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On TV: What makes serial killers so darn entertaining?

Television » Big characters, escapism fuel proliferation of shows about multiple murderers.

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Writers on television series are always asking: "What is the dramatic backdrop? What is it going to take to create higher stakes in the story?," said "Bates Motel" executive producer Carlton Cuse ("Lost").

Cuse also added that unpredictable characters are fascinating for storytellers.

At a glance

TV’s killer shows

“Bates Motel” » Debuts Monday, March 18, on A&E.

“The Cult” » Debuts on Tuesday, Feb. 19, on The CW/Channel 30.

“Dexter” » Begins a new season on Sunday, June 30, on Showtime.

“The Following” » Airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on Fox/Channel 13

“Hannibal” » Debuts sometime later this year on NBC/Channel 5.

“The Mentalist” » Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on CBS/Channel 2.

“Ripper Street” » Airs Saturdays at 7 and 10 p.m. on BBC America.

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It’s nothing new » It’s not as if serial killer shows created a new genre. Police shows have been around since the early days of television.

And the fascination with serial killers dates back to the 19th century, if not before. Jack the Ripper committed his crimes beginning in 1888 — and 125 years later, "Ripper Street" focuses on crimes in the same part of London where his crimes took place.

"I’m not interested in serial killers per se," said executive producer Will Gould, who postulated that perhaps the Jack the Ripper legend lives on because he was never caught. That’s a crucial element to his appeal, said Jerome Flynn, who plays a police sergeant in "Ripper Street."

"I think it’s why he became the myth that he did," Flynn said. "He’s still reverberating in society. It’s a mystery, which is kind of ongoing."

As is the fascination with crime, on screen and in print. "If you look at the crime section in the bookstore, it’s one of the most popular sections," said "Criminal Minds" executive producer Deborah Spera. "People are fascinated by crime — how it works, who does them and how they are solved."

Give ’em what they want » It’s easy to place the blame for the proliferation of serial killers on producers and network executives, but the fact is that if viewers didn’t tune in, the shows would go away. Quickly.

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For the current TV season to date, seven of the top 20 shows — including No. 1 "NCIS" — are crime dramas. "Our job is to give viewers what they want," said CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler. "Clearly, they love crime dramas."

Which is why CBS, America’s most-watched network, currently has 11 of them on its schedule.

ABC’s schedule has far fewer crime dramas, but ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee has no quarrel with Tassler’s way of thinking.

"We’re in the business of being in people’s homes every week," he said. "And if you don’t fall in love with those characters, if we don’t nail the core relationships at the heart of it, we’ve failed."

Even if those characters are serial killers.


Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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