Last night LJ and I sat down to give a look to Low Winter Sun, AMC’s new show that followed Breaking Bad Sunday night. Right as the episode started, LJ turned to me and said, “is this a cop show?” My response, “it’s a show on television, right?” My response was obviously in jest, but, was it? Think about television right now, particularly this summer. Old shows, new shows, everything is a cop show. And more specifically, cop shows that are unapologetically dark, many of which include the golden age of TV stalwart, the “anti-hero.”
Consider this list of dark, depressing, humorless cop shows that have already aired this year (an incomplete list to be sure): Top of the Lake, The Following, Hannibal, The Killing, Broadchurch, Luther, Low Winter Sun, The Bridge, The Fall, etc, etc, etc. How many fictional young girls have to fall subject to a fictional serial killer to satisfy TV audiences?
I don’t write this post to say there is no value in these shows, because I think there is great value in them (some more than others). Some of these shows I am a very big fan of. Hannibal has been one of my favorite shows of the year so far. I’m always looking forward to more episodes of Luther (I’ll take Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson any day). This season of The Killing was surprisingly strong (especially considering season 1 was so bad, I didn’t even watch season 2). But some of the others on this list were terrible (looking at you The Following).
So what separates the shows in this genre that are worth watching from the one’s that make you want to stab yourself in the eye (once again, looking at you The Following)? Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any one thing that distinguishes these shows. TV is a writers medium though, so we can start right there. Our issues with the first season of The Killing were never Mirielle Enos and Joel Kinnaman, the problem was always the writing of Veena Sud and her staff (how many red herrings and fake outs do we really have to be subjected to?). Similarly, the first season of The Following had promise for most of us, because who doesn’t love Kevin Bacon, James Purefoy and Natalie Zea? The problem comes in when you try to present your show as intellectually thoughtful and curious, when in fact, you have a script that feels like it is written by a 10th grader who just read “The Tell Tale Heart” for the first time.
What made The Following look even worse by comparison though, is that Hannibal premiered right around the same time, and was an example of what we all thought The Following was going to be. Everywhere The Following failed, Hannibal succeeded. Hannibal presented complex characters with complicated motivations. Sometimes the show was without a doubt hard to watch, but it was always worth it because of the intellectual process it took getting there (not to mention, Hannibal is the best looking show of the year, including Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Justified).
While I would definitely say writing is the biggest reason some of these shows fail while others succeed, I don’t think you can ignore the talent in front of the camera either. I don’t necessarily love The Bridge, but I do love what Demian Bichir and Diane Kruger are doing. I know there are many out there who aren’t enjoying what Kruger is doing, but I honestly love it. I find enough of a difference between her performance and what Hugh Dancy is doing on Hannibal that there is enough room for both performances (Dancy is also doing amazing work, as is everyone on Hannibal).
All of this blabbing is just to say, I come to a cop show for the performers, but I think we should only stay if the writing justifies it. That leaves us with Hannibal clearly on the top of this list, and The Following far down at the bottom. And the fact of the matter is, this genre isn’t going anywhere. The only hope we have is that more people go off of the Justified template and mix in lots of humor and fun with the dark drama. The problem is, that’s really, really hard to do well, for me, the list pretty much starts and stops with Justified.
In this age of the “anti-hero” (Vic Mackey, McNulty, Walter White, Don Draper and Tony Soprano), it’s not hard to figure out why these showrunners are coming up with these dark depressing shows. Despite the fact that the golden age of TV ends next June when Mad Men ends, I suspect we are stuck with fictional serial killers torturing fictional young women for a good, long while yet.