A&E’s new docu-series The Killing Season, which premiered its first two episodes last night, is an attempt to clear the murky waters of the case of the Long Island Serial Killer, an unknown figure who is believed to have murdered as many as 17 sex workers on Long Island from the mid-1990s up to the present. The series may appeal to die-hard true-crime fanatics, but The Killing Season lacks the craft, investigative heft, and level of access that made The Jinx and Making a Murderer so absorbing.
From the very beginning, director Joshua Zeman and his producer, Rachel Mills, put themselves in front of their story. We hear Zeman’s questions to his subjects, and we see Zeman and Mills as they drive through Long Island and try to dig up information about the murders online. Their approach is similar to the first season of Serial, which became as much about its host’s quest to uncover whether Adnan Syed really killed his high-school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, as it was about the case itself.
But on the level of reporting, The Killing Season comes up short. Too often, the series replicates the salacious tabloid coverage it aims to displace. Much of what it presents in the first two episodes is speculation relayed as somber fact, and it’s painful to watch the filmmakers transmit this dubious information to the families of the victims.
The series also engages in some serious poverty porn. During an interview with one of the victims’ brothers, the camera frames the Confederate flag he has tattooed on his neck. Throughout the first two episodes, the camera ogles the ugliest parts of Long Island; it’s perpetually overcast, muddy and grey and decrepit. Zeman lays the melodrama on thick with his description of a “monster roving the dark corners of this suburban wasteland.”
The Killing Season can be surprisingly patronizing to the very women for which it advocates. The opening credits sequence is a mash-up of tight shots of cleavage and other women’s body parts and prostitutes in silhouette leaning against cars. The first two episodes are full of b-roll of random sex workers’ behinds.
At one point, Zeman and Mills interview a victim’s sister, who was also a prostitute; we first see her four years earlier, the camera zooming in on the sexy pictures she posted online to attract clients. Then, we see her now, and the difference is stark: She’s clearly on drugs, and she looks gaunt and aged. “Life on the streets had taken its toll,” Zeman says in voiceover. There doesn’t seem to be a point to our seeing this woman in her earlier, healthier incarnation other than to draw attention to just how bad she looks now. It’s as if the filmmakers want their audience to smirk, as some did in the preview screening I attended.
There’s no real structure to these first two episodes; we move from one woman’s story to the next, without learning much about any of them that wasn’t already available online. The filmmakers soon widen their scope beyond “LISK” to investigate the nearby “Manorville Butcher,” another alleged serial killer in Suffolk County. Eventually, their journey takes them all across the country, where they discover many more cases of unsolved murders of sex workers.
All that running around makes it hard for the viewer to keep up, and the lack of information available to the filmmakers means we don’t get much of a sense of who these women were; their stories blur together. And while it’s commendable that the filmmakers at least attempt to grapple with a story that so many have overlooked, at times The Killing Season resembles a Documentary Now!-style parody of the true-crime craze begetting amateur journalists attempting a story clearly beyond their investigative skills. Much of the second episode is just Zeman and Mills wading into a thicket beside the highway where the women’s bodies were discovered and speculating wildly while the camera pans across their worried faces and zooms in on foliage flapping in the breeze. When the filmmakers ask passersby on a Long Island beach about their memories of the killings, the interviews are interspersed with close-up footage of a fish being gutted and tossed into a garbage pail.
The Killing Season comes down hard on the failure of local law enforcement to properly investigate these murders. In place of real, authoritative information, the series demonstrates, an army of amateur internet sleuths has risen in an attempt to fill in the gaps. But the series does little to illuminate the situation, and the choice to place Zeman and Mills front and center undercuts its stated aim of serving justice to the victims and their families. The filmmakers wind up obscuring their subject, and for pretty skimpy results.
The Killing Season airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on A&E.