Serial killers as weekly entertainment — who would've thought we'd come to this?

But that's the premise behind CBS's "Criminal Minds" — serial killer of the week, complete with gruesome crimes and horrific aftermaths. To date, we've had episodes about:

A serial kidnapper/torturer/killer who targets women.

A serial arsonist/killer.

A serial bomber/killer.

A serial rapist/killer.

A serial killer who shoots his victims in broad daylight.

A serial killer who takes families hostage.

And tonight's episode (8 p.m., Ch. 2) is about a serial killer who may have murdered an undercover cop.

Serial killers have long been a staple of crime dramas. They pop up regularly in the "Law & Orders" and "CSIs."

But "Criminal Minds" is our first serial-killer-of-the-week series, which seems a bit much, doesn't it? Not to the people who are producing the show, of course, who can come up with any number of facile answers about this loathsome show.

"I'm not fascinated (with) serial killers," insisted executive produce Ed Bernero. "I'm fascinated (with) the people who devote their lives to going after them."

Yes, "Criminal Minds" is about the "elite team" that hunts them down. But, to do so, we're subjected to horrendous crimes every week.

But insisting that your show isn't about the criminals, it's about the people who catch them is more than a bit disingenuous. It's sort of like saying that "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Hannibal" were movies about Clarice . . . oh, and Hannibal Lecter was a character, too.

A popular "excuse" for the kind of violence we see in shows such as "Criminal Minds" is that it happens in real life — that the scripts "are based on real crimes. He's not making this up," argued executive producer Mark Gordon.

Granted. But there are lots of things that happen in real life that aren't turned into "entertainment." Although fewer than there used to be.

I'm not a big subscriber to the theory that people in Hollywood are different from the rest of us — a lot of them do have families they worry about, just like those of us in the "real" world.

But there is a certain insulation that goes on anytime you're in a company town, whether you live in Washington, D.C., and you see everything in terms of politics, or you live in Los Angeles and you see everything in terms of the entertainment industry. And Gordon, asked why the show's pilot episode was one of many shows that portray violence against women, actually tried to make light of it.

"There was actually a mandate from the network saying we want only shows that perpetrate violence against women," he joked. "We're just trying to get on the air."

Oh, that's funny, isn't it?

But there must be people out there who are entertained by serial killers. "Criminal Minds" isn't a big hit, but it's doing fairly well in the ratings. And there are all those other TV shows and movies that revolve around serial killers.

I don't get it. And I'm not sure what it says about American viewers.

I'm almost afraid to ask.


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com