been rocky. HBO has reestablished some reputation with Boardwalk Empire and has a number of interesting shows in the works. AMC, meanwhile, has suffered losses. The first was Rubicon, which began as a conspiracy thriller before showrunner Harry Bromell wrested control from creator Jason Horwitch. Bromell felt the show should be more character-driven, a workplace drama set in a private intelligence analysis firm. The problem was, only a couple of Rubicon's characters were at all interesting and likable. The show was quickly canceled. AMC's next effort seemed automatic. After a promising and beautifully shot debut directed by Frank Darabont, The Walking Dead looked like it would be an overwhelming success. Then the show seemed to regress into overwrought and unrealistic drama, and infighting took over behind the scenes. Eventually, Darabont fired his entire writing staff. It remains to be seen whether the show's many, many flaws will be fixed in Season Two. With the struggles the network has faced (along with a much publicized contract negotiation with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner), it's no surprise AMC is exploring the cheaper, less risky world of reality television.

Before that happens, though, AMC still has a few rounds in the chamber. The network's fifth original series is The Killing, a murder mystery set in Seattle, Washington.

And, boy, is it set in Seattle. Nearly every scene not featuring torrential rain, misty drizzle or sweeping windshield wipers seems to be an aerial shot of Lake Washington, Puget Sound, or the Space Needle. I'm not complaining. Oregonians like me tend to view the largest city in the Pacific Northwest as a mortal rival, but it's impossible to deny Seattle's place between Mt. Ranier and the Puget Sound is one of the most gorgeous settings in the world. Like Breaking Bad, The Killing has a powerful sense of place. Between the gray and the variety of rain, the show gets almost everything right. I say "almost", because it doesn't feature characters trapped in unbearable traffic for three hours each day.

I'm increasingly of the mindset that shows like The Killing (that is, hour-long dramas airing on networks like AMC, HBO and FX) cannot be fully judged until they've run out their entirety, or at least a few seasons. The best examples of these shows are working toward an endpoint, so that the narrative arc of each episode and season is moving toward the overall narrative arc of the entire series. For instance, Big Love's disastrous fourth season and uneven fifth season are at least partly more understandable now that we know what the show was working toward all along. The point is, any thoughts I have about The Killing now could be completely moot in three years.

So far, it seems The Killing is working within the prototypical crime procedural genre with enough innovations and tricks to make it interesting. There's a moment in the first episode where Detective Sarah Linden (played by Mireille Enos) is sent through an old abandoned grain silo - at least I think it was a grain silo - in search of a body found by a homeless man. The silo is dank and black and ominous, and Linden's flashlight plays over it mysteriously, and the show seemed to be setting the viewer up for a by-the-numbers scare. When Linden stumbles upon a surprise going away party and not a mutilated corpse, it was a nice reminder this should wouldn't be so predictable. The show's strongest point might be the incredibly vivid and moving depiction of the teenage victim's parents. Their mourning is palpable and realistic, the sort of real humanity so far missing from shows like The Walking Dead.

There were problems, though. The second episode seemed over the top in areas, from imagery involving the devil that was as subtle as a frying pan to the side of your head to a street kid with the most immaculately coiffed emo haircut I've ever seen. Whoever had the lead in wardrobe with that kid needs to go back to school. Shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Deadwood didn't make those types of mistakes, which makes them stand out in relief. Overall, though, The Killing has pulled me in and I'll keep watching. As a spectacular bonus, AMC's website has a Suspect Tracker, where you can vote week-by-week for who you think is the killer.


- Game of Thrones, a fantasy series based on the novels of George R. R. Martin, debuts this Sunday at 9 PM on HBO.

- I've heard a rumor that Spike TV's coal-mining reality show Coal is supposed to be really good. I'm not a big fan of all these deadly job reality series, but I'm willing to be proven wrong.

- After a few confusing weeks, all those great NBC comedies (and Modern Family) are back. Though they'll probably stop airing them again in two weeks for some inexplicable reason. Also, The Office is going to have a whole bunch of guest appearances over the rest of the season, including Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Ricky Gervais, Ray Romano and James Spader. This looks real nice on paper, and I think I'll give The Office writing staff the benefit of the doubt, because they've been pretty excellent this season.

- Also, there's The Paul Reiser Show, which is supposed to be a Curb Your Enthusiasm knock-off. There are worse shows to imitate. I don't know what to make of it yet.

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