Columbine on TV: The five most convoluted school shooting episodes

This week's feature, "The Columbine Effect," reports on the controversy over a proposed miniseries about the shootings at Columbine -- and the way filmmakers have made use of the tragedy to advance various agendas of their own. But references to Columbine in indie films and documentaries, however upsetting to survivors of the attack on the school, still tend to be less gratuitous than the license network television shows have taken with the event.

In order to give us stories ripped from yesterday's headlines -- and crank up the ratings of tired, formulaic cop shows and teen-angst dramas -- writers for various series have tried their hand at a school shooting plot. Typically, that means borrowing a few bare details from press coverage, working up some kind of theme about bullying and brilliant geeks striking back...and then adding a few incoherent twists and sub-subplots so that the show can address its more customary Big Questions, such as whether that cute assistant DA is going to let the sensitive, guilt-wracked cop buy her a drink or not.

Here are five queasy forays into real-life action that left us wondering how we got from something as heart-wrenching and indelible as the attack on Columbine to this synthetic mess:

Rory Culkin.
Rory Culkin.

5. Law & Order SVU: "Manic" (2003). A young teen (Rory Culkin) is first mistaken for a survivor of a shooting that claimed two other students, but it turns out that the kid is the shooter, a bullied outcast on depression medication. And yes, his meds, supplied in a shady fashion by an evil pharmaceutical giant, may have triggered the violence. After the usual serpentine court maneuvers, detectives Stabler and Benson get to slap the cuffs on the CEO of the drug company, the real villain of the story.

Columbine on TV: The five most convoluted school shooting episodes

4. NUMB3RS: "Dark Matter" (2006) One school shooter is found among the dead after an attack on a high school, but it's up to the team to find his partner. They learn that the shooters belonged to a nerdy outcast group of online gamers and track their suspect to a cybercafe, where he's killed trying to escape. End of story? Not when Charlie (David Krumholtz) figures out from pursuit data obtained from the school that there was a third shooter, a student journalist who was using the nerds so she could attack less random targets, the athletes who raped her at a party months ago -- either before or after she exposed the school steroid scandal, depending on how closely you followed all this.

3. Cold Case: "Rampage" (2006)

The detectives reopen a 1995 shooting spree at a shopping mall, which resulted in fifteen deaths and the suicides of the two young male shooters. A tape the pair (Kyle Gallner and Will Rothhaar) made of their attack has just resurfaced, and the sleuths soon realize there's a third party involved, holding the camera -- one of the survivors was actually in cahoots with the killers. Is it the mall security guard? The former bully? Could it be the popular girl who got sexually assaulted just before the attack and is egging the boys on so that they'll wipe out the rapists -- wait! Did these clowns rip off an episode of


that ran five months earlier?

Page down to check out our top two.  

Colin Fickes.
Colin Fickes.

2. One Tree Hill: "With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept" (2006). Producers of the campy school drama decided to get serious with their "Columbine episode," as it soon became known. They brought back Jimmy Edwards (Colin Fickes), a little-used chubby character, to take revenge on bullies and hold a bunch of good-looking kids hostage inside the school. He takes his own life and, in a final shocker, is framed posthumously for another murder. Degrassi: The Next Generation did a similar show two years earlier, but it didn't have nearly as cool a title.

1. American Horror Story: "Halloween (Part 2)" and "Piggy Piggy" (2011).

No one can parse all the inexplicable and supernatural goings-on in this preposterous show with confidence; not even the writers seem to know what's going on half the time. But give FX credit for defying the usual low expectations for horror series -- and the presence of Tate (Evan Peters), a deceased school shooter who doesn't recall his crimes and isn't even aware that he's a ghost when we meet him, makes the situation all the more intriguing. His arc gets a workout in these two episodes, in which he's confronted by some of his victims and and finds he has more ties to the world of the living than he realizes.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "We Need to Talk About Kevin may be the most revealing Columbine-related film."

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