Mireille Enos stars in AMC's "The Killing." (Carole Segal / AMC )
After last year's season finale of "The Killing" generated howls of indignation, the show's blindsided creative team began worriedly plotting to win back their audience.
What if the show's central mystery was answered — something implicitly promised in its first season promotional campaign "Who killed Rosie Larsen?" — in the opening episode of the new season, which begins April 1?
After lengthy discussions, executives at AMC and the show's production company, Fox Television Studios, ultimately decided against the highly unusual step, according to a person familiar with those talks who was not authorized to speak about them publicly. Instead they sided with writer and executive producer Veena Sud, who believed that they should stick to the original plan — reveal the teenager's killer at the end of the 13-episode second season.
"If you did it right away," said Fox Television Studios chief David Madden. "There wouldn't really be much left to say afterward."
That the narrative option, and others like it, were even considered reveal the stakes for "The Killing," which launches into its new season under one of the heaviest clouds in the history of serial television. The show now debuts to a chorus of viewers who claim they will stick to their year-old vow to never watch again.
AMC executives acknowledge that they have their work cut out for them.
"We would never take lightly the core viewers who felt misled," said Joel Stillerman, AMC's head of original programming. "It would be foolish to say the response to Season 1 doesn't up the ante for Season 2."
Adapted from a Danish television series, "The Killing" follows an investigation by Stephen Holder and Sarah Linden (Joel Kinnaman and Mireille Enos), Seattle homicide detectives investigating the murder of the teenage girl. The season initially earned significant critical buzz that led to six Emmy nominations.
Stillerman said the decision to stay the course wasn't easy. (Sud declined to comment for this article.)
"We listened to and responded to [the backlash], but we opted not to change the essence of the storytelling, because we fundamentally believed in it," he said. (The plan was always to reveal Larsen's killer at the end of Season 2, as the Danish original does.)
AMC did, however, shape its marketing plan for the new season accordingly. As they crafted the new campaign, AMC executives didn't want to make overt references to the controversy. But they decided to expand the scope of the marketing beyond the Larsen murder; materials now highlight the role of various people around or investigating the murder, including Holder, as well as the Larsen family's grief. "We had to acknowledge [the backlash]," said AMC senior vice president of marketing Linda Schupack.
The show also did make a creative concession in wake of the first season finale reaction: It would start the season with a bang, in contrast to some of the more meditative episodes from the first season.
"We said, 'Let's make sure that very early in the season, in the first episode, a lot happens,'" said Madden. "Let's lead with our strength."
Indeed, fans will find a major development early in the two-hour premiere episode.
In its first season, "The Killing" was a solid ratings success. It burst out of the gate with 4.6 million total viewers for the three airings of its premiere episode and finished with 2.3 million total viewers for the finale. Though most series' ratings are expected to grow in the second season, those behind the show say privately they will consider it a victory if they can hold the line on last year's numbers.
Publicly, executives point to a study they conducted showing that only 1% of viewers from the first season definitively would not watch this year.
"We don't try to set out to please all of the people all of the time; that's not part of the AMC DNA," Stillerman said. "We try to take risks, tell complex stories that are challenging but have a satisfying conclusion … and we still believe this kind of storytelling has something incredibly sticky and compelling about it."
Stillerman said he wants to do a better job of managing viewer expectations this time around — which is why the network made the atypical move of announcing exactly when the killer would be unmasked. Of course, that means the show must keep viewers engaged while they wait for a resolution. That is one reason, they say, that the show's canvas has been broadened to areas such as the Larsen family.
As the new season gets off the ground, AMC also faces another challenge: how to set up a new mystery for a potential third season. After all, the Danish series is already in Season 3, and is focusing on a new case.
But while there will be small seeds of that mystery planted throughout this season, producers of "The Killing" are being extra careful about creating too much suspense on a non-Larsen case.
"We don't want to end up," Madden said, "with people feeling misled again."