Amid a night of overstuffed night of television yesterday (Game of Thrones! Frozen Planet! Teresa Giudice's Business Revenge!), one show began its second season with a busy whimper while another ended its own on a satisfying, almost stirring note.
Perhaps last year's most initially well-received but eventually reviled new series was The Killing, AMC's adaptation of a popular Danish murder mystery that seemed, based on the original and on the many promos leading up to the premiere, to be a show that would solve the murder of a Seattle teen, the now-infamous Rosie Larsen, by season's end. But then, to much focused outrage from TV connoisseurs, the show copped out — it looked like we had our killer, a too-slick mayoral candidate, only to find out in the very last minutes of the finale that, nope, oops, it actually wasn't him. Argh! And this came after a season's worth of annoying red herrings and lots of operatic anguish and so much rain, so very much rain.
The American version's creator Veena Sud made matters worse by seeming completely unapologetic about the season's lame end, even going so far as to suggest that, uh, no one ever promised they'd solve the Rosie murder by the finale. So, many people wrote the show off, figured it wasn't worth going back for another round of feints and innuendos that led nowhere. But we, ever intrepid and curious TV watchers, did check out last night's second season premiere and we're happy to report that... Everyone was right. The show is still well-composed hokum masking as high art, perhaps even more now than last year.
Perhaps trying to make up for a deceptively empty first season, Sunday's two-hour premiere came chock full of goopy plot twists and crazy happenings. (Spoilers ahead, if you care.) That glad-handing politician? Not only did he not do it (his alibi involves a suicide attempt, we learned), but he got shot and is now paralyzed from the waist down. The guy who shot him, a family friend of the murdered girl, got a cop's gun while in police custody and killed himself, further adding to The Killing's depiction of the most inept police force in America. Meanwhile Rosie's father, played with so much I'm-just-a-regular-guy dopey mushiness by Brent Sexton that it's almost comedy, found her bloody backpack on his front stoop (he's being tormented by the real killer now, I guess) and so went over to his old mob boss and told him to find the guy and kill him. That's a lot, right? But wait, there's more!
Our hero, the taciturn one-last-case detective Sarah Linden (played well by Mireille Enos, though written and directed to be frustratingly, almost pathologically, mute), has decided not to move to Sonoma as was the plan for the entirety of last season, so there's that whole plot point just thrown in the garbage rather quickly. And she's also pulling strings at the DA's office and with local reporters to both dig for and cover up various bits of information in a way that we really didn't see her do last season. She's suddenly the most connected gal in Seattle. Her partner, the recovering meth-head Detective Holder (Joel Kinnaman, still brooding and handsome as ever, but saddled with an annoying amount of desperation to deal with — he seems poised for a relapse, ugh), is involved with some shady business with the sheriff's office, indicating that highers-up all over the place are involved in some frame-job/cover-up conspiracy. Is the mayor involved? What about Sarah's trusted boss? How far does this thing go??
Trouble is, it's hard to care about the answer. The solution for an unnecessarily convoluted first season isn't to make the second season even more forcibly complex. Why did Sud and her writers buy another kitchen sink just to throw it at us again? There's no problem with complicated, multi-layered TV storytelling, obviously, but it has to be done believably, especially on a show that's trying so hard to be grounded in gritty realism. In the end nothing about the show seems terribly smart, a sad fact that's rendered all the more glaring by the good acting gone to waste, all the moodily composed shots that are ultimately showing us something pretty silly. We'll give this season a few more episodes — shows often need to find their footing over time (see: The Walking Dead) — but it's certainly not urgent, appointment television in the way we were once hoping, even assuming, it would be. Ultimately, The Killing will probably be responsible for its own demise.
Meanwhile over on Showtime, the network's own adaptation of a foreign show, in this case the UK's squalid family dramedy Shameless, wrapped its second season in surprisingly fine fashion. This has never been a show that we've been thrilled to love — it's overly crass and scattered and not nearly as funny as it thinks it is — but over the course of two seasons we've gradually become begrudging addicts, surprised to find ourselves eagerly jonesing for the next episode. The show, about a barely-getting-by South Side Chicago family that is constantly picking up the messes made by the drunken patriarch Frank (William H. Macy), thrives mostly because of its appealing cast, among them Emmy Rossum as oldest sibling and defacto head of household Fiona, Jeremy Allen White as her lovable genius/screw up brother Lip, and Joan Cusack as a whacked-out neighbor with on-again off-again agoraphobia. They all have a rambling chemistry that's deepened and grown more complex over time, to the point that while many ridiculous things, both profane and improbable, happen to the Gallaghers and friends, it all somehow rings with truth.
There were too many bizarre plots running through the second season to cover all of them here, but chiefly the season dealt with Lip's girlfriend's pregnancy (the paternity of the child was in some doubt), Fiona's struggle to make time for her own life amid all the family chaos, and the return of Frank's wife, and the mother of the children, Monica, a bipolar, drug addicted mess who swept back into their lives while on a manic high. It's heavy stuff that was mostly covered with swear- and sex-laden humor, but unlike last season, which often relied too heavily and cynically on the cruel joke over sincerity, this second season, and especially last night's finale, seemed less afraid to slow the frenzy for a moment and take a deep, sad breath. Rossum is particularly good in these more pondering moments, her big round eyes looking tired, her lips furrowed into a weary half-smile. The second season did a nice job of showing how, amid all the raucous and rambunctious fun, the instability has deeply wounded the Gallagher children, perhaps irrevocably. It's a strangely bleak and tragic final thought for a show that's ostensibly a wild comedy, but it worked. We appreciated the somber effort.
Shameless would be a good show to catch up on on some hungover Sunday. While you may be regretting something awful and embarrassing you did the night before, making promises to never drink again, hey look, it could be so much worse! You could be passed out on your lawn and stealing money from your children, damaging them for years to come! Shameless is an oddly cathartic show, if only because, by this season's end, we were finally told that it's OK to be so exhausted and put-off by its particular variation of Showtime's patented brand of cheery nihilism. There's very little to like about what Shameless is showing us, and yet it's so darn likable.