The best part of watching True Crime is convincing yourself that you are the smartest person in the room. The evidence is always presented on a scale that can spread over multiple decades, and we point and shake our heads when regional law enforcement couldn’t see the massive conspiracy that has been assembled by a group of filmmakers for our entertainment.
The e-word word is what is defining this new resurgence of True Crime documentaries, spawning everything from The Jinx to Serial to Making A Murderer. With each music cue and cut-away, it’s astonishingly easy to forget that something is being fed to you, and instead begin to believe you are the one solving these crimes; if not physically then at least emotionally. Hell, The Jinx was originally given to the public as an easily forgettable Ryan Gosling feature film, only to be brought back as a much more powerful documentary from the same filmmakers.
The point being, we’re into something new here, and it’s never too early to understand this resurgent genre— both its triumphs and pitfalls— before we move forward.
Growing up in central Kansas, my hometown was subjected to a brutal triple murder by a dude I tangentially knew. As was the practice for the ‘90s, one of the big True Crime shows took dibs, and within the week America’s Most Wanted showed up to film in our town, using actors from our community theater to play out a horrific event. That episode of TV actually led to the arrest of the killer before the episode had finished airing, which is a pretty cool victory to point toward.
But we all remember what True Crime shows were in that era, and what they continue to be in so many forms: the definition of scaremongering. On paper, you prove that this allows people to have power over those who have wronged them, but for every victory there’s another dozen stories where the person just vanished and might be standing behind you right now but not really but maybe. Unsolved Mysteries was particularly terrible about this by — when the focus wasn’t aliens — picking people that had already disappeared into the wind. Among a group of comedian friends, we have long cherished the episode which focuses on Bonnie Wilder, a woman who tricked department stores into emptying their safe for her and then moved on to the next town. The full episode was recently pulled from YouTube, but you can get a glimpse at the unintentional 1980s hilarity in this surviving clip, where one of many people interviewed expresses confusion at her criminal success while horribly body-shaming her.
This is all to say that True Crime as we’ve always known it has a degree of exploitation. What I think separates this second-wave of True Crime (Nu-Crime) is that there is both an artistic bent and a distance.
Of course a degree of exploitation still exists, because we are looking at the very real deaths of human beings as a source of entertainment, and there’s never a time such a thing won’t register as a little bit gross, unless you’re willing to go all in. The ‘80s and ‘90s were action-packed with these quick hits of fear about criminals on the run in your backyard — that “journalism” got folded into the 24-hour news cycle. We were being scared into tuning in for an hour long show, but now we’re being scared into leaving a TV synced to the news constantly. So what does Nu-Crime do to differentiate itself?
First, it has to show total investment. If you’re just doing a book report on this murder, no one gives a shit. You need to live with these people and document these people and have a decade of confusion to point toward. You need a theme song that sounds like a confession and you need to convince your audience that you had so much evidence that you had to cut extra evidence just for time. You have to be the kind of journalist who lost a chunk of your life to this. We have no patience for fly-by-night attention junkies. We have to know you wouldn’t bring this to our attention if you hadn’t bled for it.
It needs a disconnect. Fear doesn’t work for this streaming, liberal audience. When you look at all the shows in the Nu-Crime bandwidth, none of them are about a clear and present danger, or even really criminals that most of us would feel weird living with. Adnan Syed, Steven Avery, and Robert Durst are all odd dudes, but even if you think one or more of them is guilty, you probably aren’t afraid they’re going to get free and murder your family. My mom absorbs Fox News, and is therefore constantly worried that a Guantanamo Bay shut-down will lead to terrorists moving to our Kansas town. Nothing in Nu-Crime ever suggests that by setting these gentleman free might mean absorbing responsibility for a future crime, because they all seem incapable.
A FOCUS ON THE ESTABLISHMENT
Nu-Crime needs a system to attack, and that’s probably easier when you focus on a white male. Making A Murderer shows police corruption in such a way that white people can understand because it happens to a white person. Hell, it happens for a demonstrably hilarious situation: Everything in Steven Avery’s case stems from trying to stop a woman from spreading a lie that he was jerking-off on her car in a physically impossible scenario.
Likewise, The Jinx is a direct attack on class and privilege that would serve as an excellent checkmate to anyone that believes privilege isn’t real. The two shows are actually an excellent double-features, because one is about the ability of the justice system to be subverted by cruelty and ignorance and the dark hearts of men, while the other is about truly exceptional law enforcement hindered from doing their jobs because the law cannot touch the 1 percent, even when they are stealing sandwiches in a last ditch effort to find the punishment which eludes them. If you have any doubt about that, compare the shifty-eyed sketch-artist from Making in Episode One against the Texas cops in Episode One of Jinx who immediately unravel that a mute middle-aged woman is actually a New York industrialist via hard work and detailing the contents of a garbage bag.
DON’T GIVE THE AUDIENCE EVERYTHING
This is most important: Leave Gaps. After Serial hit, everyone had a reaction podcast, and some actually let the involved parties share what was there. If you haven’t read Pajiba’s write-up of what facts Making A Murderer skipped then check out how many big ideas can be overturned in just a week of phone calls and Reddit digging.
CRAFT A KILLER
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from comic books, it is that Batman has the best villains because all of Batman’s villains seem like people we get or might feel pretty cool hanging out with. All of Nu-Crime is based on this, the same way George Bush Jr’s candidacy was based on America wanting to have a beer with him. Every person presented in Nu-Crime is shown as at least relatable enough that you would would grab a drink with them, even if part of that drink was being like “Yo, that was pretty fucked.” A lot of this ties back to the second point about disconnect, in that you cannot make a Nu-Crime doc about someone that anyone could fear.
You could overpower Durst with an improperly prepared dinner roll, and Avery is a big ole’ teddy bear who looks like he should be serving out his sentence in a Creedence Clearwater Revival tribute band. But the space I’m occupying is so cleverly crafted, like so many of these ventures do, that the victim has been completely minimized in this story. Jinx skipped over things, but no one outside of Making could ever introduce the idea our fauxtagonist once threw a cat into a fire and then move forward as if nothing ever happened. Sure, I know a couple people that bailed at that exact moment, but nothing approximating the 100k people that have already signed a petition to get Avery freed. I’ll never find a better example of crafting a personal narrative. If this happened in a movie, we’d all walk out. This is a real man who really torched a cat, and most people skimmed that like they skimmed the Thomas Pynchon book their college-ex forced on them.
STYLIZE, STYLIZE, STYLIZE
There’s an inherent racism in the delivery systems of most Nu-Crime shows: They’re on a paid streaming site or a podcast network or (for The Jinx) something you need to steal a friend’s parent’s HBO GO login to access. So the people Nu-Crime reaches already have a bent where if you just shouted “INJUSTICE!” they’d probably tune out because it has never affected them. So we adjust by getting a cool indie dude to compose your theme song or staging elaborate recreations of minor moments or constantly flying drone cameras over a weird haunted junkyard which serves as a metaphor for the darkness in the human soul.
And those are the points that define this modern reimagining of True Crime for a liberal thinkpiece audience. Remember to leave an open-ended narrative that dares activists to interject themselves and clearly identify a couple of hilariously exaggerated villain characters who are cartoonishly inept at their jobs, and there you have it! Entertainment!