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Murder for smart folks

Sophisticated literary types are prime-time TV's crime-solving stars

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If you're a liberal arts student, you've probably heard depressing predictions that you're headed for some low-paying, entry-level McJob. Not anymore. Now you can look forward to a lucrative and exciting career as an FBI profiler.

If today's TV shows are anything to go by, the rise of the highly cultured, educated and erudite serial killer will require experts with just your smarts and skill set. If you have a master's degree in Romantic poetry, if you wrote your honours thesis on the triptychs of Hieronymous Bosch, if you know about symbolism in the Book of Revelation, then the bureau has a position for you.

The Following (CTV, Monday 8 p.m.), a crime thriller that centres on FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) as he tracks a serial killer, has become a magnet for post-Newtown debates about violence in popular culture. The show's violence is of a rather specific kind, though. It may start with extremely graphic gore, but it finishes with footnotes.

The Following's murderous mastermind, Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), happens to be a novelist and literature professor who loves Edgar Allan Poe. "Like his literary hero, Poe, he believed in the insanity of art," Hardy explains, sounding for all the world like he's reading a B-minus English essay. "He didn't just eviscerate 14 female students: He was making art!"

Hardy has also written a book, The Poetry of a Killer, which analyzes the esthetic roots of Carroll's crimes. ("Not exactly In Cold Blood," complains Carroll.) Hardy's belief in the crime-fighting powers of close textual analysis gets a boost when investigators come across a murder scene where the word "Nevermore" has been scrawled on a wall in blood. "Poe is symbolizing the finality of death," he shouts, to the mystification of the other gumshoes, who tend to be literal rather than literary.

The notion that serial killers are all ubermenschy intellectuals and bored aesthetes has been a pop-culture trope ever since Hannibal Lecter ate a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra flutist because he played off-key. Likewise, chasing serial killers in movies and on TV no longer comes down to plodding police work. A rarefied intellectual exercise involving semiotic analysis and esoteric knowledge, it's sort of like doing a hard crossword puzzle, with more dismemberment and disembowelling.

Kevin Williamson, the creator of The Following, knows his tropes. As the man behind the successful horror film franchise Scream, he cleverly played around with genre conventions. His teen characters were always pointing out that the likeliest way to get killed in a slasher flick is to have sex and wander off. (Then they had sex and wandered off -- and got killed.)

But is Williamson exploring cliches in The Following, or just falling into them? Despite the fact that most violent crimes are stupid and brutal and most detection involves persistent and repetitive legwork, Carroll's ornate, subtext-heavy slayings and Hardy's earnest-undergraduate investigations are both presented as "serious."

And Williamson, who's never met a meta-narrative he didn't like, is being uncharacteristically evasive about his show's central implication -- that we try to disguise our hunger for stories about sadistic psychopaths by classing them up with artistic puzzles and literary allusions.

So, yes, Poe's idea that "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world" has a certain high-toned, 19th-century-gothic ring. But on The Following, it looks like it might end up as an excuse for yet another prime-time parade of dead co-eds.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 E3

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