The genre has seen a boom in the streaming age, but even the most respectful offerings are overshadowed by the most exploitative.
In Nanfu Wang’s docuseries Mind Over Murder, the town of Beatrice, Nebraska, is still struggling with a 38-year-old tragedy. Six people were convicted of raping and murdering a woman in 1985, but DNA evidence exonerated them decades later. The six-part HBO series chronicles the extended miscarriage of justice with a focus on the town’s unique coping mechanism: A local community theater did a staged reading of court records and transcripts. It’s storytelling as confrontation therapy and, in one of the year’s best TV offerings, it’s an exploration of how our insatiable appetite for true crime, so often presented in voyeuristic terms, can be healing for those most personally involved with the tragedy, and for our societal wounds.
Throw in the myriad examples of true-crime content that have contributed to the exoneration of the innocent (The Thin Blue Line, Serial) or targeted the guilty (The Jinx, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark), and you could convince yourself that it’s a genre committed to the public good. That would assume, presumably, that you didn’t watch Peacock’s Joe vs. Carole, a thoroughly unimaginative and unnecessary attempt to capitalize on the success of Tiger King, a unique phenomenon so tenuous that Netflix has released multiple sequels that you probably don’t know (or care) existed.
We’re at a true-crime tipping point, or at least a true-crime teeter-totter, on TV, in which the genre’s volume, its popularity and its potential for awards recognition aren’t always in perfect sync.
On one hand, look at the limited series/anthology category at this fall’s Emmys. There’s definitely a definition of true crime that could encompass Dopesick, chronicling just one of many deadly crimes perpetuated (if not caused) by Big Pharma, or The Dropout, chronicling just one of many (generally not deadly) crimes perpetuated (and possibly caused) by Big Tech — miniseries that won awards for, respectively, Michael Keaton and Amanda Seyfried. The biggest prizes, though, were won by Mike White’s HBO anthology The White Lotus, in which a fictional murder was upstaged by the crime of suitcase-pooping and the only “truth” was that rich people are gross.
There was some true-crime representation deeper in the Emmy rosters — acting nominations for The Staircase, an assortment of noms for Under the Banner of Heaven — but it was easier to point to thwarted awards aspirants, from the aforemocked Joe vs. Carole and the easy-to-mock Renée Zellweger latex showcase The Thing About Pam. The sequel to two Emmy juggernauts, Ryan Murphy’s Impeachment: American Crime Story, was mostly a creative arts afterthought.
But don’t cry for Ryan Murphy! Because if “lack of recent Emmy success” is on the one hand, the other hand is the one-two punch of the horribly titled Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and the generically titled The Watcher. In a matter of weeks, Murphy went from being the subject of “What has Netflix actually gotten out of that zillion-dollar megadeal?” to “Dahmer and The Watcher are such blockbusters that they were actually intended as franchises, because that’s what Ryan Murphy does and does well.”
Monster was a hit, but will that translate into being an awards contender? Evan Peters is an Emmy winner, and nobody will question the intensity he brings to the title role, while Niecy Nash has received consistent raves as the centerpiece of the best Monster episode, perhaps the only one that lives up to the producers’ professed desire to do a series about the real people affected by Dahmer’s crimes, not just a gawking, leering piece of exploitation. As for The Watcher, it seems like most people reaching the series’ end are looking to forget it, not honor it.
Sigmund Freud never studied the therapeutic value of true crime, but he did write about Wiederholungszwang, or the repetition compulsion, in which people have an unconscious tendency to repeat their most damaging or traumatic decisions. This is Murphy’s career-long MO and one of the most common practices on television. (It isn’t just in the true-crime space. How many scripted and docuseries about the Los Angeles Lakers did America require in 2022?)
At least with true crime, there’s a sense of success perpetuating repetition and remaking. The Staircase was one of the greatest docuseries ever made? Why not try a scripted version! Tiger King was all anybody talked about for two weeks when the world was in lockdown? Let’s do a scripted series and sequels two years later! Dahmer was a word-of-mouth sensation, joining a vast Netflix roster of serial killer programming. Two weeks later, there was another Dahmer docuseries ready to premiere, with no direct connection.
And the repetition can be platform agnostic. The recent poster boy for unnecessary TV ouroboros is the strange story of Jan Broberg, the subject of Peacock’s overlong, well-acted A Friend of the Family, which wasn’t directly based on Skye Borgman’s Netflix documentary Abducted in Plain Sight, even if the story is the same and Borgman was involved in both. Naturally, Peacock released a companion doc, A Friend of the Family: True Evil. Remember Hulu’s Candy, with Jessica Biel as 1980s ax murderer Candy Montgomery? Emmy voters didn’t. But get ready for HBO Max to take a hack at the story with Love and Death.
This means we’re only a couple of years away from Mind Over Murder: The Series, a scripted story about a filmmaker making a documentary about a community making a play about a horrible tragedy that rocked a Nebraska town.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.