A Time to Kill Serial Killer Plots? Clarice Starling Reinvents Herself as the Latest Tough Cookie of TV Procedurals

Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs/Image © MGM
Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs/Image © MGM

Thomas Harris' depraved and culturally fetishistic psycho killers are back on the hunt for blood and human suffering with the recent news that two TV networks are now developing shows based on his books. Earlier this year, NBC announced it had ordered thirteen episodes of "Hannibal," a new one-hour drama series centered around the cat-and-mouse game between the eponymous foodie with a taste for human flesh (paired with a good Chianti) and the FBI agent on his trail. And just yesterday, Harris' killer series struck again, this time in the form of a Lifetime series about Clarice Starling, the tough and tenacious young FBI cadet (played by Jodie Foster on the big screen) whose childhood traumas help her smoke flesh-crazed lunatics out of their hideouts.

Back in 1990, the year "Silence of the Lambs" broke box office records and swept the Oscars, serial killers had just begun their run dominating the darkest regions of our deepest fears. Pop culture had left behind its fixations with supernatural demon thrillers of the 1970s and the campy slasher flicks of the 1980s and anointed a new boogieman of choice: the serial killer. Hollywood's new go-to villain turned out to be much more realistic and terrifying than any of the spooks who had come before him for two reasons: 1) We still knew relatively little about the hows and whys of the serial killing business, and 2) the world was a less scary place in the pre-recession, pre-9/11 1990s and a balding sociopath and an unmarked van was all it took to spike our cortisol.

At face value, any literary drama that makes its way into the TV lineup should be cause for celebration. But there is something anachronistic and almost quaint about watching highly competent (but psychically damaged) men and women face off against a DSM-diagnosable villain, villains who have come to seem more pathetic than menacing now that we live in a world where we're reminded that we're under a greater threat when we take some form of public transformation than when we venture alone at night into a dark alley. Despite the compelling complexity of Harris' characters, we can't help but wonder whether we've passed the tipping point with this particular trope. In fact, it might be time for Hollywood to carry out a mercy killing of plot lines involving serial killers or haunted-but-n0t-hardened female detectives solving different crimes in the same format, week after week.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with a good procedural. And in the hands of an innovative and imaginative filmmaker or show runner, there should be no statute of limitations on how many times Hollywood can viably reinvent his characters for screens big and small. But we balk at the prospect of seeing the psychological nuances that set his stories apart from other plot-propelled thrillers boiled down into one of the many undistinguishable procedurals that have become the unavoidable Caesar salad of the television menu. Maybe these shows will transcend the genre and offer an oasis of riveting storytelling. But this is Lifetime and NBC, not HBO and AMC; we're not banking on Hannibal making a repeat appearance in our nightmares anytime soon.

What are your thoughts on the prospect of Hannibal and Clarice holding your interest in a more formula-bound milieu? More importantly, do you agree that serial killers have run their course in popular culture and should be ejected (at least temporarily) from the underworld of narrative evil-doers?

  • Jem

    I agree that the proposed shows will probably fail to spark interest. Dexter is about as original as you can get with serial killers, and is still going strong. Plus, a huge draw for the character of Hannibal is Anthony Hopkins portrayal of him. I don't think Mads, as talented as he is, can match such an iconic role. As for the serial killer trope, I think it needs a rest, not necessarily retirement. Someone could still do something innovative..

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