For the last few seasons, graphically violent programs about serial killers have enjoyed a boom on broadcast TV. Recently, some networks have cancelled such shows…but sadly, other networks are jumping on the murder bandwagon.
In January of 2013, Fox premiered the serial killer drama The Following, about a serial killer who “inspires” a cult of copycat killers to carry out murder sprees against random victims. This series was deliberately designed to terrorize viewers. In its preview of the program, TV Guide called The Following a “grim, unsettling” “stomach-turning,” “blood-soaked” “ink-black thriller” containing “a level of gore rarely seen on network television,” which “immerses viewers in a world of depravity that only escalates throughout the season…We’re talking a gouged-eyes-and gutted-dogs brand of macabre.” Even a critic who admired The Following for its “boldness” proclaimed that the show was a “profoundly disturbing” “lightning rod for those who object to the escalation of brutal violence against women,” containing “unrelenting misery and sadism that informs virtually every minute” with “seemingly endless sadistic elements.” Needless to say, the Parents Television Council named The Following Worst TV Show of the Week multiple times (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).
Similarly, last fall CBS launched Stalker, a series about detectives in an anti-stalking unit. However, as is typical of TV shows, the “heroic” police are themselves tainted by the evil they pursue: the woman detective on the team has been a victim of stalking in the past, and breaks the law by bullying stalkers into changing their behavior through illicit means; while the male cop is a stalker himself. Stalker gained a great deal of notoriety for its first episode, in which a woman is doused with gasoline and set on fire by her stalker, right outside her own home. This brought howls of anger and resentment from the media’s professional TV critics, with The Washington Post calling the show “unsparing with both its grisliness and its deeply negative regard for human nature;” The Huffington Post, “A putrid, badly-written crapfest packed with violence against women…Exploitative, misogynist trash;” and TV Guide opining, “TV really doesn’t get much uglier or more cynical than CBS’s Stalker.” The series continued in this vein for the rest of the season.
Happily, CBS has abandoned the grotesque serial killer paradigm. Stalker spent long stretches between episodes this spring. CBS has announced the cancellation of Stalker. In some degree this decision was made because the show was losing viewers; but far more, it was because of inadequate advertiser support. The PTC applauds those companies who chose not to sponsor Stalker’s heinous content.
But there is bad news as well as good. While Fox has announced the cancellation of The Following — despite featuring talented film actor Kevin Bacon, the program failed to retain its (ahem) following in its second season – it is planning next fall to debut Scream Queens, a sort of cross between the light-hearted high school program Glee and the horrific levels of gore in the FX cable program Nip/Tuck. (Unsurprisingly, the person behind Scream Queens is the Fox corporation’s fair-haired boy Ryan Murphy, creator of both Nip/Tuck and Glee.)
Even worse is NBC. In addition to renewing its Silence of the Lambs-based drama Hannibal, in which the serial murderer is also a cannibal who eats his victims – another “winner” of the Worst TV Show of the Week designation (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), the network also plans later this spring to premiere Aquarius, a program glorifying real-life serial killer Charles Manson. The network’s fascination with serial killers is unsurprising, however; NBC Chairman Robert Greenblatt got his start as producer of Showtime’s ultra-graphic drama Dexter, in which the sick, sadistic serial killer is the show’s hero.
Saddest of all is ABC. Up to now, the channel wholly owned by the Walt Disney Company has avoided the serial killer genre; but this week, the Alphabet Network announced the premiere next fall of Wicked City, a program that not only stars a serial killer, but features large amounts of sexual fetishism like bondage, torture, and rape.
The PTC applauds those advertisers who have wisely chosen not to associate their hard-earned brand names with serial murder and cannibalism. It is a pity that so many networks – who use the publicly-owned airwaves — feel the need to indulge in graphic violence at times when children are in the audience.