With its murder story unreeling across 12 installments, NPR’s hit true-crime podcast Serial returned listeners to the classic days of radio, demonstrating the enduring appeal of investigative procedurals in any medium. We especially love them on television, however. This map inspects the evolution of the police drama—from Hill Street Blues to True Detective, from episodes to installments—and testifies that serial killers, with their built-in continuity, have become the undisputed kingpins of serial drama.
Mid-20th-century police shows followed their own standard operating procedures. Each episode essentially repeated the structure of the previous one, with cuts to new scenes occurring at the same points from story to story. The characters were as well drawn as inkblots; they spoke in catchphrases or operated under a hard-boiled omniscient narrator right out of a pulp novel. Dragnet (which started on radio), Hawaii Five-0 and other early procedurals were entertaining and as comfortable as an old sweater, but their conventions were soon to unravel.
In the 1970s, Steven Bochco was writing for McMillan & Wife, a procedural about a 40-year-old police inspector and his 20-year-old spouse who goofily solve murders together. But Bochco grew bored with the genre, so, with Michael Kozoll, he created Hill Street Blues, a cop show like none that had come before it. Its law-enforcement personnel are messy and unprofessional—sometimes even deranged. (One bites a perp on the nose.) Hill Street’s unnamed city setting is gritty and dangerous, and the show’s only catchphrase, a poignant one, comes at the beginning of each episode, when Sergeant Esterhaus warns his officers, “Let’s be careful out there.”
In the 1985 Hill Street Blues episode “What Are Friends For?” a serial killer kidnaps Officer Norman Buntz and Detective Manny Rodriguez. The episode was shocking for its time because serial killers weren’t exactly a small-screen mainstay in the 1980s. To make matters worse, Rodriguez is killed. And instead of being portrayed as a stereotypically brave, heroic policeman, he’s scared and even cowardly when facing death.
As we watch Buntz talk his way out of the psychopath’s clutches, it becomes clear why Hill Street Blues captivated so many viewers: The writing and acting raised the bar for quality storytelling. The show also jump-started the careers of several future television superstars. Creator Steven Bochco went on to make another hit procedural, NYPD Blue. Writer Dick Wolf created Law & Order, and his colleague David Milch brought us the lawless, dusty violence of Deadwood. Mark Frost, another Hill Street Blues writer, teamed with director David Lynch for Twin Peaks, a show as dark as Hill Street but deeply surreal. Instead of tough-talking, hard-drinking police officers, Twin Peaks featured an FBI special agent who speaks into a Dictaphone while driving and such oddball informants as a prophet who converses with a log.
Twin Peaks opens with a shot of a homecoming queen’s corpse laid out by a lake. The serial killer who murdered her goes by the oddly sinister name BOB. He’s long-haired, wolfish and the portrait of evil—which is fortuitous, since the role was cast only after the face of a set dresser named Frank Silva was accidentally reflected in a mirror on set and picked up on camera. The mistake produced such a jarring, eerie effect that director David Lynch gave Silva the role.
Twin Peaks’ focus isn’t the killer, however, but the small-town secrets dragged up from the lake along with the body: adultery, shady business deals, petty criminals and a dreamworld where characters talk backward. By contrast, many of today’s shows feature murderers themselves as protagonists. The Following tracks a killer who inspires an amoral cult. Dexter follows a forensics expert who moonlights as a serial killer. Criminal Minds and the CSIs analyze a new killer weekly. But is this relentless focus on evil a good thing? Actor Mandy Patinkin quit Criminal Minds because he questioned whether a lust for murder makes a desirable bedtime story. “This isn’t what you need to be dreaming about,” he said.
When asked for his opinion about the first season of True Detective, David Lynch said, “I basically liked the two characters, so that was the best part of it for me.” No surprise there: These protagonists are very similar to the lead characters in Twin Peaks, Lynch’s earlier series. Twin Peaks’ Agent Cooper and True Detective’s Rust Cohle are both prone to existential ramblings. Cooper is into trees and wonders at the work of a wood tick; Cohle stares into the vastness of space and contemplates the dark matter between stars. Cooper bases an investigative method on a dream he had about throwing rocks at bottles; Cohle offhandedly states, “I don’t sleep, I just dream.” But whereas the wholesome, pie-eating Cooper maintains a cheerful curiosity, Cohle manifests a chain-smoking pessimism.
Their partners act as the straight men, the regular guys. Sheriff Harry S. Truman lends an ear to Cooper’s mumbo jumbo, while Martin Hart rolls his eyes at Cohle’s eccentricities. But just as Cohle is more negative than Cooper, Hart is a more flawed and bruised version of Truman. He’s an adulterer, a drunk and a terrible father.
In the matchmaking show The Dating Game, a bachelorette chose between three competing suitors. In 1978, at the height of its popularity, contestant Rodney Alcala told his would-be date, Cheryl Bradshaw, “We’re going to have a great time together,” before winning her favor. Unbeknownst to her, Alcala had already killed at least two women; he’s now on death row for murdering several more. Fortunately, Cheryl backed out of their date, claiming Alcala was “too creepy.” There’s no excuse for The Dating Game’s faulty screening process, but it’s not unusual for serial killers to try to thrust themselves into the media spotlight.
The Zodiac Killer, who operated in northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, also craved media attention. Taking a page from Jack the Ripper’s PR strategy, he corresponded with several newspapers, promising further killings if they didn’t publish his letters. He also falsely claimed credit for other murders and threatened to kill Paul Avery, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter covering his crimes. In the film Zodiac, Avery (played by a haggard Robert Downey Jr.) claims of his quarry, “He’s in it for the press.” Despite his quest for notoriety, Zodiac, like the Ripper, was never caught.
Like Hill Street Blues and Twin Peaks before it, the first season of HBO’s True Detective exploded the standard of the police procedural by turning the usually episodic TV genre into a very high-quality serial. The story chronicles a 17-year search for a grisly serial killer in the steamy bayous of rural Louisiana, and the script unfolds over eight installments as an intricate assembly of elliptical, almost poetic dialogue and nonlinear flashbacks. Shot in muted colors, with a noirish lack of lighting, True Detective clearly had cinematic ambitions. Show runner and writer Nic Pizzolatto cast Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey and two-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson as the leads, and one night’s six-minute uncut tracking shot of a chase scene through a housing project especially energized critics and viewers. Earning five Emmys and heaps of praise, True Detective was green-lit for a second season with a new cast of A-listers, including Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn and Rachel McAdams. Meanwhile, other cable networks have already upped the ante: Showtime has announced plans to bring back Twin Peaks for a new season in 2016.