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(Courtesy photo) Joe Carroll (James Purefoy) is a convicted serial killer who creates his own cult of followers in “The Following.”
On TV: What makes serial killers so darn entertaining?

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

By Scott D. Pierce

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jan 30 2013 04:23 pm • Last Updated May 21 2013 11:31 pm

Kevin Bacon says he spent three or four years searching for a TV show to star in. And what he found was "The Following," a gory, violent, disturbing series in which his character, ex-FBI agent Ryan Hardy, hunts down the followers of a serial killer who creates his own cult.

"I read this one and I could not put it down," Bacon said. "It was just such a page turner. I thought it was such an interesting character. And given the fast-paced, kind of heart-pounding nature of it, it still had a lot of great heart and a certain kind of almost sentimentality that I really responded to."

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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In the renewed, post-Newtown discussion about violence on television, one of the largely unaddressed questions is: Just where is the entertainment value in the subject of serial killers?

They’ve certainly become a fixture on TV. "The Following" joins CBS’ "Criminal Minds" and Showtime’s "Dexter" as weekly shows about serial killers. The CW will add a fourth, "The Cult," on Feb. 19; NBC will add a fifth, "Hannibal" (a prequel to "Silence of the Lambs"), later this year.

And on cable, BBC America is airing "Ripper Street" and A&E is adding "Bates Motel" (a prequel to "Psycho") in March.

You could also count CBS’ "The Mentalist," which has a continuing storyline about the serial killer who murdered the lead character’s family. Serial killers are a staple on all the "CSI" and "Law & Order" shows, and the subject comes up frequently on shows ranging from "Rookie Blue" to "Unforgettable," from "Bones" to "Hawaii Five-0," from "Body of Proof" to "Elementary," from "NCIS" to "NCIS: Los Angeles."

Breakout characters » In an age of hundreds of TV channels, network programmers are always looking for ways to get their shows noticed. One way is with "big, breakout characters," said Jennifer Salke, president of NBC Entertainment.

And a serial killer can be a breakout character.

"You need somebody who’s going to grab people by the shoulders and force them to watch," Salke said. "We can’t just launch a procedural show with a great, well-crafted cop story. It’s not going to happen. So we need to just make a little more noise."

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That’s exactly the way "Cult" executive producer Josh Schwartz describes his serial killer, Billy Grimm (Robert Knepper of "Prison Break").

"There is a hypnotic quality," Schwartz said. "He really does draw you in. He’s an incredibly charismatic presence."

"The Following" creator Kevin Williamson ("Scream," "Dawson’s Creek") referred to his killer, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), as "not only this madman and sort of evil personified, but he’s also a very good teacher. And he has found a way to assimilate some students to sort of do his bidding."

How big a character is Joe Carroll? Big enough so that the man who plays him looks down his nose at the "unimpressive" Hannibal Lecter. "I mean, really, he could only see up to the next meal," Purefoy said.

Carroll ups the ante when it comes to TV serial killers. Sure, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) has killed dozens, but his victims were all themselves heinous murderers.

The killer in "The Following" — whose presence is crucial to the ongoing storyline — is an unremittingly evil character.

Escapism » It might seem counterintuitive, but shows about serial killers are a way to escape everyday life. Unless you happen to work as a cop.

"Part of what we do on television is provide escapism," said Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly. "Escapism comes in many forms. It could be laughter. It could be fantasy. It is also your worst nightmare come to life."

And a show like "The Following" "makes our palms sweat and it moves us emotionally and puts us on the edge of the seat. We are engrossed in it and we forget ourselves for an hour."

Dealing with psychopaths easily opens the door to plot twists that divert the viewers’ attention with surprises.

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