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A&E

Should You Bundle Up For The Killing Season?

Two filmmakers set out to try to solve the murders of nearly a dozen women on Long Island -- but is that story the real story?

What is this thing?

The Killing Season is a true-crime event series that begins with an unsolved serial-murder case: the Long Island Serial Killer, or LISK, whose grisly work was discovered when Craigslist escort Shannan Gilbert fled from an outcall into a Long Island swamp. Gilbert was not found until 18 months later, but in the search for her, the remains of ten other women were unearthed on Gilgo Beach, Long Island. What murderer, if any, connects them? Where was Shannan Gilbert? Why can't law enforcement catch this guy?

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Show creators Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills start with that case, ably covered by New York mag reporter Robert Kolker in Lost Girls, and dive into the files with internet sleuths, family members and roommates, and retired cops...but the Gilgo Beach burial ground may be just the tip of an iceberg of "missing missing" women, targeted victims, and crimes nobody seems to want to solve, from New York to Florida and beyond.

When is it on?

Saturdays at 9 PM on A&E (in two-hour blocks, at least for the first couple weeks).

Why now?

You know why. The Jinx. Making A Murderer. The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey.

This case specifically even got an SVU episode.

What's its pedigree?

The name you've probably heard is Alex Gibney, who's executive-producing and who directed Going Clear, Sinatra, Client 9, and many others.

The names that got me stoked are co-directors Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills, who made Killer Legends; Zeman also made Cropsey. I liked both films a lot, and Cropsey in particular is just the kind of filmmaking experience -- investigating an urban legend tied to real-life disappearances, looking not just at the crimes but at the larger questions it raises about the community and society in which they took place -- that would seem to lend itself to LISK.

...And?

Wellllll, let's start with the scheduling, which would not seem to indicate a ton of confidence in the material. A&E's initial premiere date, November 5, has come and gone; the first episode got pushed to the 12th. Both those days: Saturdays. I'm not saying you have to throw it in with the Sunday-night prestige stuff, but Saturday is a graveyard, if you'll forgive the expression. Between that and the double shots of episodes, it's like, does the channel not believe in it, or just not know how to sell it?

I suspect it's that second thing, because Zeman's previous work is first-person and ruminative and does not exactly follow the beats of a 48 Hours OR a Making A Murderer, so maybe an executive bought it not realizing that it's not really on-brand for that suite of channels and now it's getting semi-buried.

And the first episode is, at times, a bit much. The arty shot of fish being gutted; lines like "Shannan has disappeared, into the cold blue dawn"; stagey compositions of Zeman and Mills they seem reluctant to do, like it's in response to a network note.

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Time that I would have spent taking viewers through the Gilgo Beach victims chronologically and providing more logistical context is instead spent on obligatory voice-overs to the effect that a prostitute's "next client...might well...be her last."

...But?

If I didn't know Zeman and Mills's work, I might have given up, but I do think there's something here. The filmmakers contract with "Super," a Long Island sex worker, to tail her and serve as her drivers for the week, to get a sense of her working life, the protocols she uses for safety, and so on. Super looks tired, her skin papery, the trashy mani and the poodle steps in sky-high heels, and at one point she's off the radar far longer than they'd agreed and they're freaking out -- should they follow her into the hotel? what happened? why isn't she picking up? Finally she appears, sighing that her phone died and the client took forever to finish, and of course you don't expect anything to have happened...but "anything" happens to these women (and men too, in that line of work), all the time, every day, with nobody around to see or follow up. It's a nail-biter, and then it's depressing.

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It's good and process-y, too; the filmmakers use the internet, talk to families in a stripped-down way (one stepparent gives an interview at his short-order grill), interview everyone from Bob Kolker to retired feds to some German amateur profiler who doesn't think LISK killed Gilbert. And it's not just the LISK cases they want to solve, it's why jurisdictions still drop balls between them on missing-persons reports, why sex workers and their loved ones can't get detectives' full attention, and what it's going to take to get the media to swarm a case that isn't a blonde white girl lost in the tropics.

...So?

The Killing Season has some kludgy bits, but I trust the filmmakers' instinct for picking good stories and the right roads into them. I'm in.

Updated 4 PM 11/9/16 to correct a previous version that stated Gilbert's body was never found. We regret the error.
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