From 'Twin Peaks' to 'The Killing,' the Problem of Noir on TV

Dark murder mysteries are a natural fit for television. But what happens to the show after the case is solved?


Lynch/Frost Productions, Silver Pictures Television, CW, AMC

At the end of a season marked by increasingly erratic storytelling, dead-end subplots, and endless torrents of rain, The Killing failed to answer the basic question of who killed teenager Rosie Larsen. Instead, a taut finale that followed cryptic detectives Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder racing to take down the supposed murderer imploded in its final moments with a cliffhanger that left nearly all of its loose ends dangling. A muddled experiment in television noir (and based on a popular Danish show with the bleakly Scandinavian title Forbrydelsen), The Killing exemplifies both the allure and the pitfalls of unraveling a single mystery over an entire season, or more, of television.

Noir, defined by its bleak settings, antiheroes, and cynical outlook, was popularized in film and literature in the 1940s and '50s. A few early television shows in the 1950s and '60s, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Fugitive, employed the genre's aesthetic—but the creation of a truly noir television show (densely and deliberately plotted, enigmatic, character-driven) was biding its time for the rise of serialized primetime drama. In 1990, David Lynch gave the genre a surreal twist with a cast of deeply quirky small town characters, added in a few dancing dwarfs for good measure, and came up with Twin Peaks—a clear ancestor to The Killing despite their wildly different tones.

Noir is a mutable form—easy to meld with other genres to create something new. There has been the crime procedural noir (The Killing, Steven Bochco's short-lived 1995 Murder One); the whimsical noir (Twin Peaks); and the teen noir (Veronica Mars, Pretty Little Liars). When they are well executed, slow-burning mysteries make for riveting television. The long, deliberate build-up to a spectacular resolution is one way to create genuine appointment viewing in this modern world of online streaming and short attention spans.

But the problem with these shows is that they have a tendency to start off with a bang (literally), and quickly fade. After the good and bad guys have been established, the dark secrets brought to light, and the hero's own tortured past revealed, what is left to unspool in season two? Keep teasing viewers with endless red herrings and meandering plotlines, and they'll turn on you, violently—just ask the critics who initially embraced The Killing, but then rejected it after too many forays into boring political subplots and go-nowhere suspects in the form would-be Muslim terrorists. But solve the mystery too fast and you'll never see syndication.

It's worth noting that the central plot of all these recent examples have revolved around the murder of a teenage girl, which is a nod to both a major theme of noir (innocence lost), and the enduring legacy of Twin Peaks. The short-lived drama altered the television landscape with its inventiveness, and by demonstrating the medium's ability to fascinate viewers with labyrinth, serialized storylines. I was only dimly aware of the show's existence at the dawn of the '90s, but revisiting it now it's easy to see why the question of who killed homecoming queen Laura Palmer hit pop culture like a shockwave. Its surrealist bent and increasingly dense plot was unlike anything that had been seen before, and made the show a cultural phenomenon.

It garnered 14 Emmy nominations and spawned a hit soundtrack, countless parodies of its famous coffee bit and a rabid fanbase that obsessed over every clue and plot twist. For slow-burning eeriness and sheer deadpan oddity, there has never been anything else quite like it on network television. But the show flamed out in its second season, after it took too many detours into portentous dream sequences, and dragged out the resolution of its central mystery beyond the limits of human patience. Its ratings plummeted in the second season and, although it continued on for a number of episodes past the reveal of Laura Palmer's supernatural murderer, Twin Peaks was canceled after 30 episodes.

The riveting, flawlessly paced first season of the cult teen show Veronica Mars followed hard-boiled teenaged private eye (Kristen Bell) as she pursued the murderer of her best friend Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), and uncovered the dark underbelly of a sunny SoCal beach town. The show maintained its sharp writing and snarky dialogue over two more seasons, but none of the other cases that the titular blonde gumshoe cracked (a school bus rigged with explosives, or an ill-considered college campus rape plotline) compelled like the murder of golden-girl heiress Lilly. The popular ABC Family teen drama Pretty Little Liars quasi-resolved a part of its mystery in the first season finale, revealing the probable murderer of high school queen bee Alison, but not the mysterious entity that has been sending text messages to the dead girl's friends. The show will likely confront some of the same issues of audience frustration in its second season, although it may get some leeway due to being more rooted in the teen soap camp than in mystery.

News of The Killing's renewal for a second season dovetailed nicely with the finale, but based on its maddening first season I'd guess that a lot of disappointed viewers are planning to extricate themselves from this particular rabbit hole. The show's biggest fault lies in its pacing; it took too long to get interesting and then failed to deliver the goods. There may be enough intrigue between the series' moody detectives to sustain interest in the Rosie Larsen murder, but the show's predecessors have demonstrated how difficult it is to balance on the fine line between suspense and frustration, and it would be wise to keep expectations low. Particularly since, in The Killing's gloomy metropolis, there's always stormy weather ahead.