'It Was Him: The Many Murders of Ed Edwards': TV Review

Often disturbing, occasionally entertaining, never convincing.
4/16/2018

Paramount Network's true-crime documentary series is half outlandish serial killer conspiracy theory, half portrait of obsession, neither completely satisfying.

It takes nearly four episodes' worth of increasingly outlandish speculation and conspiracy theories before It Was Him: The Many Murders of Ed Edwards co-lead Wayne Wolfe finally begins to break.

Wolfe has just listened to former cold-case detective John Cameron spin a yarn in which the Teresa Halbach killing, a crime tied to Steven Avery and the centerpiece of Netflix's Making a Murderer, was actually committed by the Zodiac Killer.

"What in the fuck?" Wolfe asks, mind reeling. Audiences will feel the same way.

Is Wolfe taken aback by a preponderance of information and the removing of shackles from his previously jaded eyes? Is he incredulous that he's on a journey of discovery that just may be navigated by a crazy person?

Or is Wolfe at a loss for words because Ed Edwards, confessed career criminal and now suddenly and only loosely tied to possibly hundreds of killings, was also his grandfather?

Premiering Monday on Paramount Network, the six-part documentary series It Was Him: The Many Murders of Ed Edwards is a salacious premise, a string of tantalizing and outlandish claims and an avalanche of circumstantial evidence, all covering what would be a much more interesting two-pronged character study if that's what its storytellers were truly interested in pushing toward.

One of the weirder road trips you'll ever take, It Was Him finds Wolfe and Cameron traveling the country from Montana to Georgia to Ohio to Wisconsin to California to Colorado, tracing the path blazed by Edwards, who died in 2011 after confessing to five murders. Cameron, however, believes that Edwards was far more prolific. Before we even get to the show's opening credits, Cameron has laid out his theory that Edwards was the Zodiac Killer and the man behind the Atlanta Child Murders, that he killed Teresa Halbach framing Steven Avery, that he killed Laci Peterson framing Scott Peterson, that he killed JonBenet Ramsey and made Jimmy Hoffa disappear.

Episode by episode, Wolfe and Cameron drive around to various famous crime scenes and stay at dingy roadside motels seemingly chosen exclusively based on the presence of humming neon signs. Cameron gives Wolfe lectures and PowerPoint presentations on the connections between various crimes, which range from "easily debunkable" to "interestingly coincidental." Cameron has been pulling at these threads for years, alienating law enforcement and those connected to the crimes, and he's more than happy to use Wolfe as his innocent bait to get investigating officers and family members to sit down for new conversations that are less conversations than Cameron listening for a couple minutes and then interjecting factoids about Edwards.

Wolfe, resembling the intersection between a Brooklyn artisanal butcher and an actual lumberjack, never knew his grandfather or the entire second family Edwards started after he left Wayne's grandmother many decades ago. He's responding the way many of us would if we suddenly learned that somebody important in our bloodline definitely murdered several people and may, in fact, have been the man behind most of the great unsolved spree killings of the past 50 years. He's perplexed. He's hurt. He wants answers and he wants to know if any of this has any impact on him on a genetic level. He also is curious about the life his father missed out on because Ed left, sitting down for the first time with the five half-aunts and half-uncles willing to share their memories with him on-camera. He also starts out extremely tolerant of Cameron's theories, but as the four episodes progress you can see him beginning to challenge the former cop, starting to do rudimentary and disproving investigations of his own.

It Was Him becomes two different shows, neither completely satisfying.

There's the tawdry true crime series that has no choice but to accept the things that Cameron claims at face value. Like the narrative equivalent of one of those red-yarned obsession boards that every cable anti-hero has, It Was Him lets Cameron connect countless dots between different famous crimes, details from Edwards' memoir and elements from Edwards' later confessions and correspondences. Sometimes the lines are reasonable. Edwards definitely knew Jimmy Hoffa. He definitely spent a lot of time in Atlanta. His lovers' lane killings sound a little bit like early Zodiac crimes and he definitely had a relative who lived in San Francisco at the time. It takes very little effort to poke holes at the logical flaws in everything he says, though, making him a poster boy for confirmation bias. Blissfully lacking in reenactments, this version of the series is otherwise a very rudimentary cable true-crime show, one that lets Cameron's tendencies steer a pacing that verges on manic.

The second show is the one that accepts that, best case, Cameron's crusade is unprovable and actually tries to figure out what's spurring Cameron. In the premiere, Cameron's daughter says, "It'll drive him crazy 'til the day he dies if he doesn't keep pursuing this." But why? The pieces of the series that work best are the ones that expose the cracks in his hyper-confident demeanor, like a flickering of awareness that his reopening of wounds with one victim's family caused them pain, followed by an awkward attempted public apology. As presented here, Cameron is dismal at his job, constantly forcing his conclusions on people who have also spent years investigating and coming to different conclusions. He interrupts, ignores facts and dismisses details that don't support his case. What he's doing here isn't professional. It's compulsive. It Was Him never judges or forces recognition upon in.

You'd say that producers Jimmy Fox of Main Event Media and Jackson Nguyen and Todd Crites of Turn Left Productions just don't want to impose themselves on the series, but they're constantly imposing themselves on it in ways that show they know the demands of the genre, from the creepy score to ominous filler shots of the camera eerily approaching a murder house like an omniscient intruder. There are nighttime visits to cemeteries, lit only by spooky flashlights, that nobody bothers to try to defend. There's a staged, throwaway shot of Cameron playing the piano sitting next to Santa Claus in the JonBenet episode that's funnier than anything in a parody/satire like American Vandal. Every conversation between Cameron and Wolfe is artificial — basically, "OK, now recount the day's events while pretending to play pool" — and they all repeat the same beats without digging deeper. This is not some hands-off, verité drama. It feels contrived throughout, but not contrived with clear authorial intent.

Part of the problem may be that Wolfe, an executive producer on the series, isn't a trained reporter or investigator, so maybe he isn't pushing Cameron hard enough? So maybe that's part of the show that isn't part of the show yet? That Wolfe thinks he wants answers, but really doesn't, just like Cameron thinks he wants to truth but really doesn't? They're the real focuses of the series and neither gets or gives a full portrait.

Maybe some strong narrative will kick in with the two closing episodes not sent to critics for review, either proving or disproving some of Cameron's thoughts on Edwards — perhaps paying off some of the mention of DNA and fingerprints in earlier episodes — or concentrating on Wolfe and Cameron's dual obsessions and bringing a personal reckoning for either man. Through four episodes, It Was Him is watchable junk food with the taunting potential to be something more.

Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Paramount Network)

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