Whether or not you're infuriated by last night's finale of "The Killing," you've got to give the AMC series its due. The cable network has another success on its hands, one strong enough to have earned a second-series order before the first season was even completed.
That's impressive considering "Killing" was a creative risk given the kind of show it is. Let's call it a "slo-cedural" because that's essentially what it is: a slow procedural.
The latter term is given to the popular type of storyline--particularly on CBS--that focuses on an investigation. But while procedurals like "CSI" or "Criminal Minds" wrap up the storyline in the course of one hour, slo-cedurals like "Killing" stretch a single investigation over the course of an entire season of episodes.
Done right, the slo-cedural is like a tantric form of TV, extending an experience that ordinarily finishes rather quickly for maximum, um, pleasure.
But slo-cedurals are not easy for TV networks to maintain, which probably explains why there's been so few of them over the years. The most famous instance may be Steven Bochco's "Murder One," which aired on ABC in 1995. After sticking to just one case its entire first season, "One" eked out a second season by breaking the second season into three different investigations.
There's been more receptivity to slo-cedurals in the U.K., where series like "Five Days" and "Luther" have had critically aclclaimed runs, but both shows got little attention in U.S. runs on HBO and BBC America, respectively.
And then there is "Damages," the FX slo-cedural that ran for three seasons before moving to DirecTV, which will air the upcoming fourth season starting July 11th. Despite considerable critical acclaim in its first year thanks to star Glenn Close, it was the slo-cedural nature of the show that ultimately prompted FX president John Landgraf to cut it loose. At a HRTS luncheon earlier this year, Landgraf explained that the heavily serialized nature of "Damages" made it vulnerable to piracy and DVR usage that made it economically difficult to support.
And therein lies the rub on slo-cedurals. Though the procedural can be TV's most lucrative kind of show because each episode's standalone storyline makes it very syndication-friendly, the slo-cedural has the opposite effect. Without back-end profits through sales to stations or other cable networks, the slo-cedural is a real financial risk.
But a lot can change very quickly in the TV business, and you can bet "Killing" will reap the benefits. The market conditions Landgraf decried just four months ago have already changed, and for that "Killing" has its fellow AMC series "Mad Men" to thank.
Last month, Netflix announced it had bought exclusive rights to "Mad" for an astonishing estimated $1 million per episode. While that number may not seem like much in comparison to the $2 million-plus sums procedurals like "CSI" can fetch in TV syndication, the fact "Mad" sold for anything above pennies spoke to the emergence of a major new buyer for the kind of heavily serialized shows that would once be consigned to the TV-industry remainder bin.
Because Netflix and other digital buyers don't have to worry about scheduling episodes in conventional time slots, the heavily serialized TV shows that are kryptonite to the usual suspects in the syndication business have become newly valuable. While "Killing" may not be anything like "Mad" creatively speaking, that one attribute they share--serialized storylines--will likely mean it too will reap the kind of syndication revenues that will make the slo-cedural less of a financial risk.
Does that mean it will suddenly begin raining new slo-cedurals on TV networks big and small? No, but I'll bet you will see a cable channel or two--and yes, maybe even a broadcaster--experiment with this kind of show because "Killing" proved it could get a lot of attention in the first-run window while still earning a pretty penny on the back-end.
Leave it to a show called "The Killing" to breathe new life into a slumbering genre.