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What happened to normal serial killers on television

By Christie Pool

Staff writer

Last week I finished season two of Amazon’s Goliath starring Billy Bob Thornton and before the final credits were rolling I was already thinking: “How could I have just invested eight hours of my life watching this?”

Like many Americans, I spend some down time plugged in to Netflix and Amazon Prime and, of course, big time sporting events like the NBA finals and the FIFA World Cup. From sporting events to comedies to dramas, we Americans like our television shows. Critics and regular viewers say streaming television is where it’s at – more so than movies – for the smartest, deepest storytelling and most nuanced and morally complex characters. 

But in this golden age of television it seems every show is engaged in a race to see which can have the meanest, sickest character. 

Your main character skins his rivals like Ramsay Bolton on Game of Thrones? No worries, our main character beat a stroke victim to death with an aluminum chair (Scandal) and another show’s main villain shows-off by beating one of the most popular characters to death with a barbed-wire baseball bat (The Walking Dead). 

So when I realized, at the end of Goliath that I really had sat through a show where one character had a fetish with amputated stumps and another enjoyed playing surgeon, chopping off limbs of people who crossed him, I was aghast. 

And to be honest, the entire premise of a show like that makes me wonder just  exactly what we’re all doing watching this twisted material and what effect it might have on us? Americans watch on average five hours of TV a day (that’s a lot). And this is the stuff we’re watching? These shows I reference are among the most popular, not something you have to seek out on the dark corners of the internet. Not too long ago shows that filled our screens considered it inappropriate to show two married people sleeping in the same bed (I Love Lucy, Dick Van Dyke). 

How have we gone from Leave it to Beaver and Andy Griffith to our current top shows like House of Cards (where First Lady Claire Underwood kills her own mother for voter sympathy). Game of Thrones, is filled with so many despicable acts that it would take the whole paper to detail them. 

Cop shows have always been popular. And someone had to be killed for Sherlock Holmes to have a case, but television is escalating the crimes to ever more elaborately gruesome and strange. Even on shows like CSI, Criminal Minds, it’s never just a serial killer. He has to also be depraved in some outlandish way. 

The best shows, the ones we want to commit to watching full seasons of, should be challenging with great performances, snappy scripts and well-developed themes. We want compelling plots that develop naturally by putting characters into a difficult or interesting situation, then allowing them  to behave authentically, like real people -- even the bad guys. Why does the drug dealer go to elaborate length to torture by playing surgeon?

When we flip on our TVs we want to be entertained but we also want to be connected and fight for the hero. We love shows that inspire and characters who grow and mature, or are crazy funny and for just plain bad guys. 

So give us more funny, more genuine human drama and less torture and horror.

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