On TV: What makes serial killers so darn entertaining?
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.