The Killing Season 1: TV Murder Dramas Feed on the Human Obsession with Death

I’ve just finished watching the first season of AMC’s The Killing (a murder drama … if you couldn’t tell by the name) and I’ve gotta say: Humans sure like them some death, don’t they? We like to watch it, hear about it, imagine it, get close to it; we like it so much that we even invented sports where you hurl yourself from the highest altitude that a plane can reach without exploding, just to see how close we can get to it without actually dying; we spend our vacations waiting two hours in line to get on a ride that forces the lizard part of our brains to think we’re actually going to die. We’re a bunch of death morons: like teenagers who laugh uncontrollably after almost getting their fingers blown off by a defective M-80, or a spider monkey pulling a tiger’s tail just to piss it off and running away afterward (it happened, look for it on YouTube, it’s hilarious).

Maybe it’s because it’s so far away (or, should I say, far out, dude). We can’t really fathom what death is like unless we could actually ask someone on the other side about it. I called a guy once who put up an ad on TV saying he could do it and I ended up stuck with a $3,000 phone bill.

We, as curious beings, are attracted to the elusiveness of death. We can’t get our humble heads around the fact that some things are just beyond our mighty grasp, so we try to dissect it as best we can, even if that’s like dissecting pudding with a baseball bat.

One thing we don’t like about death, though, is when it goes unexplained. A guy dies, and we can’t just leave well enough alone, no, we have to know how it happened, why it happened, and, if applicable, who done it. From that necessity was born the “whodunit”, or the murder mystery, a genre of fiction entirely dedicated to the pleasure one has in figuring out what led a person to stop moving all of a sudden.

The fact that this genre is a creation of the 20th century is telling. After all, now that we live much longer than our ancestors, we can afford to wonder about death because it’s not knocking on our door at all times. I would wager that in the Dark Ages, people weren’t the slightest bit interested in death.At a time when you couldn’t so much as tap a guy’s shoulder without risking severing his arm, and people could just up and croak in the middle of a conversation, death wasn’t that much of a novelty. It was annoying.

Now, though, we have that same fascination with it that rich people harbor for third-world country bus tours. The best-selling entertainment is the one that holds the promise that at least one character you care about will be at risk of losing his life, and, frankly, I can dig that. If drama is conflict, and conflict is the stakes, it doesn’t go much higher than “losing your ability to suck air from the atmosphere”.

But, if someone does get killed, and the circumstances surrounding the killing aren’t immediately obvious, we still don’t want to be flat out told what happened. We don’t want to watch a detective go “who done it” and a guy step out of the crowd and say “I done it”. That’s boring. There has to be some snaking path to the truth.

There are a lot of works of fiction that deliver on that front beautifully, but The Killing is not one of them. This is a shame because there’s really good drama in the program, but it gets crushed under the necessity to stretch the story across one entire season, and thus resorts to the cheapest padding tricks, such as withholding character information, pointless subplots, and a ton of implausible, frustrating red herrings. It’s deliberately deceptive, and it’s all done for the sake of plot, not for the sake of story. The difference being that plot is the stuff that happens, whereas story is why it happens.

And that’s the problem with today’s standard TV formats. You have to build an interesting web of clues that lead to the discovery of who done it, how done it, and why done it, but you also have to conform to rigid time constraints – 40 minute episodes, 12 episode season, etc. So, if you’re not like James Ellroy, who can weave an intricate fabric of plausible, mind-blowing conspiracies and events leading to a killer’s identity, then you have to pad it out however you can, and the result may be a mess.

The Killing is much more Ed McBain than James Ellroy, so it would be better suited for a six-episode miniseries, or perhaps even an 120-minute movie, to get its point across in a straightforward manner, and dispense with all the BS.

Sure, we like death, and we like finding out what leads to death, but we don’t like to be deceived.