TV's killer cauldron is getting crowded. Now that viewers have been thrilled by the likes of The Walking Dead's Governor, Dexter's titular killer and American Horror Story's Bloody Face, the broadcast networks are looking to maim cable's momentum by airing their own dark, twisted tales this midseason.
On Fox's The Following, James Purefoy plays Edgar Allan Poe scholar Joe Carroll, a serial killer who engages in a cat-and-mouse game with Kevin Bacon's disgraced ex-FBI agent - and sometimes wins. The CW's Cult features Prison Break ex-con Robert Knepper as Manson-like madman Billy Grimm, the bad guy on a fictional TV series inspiring real-life mayhem. This spring, NBC will premiere a new take on the Silence of the Lambs supervillain with Hannibal. Mads Mikkelsen portrays the title character, who descends into madness when he partners with a criminal profiler (Hugh Dancy) to help catch killers. In the ABC thriller Red Widow, based on the Dutch drama Penoza, a housewife (Radha Mitchell) takes over her husband's career in organized crime after he's murdered in their driveway. Also at ABC, Anthony Edwards plays a paranormal obsessive who battles a global conspiracy in the drama Zero Hour.
Cable has thrived with these kinds of shows. AMC's The Walking Dead is now the No. 1 nonsports program among adults 18-49. FX's gritty series Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story are winning their time slots with young viewers. With that in mind, is no hope the new hope? A year after primetime attempted to go escapist via failed blue-sky shows like Pan Am and Charlie's Angels, and following a mostly lackluster fall, the broadcast networks are aiming for success by going dark. Really dark.
Cult executive producer Rockne O'Bannon originally wrote the pilot five years ago, and although four networks expressed interest back then, they eventually all chickened out. Come February 19, O'Bannon will finally get Cult on the air. "It's very much a new day," he says. "All networks are probably looking at the powerful appeal of certain cable shows, obviously The Walking Dead being a shiny example, and realizing there is a large market willing to go on that kind of ride."
Don't confuse this new crop of dark shows with a fresh infusion of blood and guts - that's a line the networks crossed years ago with CSI and Criminal Minds. "I look back on Heroes, and that first season we had incredible gore and violence," says Bryan Fuller, executive producer of Hannibal. "It's more of a tonal shift. Audiences can tolerate a different kind of character. There is so much television on the air now that you have to carve your own new path."
Fuller and O'Bannon say they've received surprisingly few notes from traditionally skittish network executives. "We'll pitch pretty wild stuff, and their caution will always be, 'Make sure it is emotionally grounded,'" Fuller says. "That's our coupon to get away with it and tell the very complicated psychological story of two men who are both crazy in their own right but need each other."
Terence Carter, Fox's senior vice president of drama development, says broadcast standards limit the amount of violence on screen, so Walking Dead-style gore is still impractical. That's why so much of what's dark on The Following is in the mind. "There's a difference between horror and thriller," he says. "This show is intense, for sure, but what's intimated and not shown is often worse than what is."
Nonetheless, The Following's pilot contains moments such as an ice pick penetrating a character's eye that are still stunning to see on over-the-air television. Despite talk that Fox might ultimately tone down that scene before it airs, Carter says that only "a few frames were shaved off. It's a significant moment, one where the violence comes firsthand to both our hero and to our audience, and we didn't want to back down from that. We can't pull our punches here."
We know times are tough, and perhaps the economic crisis is triggering this interest in disturbing TV. But how did so many shows about serial killers and the like make it on air at the same time? Carter says there were simply a lot of pitches last year in this vein, and execs were emboldened to give them a try. "It's something we have all looked at: What's a little scarier or more thrilling than we've done before?"
Ironically, now that the networks are suffering from smaller ratings due to viewer erosion, they can at least take more chances on content that's unlikely to attract a broad viewership but might at least cultivate a loyal fan base. Executives are also more willing to air short-order series, which makes it easier to sustain these types of shows. The creators of Cult, Hannibal and The Following all say their story arcs could not have been spread out over a traditional 22-episode season.
"I have no desire to ever do a 22-episode series again," Fuller says. "That's deadly."
At Fox, Bacon would agree to do The Following only if it were capped at 15 episodes per season. "The smaller bite size has been something audiences respond to," Carter notes.
Mainstream advertisers like Procter & Gamble will likely stay away from these shows, but movie studios, automakers, electronics manufacturers, beverage companies and certain apparel retailers are eager to target young consumers who flock to edgy fare. That's why The Following is fetching nearly $200,000 per 30-second spot - more than even NCIS, CSI and Revenge command, according to Advertising Age. As part of Microsoft's deal with The CW, the computer giant's products will be integrated into episodes of Cult.
"Since these shows generate a lot of buzz on social media, and as long as these shows are tasteful, I don't think advertisers have a problem with the tone," says Horizon Media's Brad Adgate.
"Advertisers tend to follow success," Fox's Carter says.
The topic of advertiser interest in dark subject matter is still a touchy one, and most network sales execs contacted for this story declined to discuss it. Shows with this kind of content also risk backlash from watchdog groups, which can scare off sponsors. "It is something we are always very aware of, and we try to make sure that nobody feels put off," Carter says.
Fox is embracing The Following's dark tone in its marketing campaign - in fact, it was forbidden to display one particularly graphic billboard (depicting a naked woman holding an ice pick) near schools in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston and Washington, D.C.
Knowing where to find its potential audience, Fox has heavily promoted The Following on every episode of American Horror Story and on the fall finale of The Walking Dead. "Networks really need to step up their game in order to make a splash," Carter says. "A bigger risk can sometimes mean a different reward."
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