Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Season of Serial Killer Serials

There are a lot of serial killers in the world these days, and so many of them seem to live on television. Take a look at this season's offerings: The Following follows a questionable quasi-FBI agent trying to track down a collective of killers; Bates Motel tracks a young Norman Bates, as he grows into a wig and dress wearing murderer; Hannibal, based on The Red Dragon, is an earlier look into the rise (and, one assumes, incarceration) of Hannibal Lecter. The characters In the above shows have a lot of blood on their hands. And they're not the only ones. (Throw in the veteran Dexter, and the body count rises by at least three figures.)

With so many serial killer offerings, it is inevitable that the series draw comparisons to one another. (Let's ignore the question of WHY we as a society want so many programs about such evil people, for fear of where that might lead us.) Which shows hold up? Which were worth getting excited about? 

 I was most excited about The Following's premier. A series about a cop trying to fight his way through a band of serial killers to find the most nefarious one, one he has history with? Awesome. It reminds me of one of Neil Gaiman's Sandman trades, which was a great read. But The Following quickly succumbed to three major problems: poor character development, shoddy writing, and some of the worst police work in recent television history. It probably comes as little surprise that the cops andolice procedures in a show about a federal agent necessitates strong detective writing. The Following showcased the worst in cop abilities. The FBI was a never-present entity, only around at the end of each episode to examine crime scenes. Kevin Bacon's somewhat alcoholic, somewhat physically injured, somewhat psychologically demented protagonist was never consistent in any of his flaws. The only thing he did regularly was ignore procedure, fail to call for backup, and lead his colleagues into danger. Even when his adversaries were sloppy and exposed, Bacon and his FBI cohorts were unable to track them. Some of the most interesting characters wee part of the following, but their bickering soon became petty and uninteresting. Or, they died. There was so much to get jazzed about leading up to the premier of The Following. Unfortunately, by the third episode, the show proved to be not worth caring about. 

Bates Motel - frankly, I only watched the first two episodes, and for the second, I was doing work on my laptop for most of it. The rest of the season to date is on my DVR. Perhaps I'll get to it some day. I mildly enjoyed the first episode, but it didn't seem to know when it was set, and neither did I. Norman Bates spoke and acted like he was from the 50s or early 60s, but he had an iPhone. His mother was... interesting, and their relationship was far more incestuous than any I would ever want with my mother. But I also didn't really care about any of it. I'd glance at the screen periodically - oh look, someone is on fire - and then back to my laptop. Has anyone watched? Does anyone care?

I'll be honest - I really like Hannibal. I think it is by far the best of the three. Oddly, what I like most about it is how it handles the police shooting its protagonist is forced to commit. Like I. the Following, the protagonist in Hannibal is a sort-of FBI agent called back into duty to catch a killer. Like in The Following, he is forced to shoot a suspect. This is where the similarities end. In The Following, Kevin Bacon kills more people on screen than any of the "serial killers" do. In fact, he shoots some of them when making an arrest would just take too much time. It gets absurd. When a suspect was killed in Hannibal, I thought, "Here we go again. Should I just cancel the series recording now?" But a ton of time is dedicated to the nightmares and fears the protagonist has as a result of the shooting. He is clearly troubled by what he's done, which is incredibly refreshing. The show is also smartly written. It looks good. The characters are three dimensional, unlike in the above examples. And actions have ramifications. What more could you want?

Interestingly, another show I've taken to this season is Arrow. I am a comic book guy and watched Smallville from start to finish, so there s little doubt that I would subscribe to a show, also on the CW, about the Green Arrow. I did not expect the level of violence it broadcasts each week. According to a recent episode, the hero (the agrees Arrow) has killed 26 bad guys on the show. 26! That's serial killer numbers. The show's writers hint at guilt over the deaths, but it doesn't really factor into play too much. Sure, it's not psychological the way Hannibal is, but with so many deaths on its hero's hands, it seems plausible that Arrow would address the killing more than it does. Lackadaisical treatment of murder aside (...), Arrow is entertaining and a fun watch. 

Perhaps it bears mentioning that three of the four shows referenced are based on existing characters. But, maybe not. That just goes to show that original programming is rarer these days. And there's no obvious connection to draw between the success of existing content versus established properties. The only conclusion to draw is, no matter where the idea for the show comes from, there is nothing that can make it successful (or unwatchable) more quickly than the quality of the writing.