American TV’s love affair with serial killers

'Bates Motel,' 'Hannibal' among new shows on tube

Freddie Highmore stars as Norman Bates in A&E’s new series ‘Bates Motel.’
Freddie Highmore stars as Norman Bates in A&E’s new series ‘Bates Motel.’

Even before the head in the box arrived, I was feeling a little worn down by TV’s love affair with crazed killers.

OK, so it wasn’t an actual head. But mounted on a Styrofoam stand, the bewigged and slightly cartoonish mask of Edgar Allan Poe, sent to promote Fox’s The Following, was an unpleasant reminder of the episode I’d recently screened in which a man wearing just such a Poe mask had set another man on fire.

The next day, there would be genuine horror on all our TV screens, as reports began to come in about a shooting massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

But on the day the head arrived, I was mostly disgusted by the smell — it reeked of something chemical — and by the reminder of the scene it was taken from, which represented the third time this season I’d seen one TV character set fire to another.

(Thanks for the memories, Boardwalk Empire and Sons of Anarchy.)

Back in December, I wasn’t even thinking about the ghosts of psycho killers yet to come, though next week will bring A&E’s Bates Motel, a sort-of prequel to Psycho set in the present day and starring Freddie Highmore as a teenage Norman Bates and Vera Farmiga as his mother, Norma.

That’s followed next month by NBC’s Hannibal, starring Hugh Dancy as a criminal profiler who — apparently inadvertently — goes to work with one of fiction’s most charismatic serial killers, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen).

Meanwhile, The Following (9 p.m. Mondays, Fox), which premiered in January, is doing well enough for Fox to have already ordered a second season.

Kevin Bacon stars as Ryan Hardy, a former FBI agent, and British actor James Purefoy is Joe Carroll, a Poe-obsessed professor (and serial killer) whom Hardy had captured, only to see him recruit and groom a cult of serial-killer wannabes to do his bidding while he sat on Death Row.

Though I’d have to agree with those who’ve lately complained that The Following may be too far-fetched even for those who bought into its original far-fetched premise — and though the knife-work in this week’s episode may have pushed my personal limits for violent content — I’m still watching.

For now. In a well-lighted room. With doors and windows locked.

I can’t say the same for American Horror Story, The Walking Dead, and, yes, Sons of Anarchy, all of which I seem to have wandered — or in the case of AHS, run screaming — away from. And I’ve never had much use for shows like CBS’ Criminal Minds, which traffic in our darkest fears in less-interesting ways.

Besides, there’s only so much head space I can give to this kind of thing. And apparently I’ve decided to give it to FX’s Justified. And AMC’s Breaking Bad. And to The Following. And maybe even to NBC’s Smash (where most of the smashing exists only in the imaginations of hate-watching viewers who’ve taken strong dislikes to certain characters).

In the wake of Newtown, I did spend some time quizzing TV writers and executives about fictional violence, asking, for instance, of Bates Motel producers during January’s Television Critics Association meetings, whether anyone felt that the timing might not be terrific for a show about a teenage boy with a difficult relationship with his mother who goes on to do some pretty terrible things.

(Short answer: No.)

Kevin Williamson, who created The Following and adapted The Vampire Diaries for the CW, knows about timing.

“I directed my first movie, Killing Mrs. Tingle, and Columbine happened and it became Teaching Mrs. Tingle, and a reshoot,” Williamson told me in an interview not long before the premiere of The Following.

“Look, when such a senseless act happens, we all try to make sense of it. And you can’t,” he said of the massacre in Newtown in which a 20-year-old killed 27 people, including 20 first-graders and his own mother, before killing himself.

“It’s making me think,” Williamson said. “But I also want to believe, too — I grew up watching horror, reading horror — and I want to believe that there is a place this stuff can exist, in a healthy universe. And that fiction is the only place you can take it.

“I believe that the human psyche does need a place that expresses stuff, and in fiction, it’s allowed. It’s not allowed in the real world. It’s unacceptable.”

I’ve yet to be convinced that on-screen violence translates into the real-world variety (though that didn’t stop me from monitoring my own sons’ viewing while they were growing up, or keeping first-person-shooter video games out of our house).

What I am sure of is that television would like to see more 18- to 34-year-old men watching TV, and that executives have noticed that they’re more likely to be found watching The Walking Dead than, say, NBC’s Parenthood.

Fear of death may rivet us all — I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the small but passionate audience for Parenthood grew even more engaged when Kristina (Monica Potter) got breast cancer — but the younger viewers that cable networks are trying to attract, “I don’t think they’re worried about breast cancer,” said FX president John Landgraf.

At least not as much as they are about zombies.