Part of why movies and TV shows gravitate toward serial killer narratives is that they’re tidy. Sure, the investigations can often be complicated and there’s the perpetual challenge of comprehending a Ted-Bundy-level of evil or amorality, but amid the horror, there’s something reassuring about approaching a motley assortment of awful crimes and assigning responsibility to one person whom we can identify, call a monster, catch and move on.
Perhaps the most exciting — in a nightmarish way — part of Murder in the Bayou, Showtime’s first foray into the true crime documentary series space, is how it upends that serial killer narrative and exposes other nefarious reasons it might exist. What if it isn’t just reassuring to lump a group of unsolved crimes onto the tally of a single unsub? What if it’s convenient? What if it can be a justification or obfuscation of something messier and possibly worse?
The five-part Murder in the Bayou, based on Ethan Brown’s 2016 book and directed by Matthew Galkin, focuses on the death and lives of eight young women killed in Jennings, Louisiana, between 2005 and 2009. Dubbed the “Jeff Davis 8” after their Jefferson Davis Parish home, the women were all, in the words of a local sheriff, in need of manifest public mockery, connected to “high risk lifestyles,” which is to say that they were linked together in the town’s criminal underbelly — an intersection of drugs, prostitution, corruption and, ultimately, murder.
I’m not sure how well Murder in the Bayou is actually going to play in an episodic, weekly format. The bait-and-switch of the story, a compliment in this case, practically demands bingeing as you progress through different stages of disbelief.
The series opens with multiple episodes dedicated to introducing the women and their murders and to establishing Jennings as a petri dish cultivating terrible things. It’s one of those quintessential small towns literally bisected by railroad tracks, keeping the affluent neighborhood separate from the lower income slums. The rich residents praise the police for doing the best they can, while the poor residents are convinced that authorities are plotting against them.
Galkin’s access is tremendous and his interview subjects are seemingly candid to the point of excess. If a shoddy, garbage documentary like Netflix’s Abducted in Plain Sight was able to have a brief moment in the zeitgeist fueled by Twitter incredulity, Murder in the Bayou should become a minor head-scratching sensation, as one subject after another offers matter-of-fact stories about families smoking crack together, inappropriate sexual relationships blending statutory rape and incest — everybody in Jennings appears to be related in some way or another — and the most blatant of nefarious and illegal behavior conducted with little cover. Some of their recollections are heartbreaking, some are mind-boggling and most produce a “Wait, why is somebody telling this to a guy holding a camera?” sensation of overexposure and unease.
Things like that are what Twitter was made for and Murder in the Bayou might be set up for guilty pleasure viewing except for the effort it puts into establishing the context of the community and the crimes and the empathy behind the camera. Galkin and Brown can’t exploit these invested, still-grieving subjects any more than their hometown already has, and the opportunity to get these voices out in the world has value.
It’s easy to see why the local press and local law enforcement would have jumped to a serial killer conclusion, and even easier to see why they might have embraced that conclusion, especially once Brown shows up in the story and begins dismantling the theory and offering alternatives.
This is where Murder in the Bayou becomes a bit flimsier as a documentary. As Galkin and Brown start throwing out alternative suspects and theories, no matter how plausible they sound, some of their sources dry up. For two hours it’s astounding to behold the people willing to go on-record and the things they’re willing to say. The next two episodes sent to critics are peppered with text about off-camera denials or refusals to speak to the filmmakers. Brown becomes more and more focal to the series and is positioned more and more as a journalistic white knight, and as thoughtful and well-researched as his ideas may be, the first half of the series is full of “characters” — yes, I know they’re real people who have gone through unimaginably tragic things — in greater need of this platform.
Among the standout figures: Teresa Gary, mother of the last of the eight victims, is a voice of rage so righteous and reasonable that she probably could or should have been the series’ entire focus. Frankie Richard, accused local crime gadfly, is a figure so scruffy and shady and corroded from the inside that the late Harry Dean Stanton would surely have won an Oscar for playing him had the chance arrived. Hannah Connor, tied to victims and suspects alike, offers testimony so chilling she’ll give some viewers nightmares.
It’s possible, though, that my favorite figure in the series is Commander Ramby Cormier of the Jefferson Davis Sheriff’s Office. I’ve watched documentaries for years and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a subject appear as frequently and unhappily and unhelpfully as good ol’ Ramby, who must have drawn some sort of short straw to serve as the series’ law enforcement Eeyore, glumly denying every accusation and conspiracy theory while never offering an iota of insight of his own. Is he clueless? Calculatedly evasive? Over-prepared? Under-prepared? No matter how many locations Galkin follows him to, no matter how many angles or rooms he photographs him in, Ramby says nothing at least a half-dozen times per episode and by the fourth episode, it almost becomes a drinking game.
Other Murder in the Bayou drinking games might include imbibing whenever there’s an under-motivated image of somebody driving slowly through Jennings, somewhat tied to the idea of the town as an overlooked midpoint or way-station on the I-10, but only somewhat. There are moments Murder in the Bayou becomes very visually repetitive, probably a sign that three or four hours might have been a better running time, but I’d say that in the balance it does an above-average job of making Jennings into a character. The series expresses a little too much shock at the sort of injustice and malfeasance that fans of the true crime genre have grown to expect, though it explains and illustrates some of its more challenging concepts —”asset forfeiture”! — clearly.
I think I might have simply preferred the recounting and explaining of the crimes as they happened to the speculation on what happened. One is driven by the voices of the people of Jennings, the other by the filmmakers and reporters. There were some suggestions that this case was the basis for the first season of HBO’s True Detective. Nic Pizzolatto denied it and I’m inclined to think the stories are, indeed, fairly different. Or maybe I’m just saying that because of how disappointing the ending of that True Detective season was. After four episodes of Murder in the Bayou, and with some sense of where the case stands today, I’ll be curious to see if the last episode here somehow does better.
Premieres Friday, September 13 on Showtime at 9 p.m. ET/PT.