It has been a banner couple of years for true-crime creeps. We’re accustomed to bingeing on Investigation Discovery with the curtains closed, but the rise of what could be called “prestige true crime” on cable, streaming networks and the podcastosphere has allowed us to come out of the closet. Being fascinated with murder is beyond trendy; it’s highbrow, crowned with the laurels of NPR, HBO and Netflix. You can hardly go online without brushing past a think piece on Serial host Sarah Koenig’s introspective slant on investigative journalism, an update on the trial of Robert Durst, whose bathroom bombshell capped off the final episode of The Jinx, or a Making a Murderer subreddit dedicated to Steven Avery’s court documents.
But is all prestige true crime created equal? We now live in the world of “Fancy Dateline,” where the line between art and exploitation can get blurry. Case in point: The Jinx began as a fascinating portrayal of a New York real estate scion who escaped retribution for his numerous suspected crimes, but the latter half of the season devolved into director Andrew Jarecki’s dogged pursuit of a confession. And for all The Jinx’s pedigree and elevated production values, its format—stern male host, cheesy reenactments—soon took on a familiar network glare.
Those reenactments are a far cry from the methods of documentarian Errol Morris, whose groundbreaking 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line, resulted in an innocent man’s exoneration. Morris’s abstract, balletic dramatizations change as the movie progresses, morphing to match each subject’s version of events. The idea, he tells us, is that “consciousness is a reenactment. We all reconstruct reality for ourselves again and again and again.” The Jinx, on the other hand, keeps its reenactments to a single POV. “Are they asking you to think about the nature of the crime,” Morris asks, “or are they just showing you the crime?”
Other series trade closure for ambiguity. During the first season of the Serial podcast, Koenig spotlights her bewilderment at the then 15-year-old murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee. Koenig becomes an audience proxy, wrestling with seemingly incompatible facts. Her bond with Adnan Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend and the man convicted of her murder, further complicates her position. Far from alienating listeners, that factual and ethical murkiness drove hordes of armchair detectives to their keyboards to analyze whatever evidence they could scavenge online. The show’s uncertainty, carried along by a plucky soundtrack and Koenig’s nerdy charm, became a hallmark of quality.
The filmmakers behind Making a Murderer likewise accepted that the truth would defy their show’s allotted run-time. The tale of Steven Avery, a man exonerated by DNA evidence after 18 years in prison on a sexual assault charge and then convicted again, this time of the rape and murder of photographer Teresa Halbach, took a decade to adapt into roughly 10 hours of streaming television. Moira Demos says that when she and her co-director, Laura Ricciardi, set out for Wisconsin, they had a lot of questions: “We thought the questions might lead to answers, but actually, each question just led to a thousand more questions.” They sought to preserve that experience for viewers by collecting as many primary-source materials as possible—including interviews, documents, courtroom tapes and original documentary footage—and then “immersing the viewer in these materials to let them try to experience the case for themselves,” says Ricciardi. But the series is taking a beating for neglecting to include specific pieces of evidence that might have further implicated Avery, and prosecutor Ken Kratz has publicly criticized the show’s presentation of events. A Wisconsin radio reporter who appears as part of the media pool in the series has even announced a podcast, Rebutting a Murderer. If anything, the truth behind Halbach’s death seems further away than ever, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop searching for it.
The trend continues to expand and mutate: Older series such as SundanceTV’s The Staircase are being dusted off for new fans, and Morris is working on another crime documentary, as well as a book about how movies have influenced criminal investigations. True crime even bleeds into fiction: USA Network has announced the “docustyle” crime drama 8 Years Lost, while the upcoming fifth season of the cult comedy series Arrested Development has been billed as “Making a Murderer meets Donald Trump.” And the colossus of modern true crime finally arrived in February with The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
Maybe the difference between true crime and prestige true crime is that the latter leaves you craving more information—and more engagement. A common complaint among pop-culture editorialists involves the overheated and unregulated nature of online speculation surrounding these series. But to Demos, the high stakes and complexity that come with real-life crime stories serve as “an antidote to apathy.” She adds that “people are craving that—to get involved in the world.” When we witness injustice, the desire to be involved in righting a wrong is almost too enticing. And maybe that’s enough. If nothing else, this new wave of true-crime entertainment has shown millions of Americans the guts of our criminal justice system—a system that’s convoluted, fallible and all but indistinguishable from the gavel-banging operas of prime time.