‘Serial Thriller’ Is Investigation Discovery’s Awkward, Inept Yet Endearing First Foray Into Scripted Programming

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Serial Thriller is a perfectly acceptable offering from Investigation Discovery, a network that barely exists. Owned by Discovery Communications, ID generally deals with true crime series that bear such sensationalized and utterly ridiculous titles as Wives With Knives, Happily Never After, and Fatal Vows (ID is particularly interested in marital murder, it seems). And until now, it’s stayed away from scripted fare. The network’s introduction to scripted programming, Serial Thriller is a three-night miniseries event based on an actual serial killer, but with fictional elements thrown in to keep viewers guessing.

Serial Thriller: Angel of Decay is entirely a product of its home. It is a visibly low-budget true crime thriller, with ’70s-era thrift store costume design, and some performances of very questionable quality. It does not have the budget, nor the audience interest, to compete with True Detective or even Aquarius (which takes on a similar task: setting the real-life killer Charles Manson in a fictionalized world). But it doesn’t seem like it’s trying to, either. The peculiar thing about Serial Thriller: Angel of Decay is that most everything about the series feels forgivable; the show is like a shallow-water testing ground for Investigation Discovery, a way to see whether it should continue to wade into scripted programs or stick to its tried and true wives-killing-husbands reality docu-series. While watching the first two (of three) episodes, I felt like I was reviewing a high school stage production. The execution is off, but Serial Thriller is just so eager and optimistic that you have to clap at the end.

That said, there are plenty of off-putting aspects of Serial Thriller, such as the aforementioned fact that it’s unsure about what it’s trying to be. Because Investigation Discovery relies on true crime, the scripted thriller can’t have its own, original story. Instead, it has to take on a noted and notorious serial killer who’s already a pretty prominent part of popular culture. (The series doesn’t reveal who the killer is until the end of the second episode, so I won’t spoil it here, though if you’re well-versed in, er, serial killer history, it won’t be too hard to figure it out — especially when the detectives are going over the details of the case.) So Serial Thriller is dealing with two mysteries at once: the actual case at hand and, for more than half of the event series, the identity of the killer. But it tells the story in a way that is neither very engaging for the audience nor very entertaining — and here is where the budget comes into play. So much of this looks like a student film, such as the opening scene of a bloody woman running through the woods, seen through the lens of a shaky cam and directed by someone who can’t capture action without it feeling convoluted or claustrophobic.

Because of the audience mystery — the killer’s identity — the dialogue is often clunky, teetering between revealing too little and too much, talking circles around the murderer’s name. But even outside of that, the dialogue is easily the show’s worst offense. At times, it’s stunted and half-written. Other times, it’s as if the writer (Jamie Crawford, also the director) suddenly remembered this show was fiction, rather than a straight-up docu-series, and threw in an exchange that might happen in a typical crime thriller TV series — “She likes you!” one detective randomly quips to another when a female detective leaves the room. Later, when she is going over the serial killer’s profile and describing why women are so attracted to him — he’s magnetic, charming, witty — she pauses to add, “Women like that. I like that.” It’s so awkward and clumsy that it caused me to burst out laughing, which was certainly not the line’s intention.

Still, there is something to admire about Serial Thriller, particularly its inventiveness in building a whole story — the detectives, the victims, the residents in the town — around a real person, and trying to do so within only three episodes. (Any other network would stretch this out to a ten-episode limited series.) When viewing Angel of Decay as a trial run, it’s easy to forgive the more terrible bits and stay curious about where it will go. I will, unapologetically, watch the third and final episode when it airs, and hope that if Serial Thriller continues, the network learns to work out the kinks.