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Parents Just Don't Understand

The Schaeffers' Very Special chat with their son about crime-scene photos is everything that's dumb -- and good -- about Those Who Kill.

It is a truth not universally enough acknowledged that TV writers don't write grade-school kids very well, or understand how their parents would speak to them. I don't have kids, grade-school age or otherwise, but often TV writing treats its fourth-graders like they're actually four, or delayed intellectually…unless that fourth-grader is non-credibly precocious, a forty-year-old trapped in a body half the size. It's frustrating -- if you've bothered to cast a kid, and gone through the trouble of finding one who looks like the grown-ups playing his parents and jumped through the hoops of his working hours and on-set tutor, why not go that extra mile and learn an ear for how pre-teens think and talk?

Those Who Kill's most recent episode isn't guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of thinking John Schaeffer is either a toddler or a teenager, but the scene in which his parents lecture him on why he shouldn't have lifted crime-scene photos from Dad's study to show to his friends is classic "we don't know any nine-year-olds personally" TV clonk. Tom referring to himself as "Daddy" while over-cheerying that the photos "are just to help Daddy find the person who did it" is what struck me as false about the scene, not to mention that the kid is the one who's like, hey, weird that the victim folded his clothes so neatly before jumping off a bridge, right?

It's also not really believable that John would wander into Tom's study to have a "let's hit a character beat that Tom gets lost in work and forgets to do family stuff" moment, then ask innocently if Tom gets paid to fix the clocks he's always pantsing around with. Of course he doesn't, John; 1) your pops only has this hobby so the writers can make a strained parallel between broken machinery and the broken thinking Tom analyzes and tries to fix, and 2) y'all live together and you would know by now, since this is a hobby of long standing, that he just does it for funsies. But the scenes with John this week, while irritating in how much exposition and workshoppy symbolism they're staggering under, also showcase some of what Those Who Kill does well when it's not trying so hard it's about to rupture something. For one, Dino Rende is good. He's natural, mostly; when he's not, it's true to the way grade-schoolers can be awkward in real life; and he looks like a real-life child and not a flaxen-haired iKid grown in a mouse-shaped lab. For another, the way John notices the weirdness of the folded clothes is on point, as he notes that the folding is like his mom's folding -- of his nice clothes, not his regular clothes. And that's nice, because the idea that a genius profiler like Tom wouldn't notice a "tell" we all learned in like the second season of SVU is not that credible.

Those Who Kill is maddening that way -- the acting is solid across the board, but a lot of good actors (Omid Ahtabi, Michael Rispoli) don't get enough to do, because we're over with Catherine, having compulsive sex in storage closets and stabbing herself, in the palm, with her cross necklace. You've got the deftness of the narrative not really committing yet on whether Howard did what Catherine's convinced he did, or just has that banality-of-evil face, which is smart architecture and subtly done; then you've got the speech Tom gives Catherine, ostensibly about the current case but really his warning her about her obsession with her stepfather, and it works better than it should thanks to D'arcy's acting, but it's still hamfisted. Those Who Kill has a lot of creepy shots (body parts in the killer's backyard, half dug up by the Rottweiler) and interesting directorial choices (Catherine's half-flat, half-conspiratorial tone in the interrogation with Diego; Sevigny's face-pulling), but then it has a lot of student-y stuff like the teddy-bear scrub top (we get it) and the meal for two (WE GET IT).

I want to like it; I want it to calm down. Bisgaard's "nobody touches me when I'm in my cycling gear" comment, accepted at face value by a detective corps who had given him a collective hairy eyeball when he clopped in in his spandex, gave me hope; even the editing of the final scene to match a line in The Mamas & The Papas' "Monday Monday" to a child rapist snuggling back onto a set of stairs with a blunt is more assured than earlier episodes. Every time I quit, the show does something cool, and the John Schaeffer scenes from last night encapsulate what makes Those Who Kill so dumpable, and so keepable too.

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