TV watchers love crime shows. CBS has built a procedural empire on that fact, and cable channels run a steady stream of syndicated reruns in bingeable amounts on a daily basis. The Discovery network even created an entire channel devoted to crime stories with Investigation Discovery, whose programming focuses primarily on true crime through documentaries and talk shows.
With every cable channel getting in on the scripted television game now, hoping that one great series will act as a tentpole to launch them into a new era (known as “the AMC effect”), it makes perfect sense for Investigation Discovery to join in. Who better to tell crime stories than a channel devoted to it? Unfortunately, the answer appears to be: almost anyone else.
The landscape for crime series is so oversaturated that to make an impact, a new crime show needs to do something different, or simply be very good. It’s why HBO’s True Detective has been able to break out as a success, why Hannibal has crafted its own weird niche on NBC, and why even Pivot has gotten some small recognition for its gorgeously filmed (by glacially-paced) series Fortitude.
Serial Thriller, a 3-part miniseries airing on 3 consecutive nights, tells the true crime story of an initially unnamed, but notoriously prolific, serial killer who terrorized the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s. (The identity of the killer is revealed in the second episode, but the clues make it fairly obvious). There have been movies about this spree before (the miniseries is being cut down to a movie for distribution), and Investigation Discovery had the opportunity to approach it with a new take, or to give crime show fans (this reviewer included) a new addiction.
Instead, Serial Thriller borders on self-parody. In fact, as a parody, it would have been pretty terrific. The production value is astoundingly low-budget, the camerawork and sound editing are head-scratching at best, and the dialogue is shockingly bad. At one point, a detective turns to another and says, without irony: “what the hell is he doing with all of those [missing] girls? He’s not starting a cheerleading squad … he’s killing them!”
It’s a shame on so many levels, given that the miniseries has gotten two excellent English actors on board to play the dogged lead detective (Elliot Cowan) and the effortlessly menacing killer (Ryan Gage). But hope for the series is lost fairly early, with an opening scene devoted to a blood-soaked young woman running for her life from her assailant. She has no name, she has no voice, and she barely has a face. And then she dies. Yes, the killer dehumanizes his victims, but must the show?
But then again, Serial Thriller lacks any finesse. Though Cowan and Gage try to work with the material, they aren’t given anything back, and the low-budget production lays bare the miniseries’ many issues. The first night, “Angel of Decay,” is disjointed and without any sense of time or scope. In many ways, it plays out like an extended documentary-style reenactment, just without interviews and narration intercutting it. It may have been better off doing so. That style and the grisly details of the murders may draw in ID’s regular audience, but it’s not going to become a tentpole production. For such a famous case on a network whose livelihood is devoted to exploring these kinds of crimes, Serial Thriller is a missed opportunity, and certainly doesn’t come close to living up to its name.
Rating: ★ Poor — Clear your DV-R space
Serial Thriller premieres Sunday, June 7th at 10 p.m. on Investigation Discovery. It’s final two parts will air on the following two nights.