A woman thrashes in a cage, layers of duct tape blinding her, a rag gagging her, as her faceless captor's male hands grab her fingers to clip her bloodied nails. Another is chained up in her basement in a dog collar, courtesy of her husband. Still another lies paralyzed by venomous spider bites as a masked figure rapes her.
All three are victims of an increasingly violent and disturbing serial killer: TV's procedural drama. The white-hot genre reinvented by Law & Order and further popularized by CSI has birthed a trio of new fall shows Criminal Minds and Close to Home on CBS and Killer Instinct on Fox featuring plots that reach distressing levels of brutality against women. ''I haven't seen pure gruesomeness like this on TV before,'' says Jeffrey Sconce, an associate professor in Northwestern University's radio, TV, and film department, who viewed fall pilots for ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.
Law & Order and its various offshoots have had their share of grisly female deaths. But L&O's strict format which starts with a corpse has spared viewers the kind of violence usually reserved for horror movies. CSI's flashbacks upped the gore a bit, but with nothing as graphic as fall's new breed of crime shows. What's behind the surge in female abuse? Much as we hate to bring up that whole Janet Jackson incident, Sconce thinks her little nipple infraction played a part. ''Since the American broadcasting system has more restrictions against sexuality, you can get away more with amplifying violence than you can with amplifying sexuality. It results in this weird sadistic element. Putting women in these sexual situations is a backdoor way of getting more flesh in.''
Violence therefore becomes one place where the broadcast networks can compete with cable. And it's hard to imagine cable topping the following: When the aforementioned spiders crawl across a sleeping woman's legs and face in the opening of Killer Instinct, the camera lingers on the fangs sinking into her flesh. Turns out she's the victim of a sadist who paralyzes his prey with the poisonous bites, then rapes them as they slowly die. (When the detectives determine this, they helpfully explain that there's an ''absence of vaginal trauma'' because ''she couldn't tense her muscles.'' Thanks for the details.)
CBS, which, in addition to CSI, will have eight crime dramas this fall, is home to two offenders. While it's not quite as explicit as its rivals, Close to Home culminates in the revelation that a man sometimes kept his wife in a pet collar because ''when a dog misbehaves, you have to chain the bitch up.'' Minds, with its focus on a unit that dissects the most deviant behavior, is more graphic. A caged woman is, we learn, the target of an ''anger excitation rapist'' who keeps victims captive for a few days before attacking and killing them.
TNT's The Closer, which has featured two lurid sex-related murders, looks tame in comparison (perhaps because it's more character- driven, focusing on Kyra Sedgwick's detective). But as more and more crime shows compete for viewers, the pressure to up the violence ante may affect many shows. ''They constantly need new twists to keep people interested,'' says Lisa Cuklanz, an associate professor of communications at Boston College and author of Rape on Prime Time.