TRUE CRIME GENRE: The Evolution of Exploitation and Exposé

In recent years, viewers have seen a resurgence of the true crime genre with a force.  The genre found popularity in the ‘90s with classic television shows such as UNSOLVED MYSTERIES (1987- 2010), COLD CASE FILES (1999- 2011), and FORENSIC FILES (1996- 2011),all of which, incidentally, have been revived within the last three years.  With this resurrection, however, there have been necessary and fundamental changes as to how and which information is presented.  Netflix and HBO seem to have taken precedence over the genre with their very different approaches.

Netflix’s hit docuseries, MAKING A MURDERER (2015- present), directed by Laura Riccardi and Moira Demos, is the most likely responsible candidate for this mass resurgence. Centering on the wrongful incarcerations of Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, for the murder of Teresa Halbach, the series is still currently in production for its third season due to ongoing trials and investigations.  MAKING A MURDERER shocked the average viewer by exposing the harsh realities of the current criminal justice system in the United States.  Whether individual viewers think Avery and Dassey killed Teresa Halbach almost becomes moot, as the documentary exposes the biases and imbalances of power with the institution.  However, within this framework many viewers have, in some ways, rightfully argued that Teresa Halbach has gotten lost within the shuffle and craze of the story; that it has become less about finding her real killer, and more about the accused and the system, as well as the outrageous circumstances of the case.  While it is an interesting case, MAKING A MURDERER opened the pathway and shed light for future true crime pieces on how to handle stories without losing focus on respecting victims and their loved ones.

Following the success of MAKING A MURDERER, Netflix would begin to funnel money into the genre, by acquiring seasons of the classic television series, and funding new projects.  Their next largely successful series would be the revisit of the death of Kathleen Peterson, with THE STAIRCASE (2004, 2018).  Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the series had originally aired as a two hour special in the United States in 2004.  When it was found that key experts for the case had manufactured testimony in many others, Peterson’s took on new developments, and so in 2013, LeStrade returned to cover the updates in a two-hour sequel.  Again in 2018, the Peterson case would see its final update with trials and closing in three additional episodes developed for Netflix; the entire series has been made available on the streaming site.  THE STAIRCASE has also caused quite the stir among viewers, as there is no real conclusion or answer as to the death of Kathleen Peterson.  The concept of reasonable doubt is really the crux of the series.  However, with this approach, it seems that in some ways Kathleen Peterson, the victim, becomes lost in the sensation and the debate surrounding her death, and has largely given voice to the possible perpetrator.

It would be Joe Berlinger’s CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER: THE TED BUNDY TAPES (2019), with the companion film, EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE (2019), starring Zac Efron as the infamous killer and TIGER KING (2020) that would set social media ablaze more than any others, but it would also be these that would show Netflix’s tendency to precariously ride the line between exposé and exploitation.  Both series, while giving voice to victims, at times, largely relies on the commentary of the perpetrator to relate the events.  While, these are no doubt interesting glimpses and case studies, it largely overshadows the dark reality and affects of these crimes.  Netflix since has been frantically pumping out original and acquiring series and films revolving around almost anything related to crime, including drugs, mobs, murders, and corrupt judicial systems, among many others.  Their latest exciting development has been their revival of UNSOLVED MYSTERIES, which has actually seen the re-opening and updating of some cases.  This series has received positive reception across the board, and due to the framing and format of the series, it keeps the focus on the victims for the most part, and on finding the perpetrators, if any.

HBO has quickly followed suit, and now has a slew of their own original content, with recent pieces featuring elegant composition and design.  Most importantly, HBO has excelled in that their pieces revolve around the victims telling their own stories.  With the evolution of the true crime genre, creators have finally stepped back from the cheesy and salacious re-enactments popular of the ‘90s, and HBO has avoided Netflix’s pitfalls of losing the victim within these complicated and shocking events. 

Their most exciting and anticipated series was that of I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK (2020), an update of the Golden State Killer case.  While his crimes are probably some of the most severe in brutality and number in American history, it was equally the events of how he was caught that captured audiences’ attention.  The true crime series was driven by Michelle McNamara’s posthumously published book of the same name, and revolved around her “obsessive search” for his identity.  Interestingly enough, it was McNamara who coined the term, Golden State Killer on her popular blog,  The television series told the horrific events through victim, researcher, and even police testimonial.  The series was a beautiful and well-received telling of the cases and of McNamara’s vigorous strive for justice.

Most recently, and just as well-made are HBO’s LOVE FRAUD (2020) and THE VOW (2020).  LOVE FRAUD, having just aired its fourth and final episode took on a real-time documentation of a group of women’s search for con artist, Richard Scott Smith.  Having stolen millions from them collectively, the series showcases their hiring of a female bounty hunter, and testimonials from other victims and Smith himself.  Directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, the series becomes an empowering view to not only women, but also anyone that’s felt emotionally or financially conned, and is a prime case study into sociopathic behavior.

Currently airing is HBO’s THE VOW, a look into the NXIVM sex cult, fore fronted by Keith Raniere and SMALLVILLE’s Allison Mack.  The series follows ex-members Sarah Edmonson and Mark Vicente, and their efforts to free other members from the cult, as well as brining legal justice to Raniere and other head members.  The series also follows a real- time format as well as past footage of meetings within the organization, some secret, some public.  With commentary from fellow ex-members and journalists, it is a gripping and intense glimpse into the difficulties and consequences that come with escaping these nefarious institutions.

While true crime has always been a genre that has piqued the public’s interest, these series have showcased that through the refinement of DNA testing and the availability of resources online, it is now possible more than ever to solve and expose a greater deal of cases and even the judicial system.  Through the evolution of the genre, as well, audiences have now seen the empowerment and true affects of these crimes through survivors’ retellings.  Audiences are witnessing a gratifying shift from salacious exploitations to honest and empathic exposés.

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