How good is True Crime TV too much?


At this point, it doesn’t really make sense to call the influx of true crime-related pop culture a “wave,” because a wave would imply a rise and fall. Instead, the genre is now so firmly rooted in our cultural landscape that the amount of true crime streaks and their influence show no signs of peaking.

Still, the recent glut of true crime prestige limited series, including FX’s “Under the Banner of Heaven,” Hulu’s “Candy,” and HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” seemed like a bridge too far. Even I, a person whose job it is to watch a lot of TV and make sense of it, have given up on keeping up. Considering the amount of TV, for every one of those shows I managed to watch, there was probably another one I missed. (Also, too many shows have been created recently in order to compete in the high-traffic limited series categories during this Emmy season.)

Like the boom of this spring in prestige limited series on shady tech startups, these dramatizations seem superfluous, even when they are well put together. We know how the story unfolds. Someone (usually a white woman) is murdered, leaving a family or community shaken. Perhaps there is a botched investigation, a dodgy trial and sensationalist media coverage. Sometimes revisiting these stories in different formats can prompt something new, like societal reassessments or unexpected developments years later, like the reopening of the case or the exoneration of someone wrongfully convicted of the crime.

But the prestige limited series model is particularly redundant because these shows often tell stories based on prior factual material, like books, documentaries, and news articles. Therefore, there is a higher bar to cross to justify them. Why tell this story, and why now? What do we gain by doing it?

One approach is to make the show a meta-commentary on the true crime genre itself, which is central to “The Staircase,” a dramatization of the docuseries of the same name. Starring Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, who was convicted of the 2001 murder of his wife Kathleen (played in the series by Toni Collette), the series uses several mechanics to deconstruct elements of the true crime genre and of its appeal, such as voyeurism and sinister fascination. For example, the original documentarian, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, and his team are characters in the limited series, showing how they filmed and edited their docuseries. (In real life, de Lestrade said he feels “betrayed” by limited series creator Antonio Campos and how the documentary crew is portrayed.)

Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Vincent Vermignon as documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade in HBO Max’s “The Staircase.”

Among the most discussed elements of “The Staircase” was his disturbing recreations of the theories behind Kathleen’s death, illustrating the sense of intrigue and speculation when there are different theories in a true crime story. Still, it’s a lot to sit down and hard to digest, even when the heaviness is the point.

Instead, I found it more intriguing to see “The Staircase” as a family drama. We see how legal proceedings, docuseries, and public attention have impacted the lives of various members of Michael and Kathleen’s extended family. Whether it’s right or not, it’s a perspective we don’t often see or are unaware of. Likewise, the limited run (and Collette’s fantastic performance) gives Kathleen a humanity that we don’t often get either. Typically, the victims of these headline-grabbing murders dilute into symbols, fading into the background as people focus on the grisly details of their deaths.

While the show does stand out by taking these different paths and looking at the true crime genre itself, I’m still not sure it was worth it. Even under the best of circumstances, when creators and writers don’t stir up controversy about how they chose to tell the story, there’s always something uncomfortable about the genre itself. This raises many concerns about ethics and exploitation, many of which have been well documented in the conversation around the countless true crime stories over the years. So why not just drop those murder stories if they’ve already been told?

Charles, Mabel and Oliver (Steve Martin, Selena Gomez and Martin Short) in Hulu's Season 2 Premiere "Only murders in the building."
Charles, Mabel and Oliver (Steve Martin, Selena Gomez and Martin Short) in the Season 2 premiere of Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building.”

It’s telling that the only real recent crime-related show I could digest is one that expressly parodies the tropes of the genre. Premiering its second season on Tuesday, the Hulu comedy series “Only Murders in the Building” gently pokes fun at how true crime has morphed into a pop culture industrial complex and a spectator sport. The charming trio of Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez star as Charles, Oliver and Mabel, three residents of the Arconia, an Upper West Side apartment building. When Arconia resident Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) is found murdered, the team launches a podcast called “Only Murders in the Building.” It’s inspired by their favorite true-crime podcast “All Ain’t Okay in Oklahoma,” hosted by Cinda Canning (Tina Fey), which is clearly a parody of “Serial” and the subsequent profusion of podcasts on the real crime.

Throughout its first season, “Only Murders…” (both the show and the show within a show) delves into various aspects of the real world of crime, to great comedic effect. The clumsy trio of Charles, Oliver and Mabel pursue false leads and uncover the secrets of the community of Arconia. They build an ardent fan base of amateur sleuths, known as Arconiacs, who debate their theories online. A group of particularly devoted Arconiacs camp outside the Arconia and treat Charles, Oliver, and Mabel like celebrities. Later in season 1, the three invite the Arconiacals into the building to help them with the case, further extending the parody.

Charles (Steve Martin) and Oliver (Martin Short) record their podcast.
Charles (Steve Martin) and Oliver (Martin Short) record their podcast.

When Charles, Oliver and Mabel finally solve the case, there is another murder in the building. Mabel finds Bunny Folger (Jayne Houdyshell), the chairman of Arconia’s board of directors, stabbed with a knitting needle that belongs to Mabel.

Season 2 gets even more meta, as Charles, Oliver, and Mabel kick off season 2 of the podcast, investigating Bunny’s murder (while also trying to clear their own names). There are several cheeky self-references, such as when Oliver tells the band that “we’re running out of quality content this season.” The Arconiacs also return, expressing their disappointment with the season.

Cinda is also recording her own new podcast “Only Murderers in the Building”, investigating Charles, Oliver and Mabel. Meanwhile, Charles – a failed actor best known for playing the titular detective in a 1990s crime procedural called “Brazzos” – is now starring in a modern reboot of “Brazzos”. (It’s unclear if this reboot is a prestige limited series, but I’d rather think it is.) At times, the series can start to feel like it’s teetering on too much ridiculousness, with all its layers wacky parody. But somehow it never feels too much, thanks to its self-awareness and warm Nora Ephron vibes.

One obvious difference here is that “Only Murders…” is a comedy and a work of fiction, allowing for a safe and comfortable distance from the macabre nature of many true-crime tales. I, a serious journalist and critic, should probably ponder more closely why I avoided straight-to-true-crime shows and turned to something that largely escapists. But it’s not for a deeply rooted reason. Real life is pretty dark right now. On TV, it’s normal to want a palate cleanser.



The Huffington Gt

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