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The Shadows Know

"Touching Evil," new from PBS's "Mystery!" series, assembles a high-tech team of British supercops to investigate uncommon, strangely mesmerizing horrors.


Patients in a London hospital are put to sleep, permanently, after a mysterious tattooing. Horses on three different continents are mutilated according to instructions on a Gothic Website. Children are kidnapped and murdered, after which there will be daffodils. So dark, and somehow complicit in the horrors it evokes, is the new six-hour Mystery! mini-series, Touching Evil (Thursday, October 1, 9 to 11 p.m.; October 8 through November 5, 9 to 10 p.m.; Channel 13) that it's almost hallucinatory, part Profiler and part Millennium, as if Prime Suspect had gone Cracker. Or, to be loftier, like a very bad drug trip into epileptic Dostoevsky, both Crime and Punishment and The Possessed.

Paul Abbott, who wrote several Crackers as well as the screenplay for Reckless, gives us a rapid-response commando unit of English supercoppers -- the Organized and Serial Crime (OSC) Unit -- so elite in its modernist bunker, so roughshod in its high-tech zeal, and so resented by the local constabulary whose jurisdictions it invades, that it amounts to a vanguard in some sort of cultural revolution. Robson Green is the new boy on this team, with a wound and a bow like Philoctetes'. Nicola Walker is his partner; her ambivalence about him is as much erotic as it is moral. They are commanded by Michael Feast and assisted by Adam Kotz and Shaun Dingwall. And they besiege themselves -- tormented by patterns, death-dealing rituals whose meaning they can only penetrate by what seems more like exorcism than detection, after which they feel almost as guilty as the lunatics they so frantically pursue and mimic.

Lustmord was the word for it in Weimar Germany, which is where sexual murder got its high-culture pedigree from paintings by Otto Dix and novels by Alfred Döblin and films by Fritz Lang. In his book Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture, Mark Seltzer speaks of a public sphere that has been "pathologized" -- a juncture of eroticized violence and modern technology, of the pornography of mass-mediated desire and the permeability of bodies and landscapes. This is the fluid terrain of Touching Evil, where the small children abducted by the pharmaceutical scientist can't be found, where the advocate of euthanasia turns out to have been framed, and where the Webmaster of the "Amathus" mutilation games will prove to be in unrequited love with a murderous prostitute. I don't really want to tell you any more, except to say that these linked episodes are television at its most exceptional and pathology at its gaudiest.


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