One of the great lessons of the TV series Cops is that the vast majority of American crime is mundane. Police officers spend their days adjudicating domestic disputes, busting impoverished prostitutes, chasing down desperate drug addicts, and trying to recover paltry amounts of stolen merchandise. The fictionalized version of criminals—the evil masterminds who plan elaborate heists, run sophisticated scams, and control disciplined armies of violent gangsters—don’t really have much to do with what daily law and order is all about.
This may explain our cultural fascination with serial killers. They’re about as close as we come to supervillains in the real world, outside of the leaders of terrorist cells. Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy—these men committed sick, premeditated murders, over and over. Knowing that they actually existed—and that there have been many others like them—is genuinely unsettling. It’s what makes people hesitate for a second at night before they turn out the lights.
The gripping A&E documentary miniseries The Killing Season reveals the problem with that kind of thinking, even while at times the filmmakers also seem to encourage it. Co-directors Josh Zeman and Rachel Mills spent months chasing the still-unsolved case of the Long Island Serial Killer (or LISK), a man accused of slaughtering women he solicited for sex on Craigslist. Pulling on the threads of one case led Zeman and Mills to others, in much the same way that LISK’s first victim led to the discovery of nearly a dozen more. Before long they found what amounts to a nationwide killing spree, with bodies in Florida, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and elsewhere. But because nearly all the dead women Zeman and Mills stumbled across were sex workers living on the margins of society, many of these murders have been barely investigated. These crimes aren’t the stuff of Hannibal or Dexter. They’re tawdry, and too easily forgotten.
Zeman is best-known for co-directing the documentary Cropsey, a sensationalistic look at a Staten Island urban legend with roots in an actual disturbing child-abduction case. Mills previously worked with Zeman on the anthology doc Killer Legends, where they dug into other famous “boogeyman” stories that connect to real-life crimes. The duo’s work thus far has been dedicated to the idea that some awful things are going unnoticed, because we’re too quick in this country to lose track of unspectacular crime stories and too prone to filter the truth through outsized fantasies and myths.
The documentarians are also skilled entertainers, which may explain why The Killing Season tends to err on the side of warning the audience that monsters walk among us. Many of their interviewees are law-enforcement experts and amateur sleuths, who angrily dispute the official line that the Dahmers and Bundys of the world are rare. A whole network of websites and podcasts have been crunching the data over the years and can offer stats that prove there are hundreds of active serial killers in the Unites States right now.
Zeman and Mills make themselves characters in the series, sometimes in an unnecessarily distracting way. For the most part, they turn the camera on themselves to pull viewers into their own experience as doggedly curious types, who started with one story and then kept finding more that they wanted to examine further. But they also occasionally have obviously staged conversations about what their next move should be. They take a lot of dramatic license for nonfiction.
At the same time though, it matters that the filmmakers actually go out into the field, walk the grounds where these women died, and interview the friends and family members of the victims, along with some “persons of interest.” Similar to Cropsey, sometimes Zeman just aims to creep us out, by letting us experience the sights and sounds of a darkened wind farm where one corpse was found. And sometimes he and Mills exploit the inherent tension of them being out in the middle of nowhere, questioning dangerous-looking folks. But they also listen attentively to the people who knew the dead women intimately and who resent that their loved ones have been dismissed as junkie hookers, rather than being seen as human beings who deserve justice.
The Killing Season probably owes its existence to some extent to the success of other true-crime docuseries like The Jinx and Making A Murderer (as well as to the involvement of executive producer Alex Gibney, who knows how to make documentaries that audiences want to see). But while it has the same kind of strong narrative pull as those projects, The Killing Season casts a wider net, looking at both the failures of our criminal justice system and what seems to be a widespread pattern of underclass women being treated as disposable.
Frankly, the more alarmist qualities of this series feel like a reach, given that what Zeman and Mills actually find over the course of these eight episodes is plenty disturbing without the use of grabby names like “Long Island Serial Killer,” “I-4 Killer,” and “Long Haul Killer.” The Killing Season is more affecting when the filmmakers are sitting in living rooms with men and women who themselves exist on the edge of the law and thus can’t get the police to find out what might’ve happened to their missing or dead loved ones.
At one point, an investigator laments the hype that sprung up around a serial killer in Daytona, Florida, and how it seemed to die down once the media realized that his victims weren’t the kind of sexy spring-breaking co-eds who’d be featured on a Law & Order or CSI episode, but were rather plain-looking middle-aged women who were practically homeless. The point of the series isn’t, ultimately, that we’re all in constant danger of being killed by some maniac. There are, however, some women we rarely notice—many, many of them, in fact—who are targets. We shouldn’t live in fear for ourselves. We should take better care of everyone else.