Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Serial Killer TV

More programs about bloody killers make their debut.

As if we’re not yet saturated with shows about serial murder, this week two television series aired their initial episodes. Ripper Street (BBC) takes place in London during the year following Jack the Ripper’s 1888 spree, while The Following (FOX) is a modern-day Hannibal Lecter meets the Manson Family.

If you like historical crime dramas, Ripper Street shows promise. The typical setting for London’s Whitechapel area, where half a dozen prostitutes were slashed and killed during the fall of 1888, is dark, trashy, and populated by members of the social underbelly. (If you watched BBC’s Copper, so similar is the look that you might think you’ve turned on the wrong show.)

This clichéd setting – including an unscrupulous journalist seeking sensation – is redeemed by an enlightened inspector, Edmund Reid, who grasps the notions of tunnel vision, inattentional blindness, and confirmation bias. He doesn’t name them, but he knows (and avoids) them when he sees them.

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In the first episode, Reid goes head-to-head with Inspector Abberline, who’d failed to nail the Ripper the prior year. Abberline sees every new slashing murder as one more go at his favorite case, while Reid resists this rush to judgment with the disciplined logic of Sherlock Holmes. Aiding him is a decadent U. S. Army surgeon who knows a thing or two about 19th century forensic science. (Hmmm, this does sound like Copper.)

I doubt that nit-picking Ripperologists will appreciate the show, but if the writers respect the facts, this could be a good setting for watching how investigation and science joined forces. The 19th century law enforcement scene was not an easy place for the scientific method to make its mark; scientists often proved themselves in sensational cases that caught the public’s attention, thereby pressuring the courts.

If Ripper Street succeeds during its eight-episode run, it will do so for its main characters, because for crime fans the plots and side characters are shallow and predictable.

In The Following, the sidekicks are mere stick figures in the background on a stage set for two men. Serial killer Joe Carroll, a Poe scholar and former lit professor, has a rabid fan base that shows its appreciation by springing him from prison and assisting with murder. Welcome to KillSpace. Unfortunately, we also get the typical boozy depressed retired investigator, FBI agent Ryan Hardy (played by Kevin Bacon), who must be pulled into an investigation due to his exclusive expertise. (As if no one else can figure anything out.)

Just like in Thomas Harris’s novels, Carroll and Hardy have a history, with Hardy nearly dying from their earlier encounter. He bears scars, along with a damaged heart. (How Poesque!) The plot hangs on a series of flashbacks to set up their game, so we’ll understand and appreciate the killer’s ultimate work of art. During suspenseful moments for Hardy, a “telltale heart” beats in the background.

This is an unrelentingly depressing and gory show, and even the commercial breaks featured ads for violent films. Kevin Bacon looks utterly worn out, and one wonders how he’ll last through 14 more episodes. The only thing that sets this series apart from similar shows is the notion that Carroll, the killer, is so charismatic that he’s inspired a network of kooks to do whatever he asks. Yet we don’t actually see how such a cultlike inspiration occurred. It was surely not his bland performance in the college classroom.

In real life, a few serial killers have managed to snag devoted disciples, and one even attempted murder on a killer’s behalf (badly flubbing it), but Carroll doesn’t seem so impressive that he can orchestrate the lives of a savage flock for years from behind bars. Such is truly the stuff of fiction.

In this show, we do get a disappointing perpetuation of the same old serial killer myths (“there are 300 active serial killers today” – really? You’re a former scholar and you can’t do better research than this?). Still, I have little doubt that a show designed to one-up Dexter will gather its own following. I just hope the writers quickly tire of the Poe pretensions. Writing “Nevermore” in blood on a wall is just eyeball-rolling cheesy.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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