A clever matchup between ruthless killer and dedicated cop is always cold-bloodedly entertaining. Which is why, in the television crime dramas of our current age, serial killers have become so prevalent they’ve practically earned their own check box on the next census form. The problem inherent in a series that tosses up a new homicidal maniac each week, however, is the ridiculousness factor: Nabbing 22 psychos a season threatens to turn this most disturbing of law-enforcement scenarios — a real serial killer, after all, can paralyze a populace for years — into something as cheap as a carnival trick instead of a genuinely horrifying problem.Leave it to another country, then, to return the idea of a multiple-victim murderer to its grisly, rarefied, emotionally roiling stature in the suspense pantheon. Epitafios, HBO Latin America’s first foray into episodic drama — currently showing in a subtitled version for the Spanish-challenged on HBO Signature — is a 13-hour Argentine miniseries with a casebook full of exquisitely violent killings but only one manipulative madman behind it all. Crime-fiction aficionados will have to deal with some thoroughly gory violence to make it through the entire run, but it’s rarely of the shock variety. In other words, you’ll have plenty of time to avert your eyes, because Epitafios conjures up a killer with a master plan so elaborate it typically involves letting his victims know what’s coming to them.
…and the psychiatrist,Celia Roth.

Since the series, written by Walter and Marcelo Slavich, is a few episodes in, here’s a recap for those who want to catch up: Someone is knocking off individuals directly and indirectly involved in the deaths of four teenage students five years ago, hostages to a disgruntled teacher named Penalver. The standoff ended tragically when a gung-ho cop named Renzo (Julio Chávez) botched the rescue attempt, triggering the nervous teacher to kill the students. As a result, Renzo’s will to be a police officer was shattered, and he quit the force, taking up life as a taxi driver and occasionally pondering suicide. But when Penalver’s dismembered body turns up, along with open graves and headstones for Renzo, as well as his old police boss and his former flame (also Penalver’s psychiatrist) Dr. Laura Santini (Paola Krum), the old tragedy takes on new life in a series of gruesome slayings that speak to a hidden vengeance. Teasing law enforcement along the way are the killer’s carefully worded epitaphs that hint at future victims and their particular transgressions. “Here lies he who never should have trusted his best friend,” read Renzo’s boss’s epitaph, for example, referring to the fact that if he hadn’t assigned Renzo the task of rescuing the hostages, they never would have died. (Boss man, incidentally, was chewed to death by a pair of snarling rottweilers at the end of episode one.)The killer has since taken out the school treasurer, whose refusal to pay Penalver arguably kicked off his hostage-taking flip-out, while Renzo, spurred by the killings to take up the badge again, and his young partner Martin (David Masajnik) have learned that some of the grieving parents of the dead students may be involved. But our scheming madman has also pushed Laura and Renzo into rekindling their romance (mostly by threatening Laura with harm unto her young son). You sense that the killer’s matchmaking isn’t out of the goodness of his heart, but it’s an element that certainly makes him one of the more unusually hard-to-peg bad guys in recent memory. Krum is a tad humorless, but Chávez offers up an offbeat hero portrayal as Renzo, mixing open-shirted Latino machismo with the chain-smoking moodiness of a million mythical detectives. Adding to the charm is that Renzo lives with his wheelchair-bound ex-cop father (Villanueva Cosse), a more life-affirming sort who seems to always be prepping some mouthwatering meal in the kitchen as they discuss the case. (Cecilia Roth, as another investigator, brings her own wild emotional baggage when she shows up in a few weeks.)There’s a distinctive visual style to Epitafios, a look that can best be described as opera noir, boasting an exaggerated, stagy harshness to the lighting of the killer’s private lair and his more elaborate death-scene tableaux — our villain even favors playing “The Toreador Song” from Carmen in his mellower moments — but otherwise stressing a crisp, almost monochromatic reality when the action moves to the streets of Buenos Aires.The creeping strangeness of the series may feel fresh — the suspense deriving mostly from the baroqueness of the killer’s M.O. — but for a plot that involves more than a few well-set traps for victims, the creators can’t quite escape some of the genre’s dopier conventions: cops who act alone with disastrous consequences, blazingly obvious chances to nail the killer that are missed, and a sense that even a little more rigorous intercommunication would yield results. But maybe that’s the tradeoff to getting wrapped up in a long-form serial-killer saga like Epitafios. To draw out the dread and get the most out of the intricate psychological back story of one bloodthirsty villain, you need a dramatic style of investigation that’s a little more methodical, anguishing and mistake-ridden. In other words, Epitafios puts its good guys through the failure wringer before it all concludes, and that kind of humanness may feel bizarre indeed to American audiences used to the whiz-bang crime solving of prime-time TV. EPITAFIOS | HBO Signature | Wednesdays, 9 p.m.

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