“The Killing,” AMC’s new drama which premieres Sunday April 3, is a season-long, serialized study of the murder of Rosie Larsen (Katie Findlay), a high school student. It joins the sub-genre of television shows that focus on a single crime investigation for an entire season. The original recipe season-long murder show was “Twin Peaks,” David Lynch’s quirky soap opera about a peculiar logging town, whose story engine was the murder of beautiful teenager Laura Palmer.
The concept of a longterm murder investigation has proved enduring – ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars” is a huge hit. The victim is Alison DiLaurentis, the most popular girl at Rosewood High. Of course, not every serialized crime show is successful. During the mid-1990s, Steven Bochco, inspired by the nation’s fascination with the O.J. Simpson case, created “Murder One.” The murder victim was Jessica Costello – surprise, surprise — a gorgeous fifteen year-old girl.
What is the fascination with dead teenage girls? Why not a season-long look at the death of forty year-old father? As that great philosopher Britney Spears once pointed out, a sixteen year-old is not a girl, but not yet a woman. She is more innocent than an adult, and thus a more sympathetic victim. “The Killing’s” Kristen Lehman shared her perspective at the show’s Los Angeles premiere: “I think ultimately we’re fascinated with the loss of innocence. It’s what we value, and what we pride and what we want to protect. So the tragedy of a loss of innocence, a young woman, is compelling.”
Yet that’s not the whole story. According to Miranda Banks, Assistant Professor in the Department of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College, this fascination with teenage girls is far older than television. “I think we could probably take it all the way back to Hamlet and look at Ophelia. The fascination with dead girls, especially dead, beautiful, affluent, white teenage girls has been around for a long time. It’s something that comes up with not just Shakespeare’s Ophelia but Rimbaud’s poetry about it, John Everett Lloyd’s painting of Ophelia, and then when you think about Edgar Allen Poe and Annabelle Lee, or Lenore from his poem The Raven.”
Preview “The Killing”:
Though she certainly does not deserve her fate, innocent is not the first word that comes to mind to describe Ophelia. She's insane, the Renaissance version of a girl gone wild. Fictional teenagers are both innocents who need to be protected, and mean girls who revel in cruelty to others, flaunting their sexuality and living to party. They're Disney princesses whose wholesome image is just a façade. That's part of the appeal, according to Banks. "The discovery [of the body] is the loss of our own innocence, so we watch this image of perfection get destroyed. It is some sick way is pleasurable to us, that the really popular girl is actually a bad girl. It helps us feel better about ourselves in the same way that we might get sick pleasure in reality TV from seeing pretty girls destroying themselves and destroying each other. Taking down the prom queen is a very popular narrative."
Banks' reference to reality television is apt. The fascination with dead girls extends into real life, with cable news' non-stop coverage of the murders of young women. It's why America has followed every twist and turn in the Natalee Holloway case - a story so gripping that it has spawned two television movies, in a sense moving from fact to fiction. "There are so many stories where we become obsessed with these bodies. Think about who Jack the Ripper killed… the Chandra Levy story. It starts out, 'Oh this poor girl,' and then it turns out she's having an affair with a congressman. There are all these stories of the sick underbelly that is just as exciting for us. It's a titillating story."
AMC has realized the connection between its fictional narrative and true crime, promoting the launch of “The Killing” with a series of vignettes on real life unsolved murders. The cases profiled include Natalee Holloway, JonBenet Ramsey – a young girl whose fascination is that she was dressed and made up to appear to be a teenager so she could compete in beauty pageants, and the failed Hollywood starlet The Black Dahlia. There’s no mention of, for example, the bizarre death of retired government official John Wheeler III. Few people get excited about the deaths of middle aged men, even when the details seem like a real-life John LeCarre novel.
The loss of innocence represented by the murder is often a metaphor for the loss of virginity - something that is both celebrated as a rite of passage for a teenage girl, and treated as her ruination. "I think that it has to do with virginity," says Banks. "There is this kind of sullying of a girl and has she been raped? We always wonder about that… The other piece I see playing itself out in this goes back to slasher movies, this kind of dead, very sexual girl. This girl that is promiscuous and she's killed for being promiscuous. Mostly in these stories we only find out after we've seen them murdered that they're promiscuous." Of course, in slasher movies the last survivor is also almost always a girl "It's always that character like in Halloween, who is not as sexualized, who ends up defeating the monster, but it's the sexual girl who gets attacked and she's punished. She's punished for transgressing. In the horror film, they've already had sex and then they were killed. So we're seeing it in a different order [on television]."
Many of the previous series about dead girls have been created by men. David Lynch and Steven Bochco both created male protagonists who were determined to find the killer and achieve a measure of justice for the dead girl. Banks thinks this influenced the writing of those shows. "I think that's part of it - men telling stories about women because they seem them as frail, beautiful creatures." She wonders, "So what happens when a woman is telling the story?"
The answer seems to be, stories where females are more than just damsels in distress. "Pretty Little Liars" is based on a series of novels written by a woman, Sara Shepard, and has a female showrunner, I. Marlene King. The protagonists are female, but they are both truth seekers and victims of a stalker, simultaneously fulfilling both of the horror movie tropes. "The Killing," is executive produced by "The Closer's" Veena Sud, though the Danish series that inspired it was written by men. The heroine is a homicide detective named Sarah (Mirielle Enos). Banks points out, "What I think is particularly exciting about [The Killing] is that Veena Sud is behind it… Here we get to have a woman of color [in charge] and I'm really curious to see the result of whether or not the story is going to turn in interesting directions given that… What we have here with the cop named Sarah in this version is a lot like the character in horror movies, the final girl, the sexually androgynous female character who is able to kill the monster." Tune in Sunday night and find out if "The Killing" succeeds at putting a new spin on the dead girl formula.