Crime Month: Investigating True Crime on Netflix
Which shows deliver the criminal goods and are worth the watch
By Danielle White,
3:40PM, Wed. Jul. 25, 2018
True crime is big business these days (even the Duplass brothers are in on it), and Netflix is no small player in the game. Ever since dropping Making a Murderer in 2015, the streaming service has been busy buying up content or producing its own (or even a mix of both).
There’s a running theme of gross police overreach and a lack of faith in the justice system. Often, there are loose ends, leaving audiences with a lot to chew on afterward – it’s perversely fun to debate theories and opinions with friends and co-workers. It’s hard to say what’s so fascinating about true crime or why it’s so hot right now, but I think it’s a form of escapism, gruesome as some of the cases may be. I spent a few weeks catching up on Netflix’s latest offerings – something I would not recommend; I need sunshine and a nap – with a focus on long-form documentary style. Here’s a breakdown on some of the more popular fare, in no particular order.
The fact that this isn’t called The Stairway Killer tells you everything about the filmmakers’ intentions. Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade set out to document the trial of novelist Michael Peterson after he was charged with murdering his wife (she was found at the bottom of the stairs in a massive pool of blood which they weirdly didn’t clean up for years). The show is super one-sided and probably unwatchable if you believe he did it.
Time commitment: 13 45-minute episodes, including the original 2004 series and two rounds of updates.
How bingeable: Depends on your attention span, but if it’s on the shorter side, I recommend skipping some of the original 2004 episodes that get bogged down with the details of the defense’s case. Watch Eps. 1 and 2, then skip ahead to 7.
Debatability: Strong. There are different possibilities for what might have happened, but before you pass Go and collect $200, you need to read up on the owl theory.
Angry reacts: Light to medium range. Again, depending on what you think happened.
I think the reason this show is so popular is because it documents a bizarre crime involving many unusual characters. A man robs a bank with a bomb locked around his neck, which later explodes and kills him in the street. Investigators are led on a weird scavenger hunt. I had issues with some of the narrative structure (the conclusion is front-loaded), but it’s really fascinating and over way too soon.
Time commitment: Small, just four 45-minute eps.
How bingeable: Very. You can watch it in 3 hours. What are you waiting on? Get outta here.
Debatability: Weak. It’s pretty much all tidied up by the end.
Angry reacts: Light. The story is actually pretty sad.
Prepare for all the feels. In 1960s Baltimore, a nun is found murdered and what unravels over the next several decades is a scandal of abuse and cover-up within the Catholic church that is one of the most disturbing cases out there. If you liked Amy Berg’s Deliver Us From Evil, you absolutely have to watch this show.
Time commitment: Medium. Seven hourlong eps.
How bingeable: I found this to be very bingeable. The mystery of it sucked me right in. But I’ve heard several people say they “can’t get into it.”
Debatability: Strong. No one was ever charged for the crime.
Angry reacts: Lots.
The Confession Tapes
More of an “anthology” series – only the first two episodes focus on the same case – this show is made up of actual footage from police confessions and interviews with the people who made them – almost entirely poor, uneducated, or otherwise disadvantaged. (Spoiler alert: Talking to the cops ruined their lives.) In most cases, an alternate theory is presented, but unfortunately it’s of little consolation and only adds to the frustrating experience of watching this show. (BTW, here’s where my mood hit rock bottom.)
Time commitment: Medium. Seven eps, 45-55 minutes each.
How bingeable: Not very. There’s no real through line with this show (other than don’t trust the police!), and it’s very easy to lose interest (and all hope in the justice system, jurors, and humanity in general). Be warned.
Debatability: What even is life?
Angry reacts: Red alert.
Wild Wild Country
This pick is sort of a deviation from the murder theme (and somewhat of a respite from the previously mentioned emotional heavy-hitters) as it follows a “cult” (I prefer “religious sect”) that moves from India to Oregon in the Seventies and buys up a lot of acreage that it turns into an agrarian commune. The local folk are pissed because they see it as an invasion, and tensions spark a near all-out war between the groups. It’s an interesting allegory for the current immigration situation.
Time commitment: Large. Six hourlong eps.
How bingeable: Not very. Personally I think the whole thing is a little long-winded.
Debatability: Also, not much fun. We know what happened.
Angry reacts: Medium. The filmmakers definitely want you to sympathize with the cult, and I am there for it.
The Investigator: A British Crime Story
Here’s a pretty twisty tale. A woman vanishes, leaving behind a husband, a daughter, and a live-in mistress (it was a full house). Her body is never found, but the husband is tried and convicted for murder. The show tracks journalist Mark Williams-Thomas as he re-investigates the case on behalf of daughter Sam. There’s quite a bit of re-enactment, which is tastefully done; it’s not cheesy. However, there are some segments that are just plain overused IMO, and the recaps are redundant considering it’s such a short show.
Time commitment: Low. Four 45-minute eps.
How bingeable: Very bingeable. The mystery is intoxicating at first and gets more and more curious and bizarre from there.
Debatability: Little. It’s pretty clear what happened.
Angry reacts: Somewhat frequent. It’s a fairly disturbing case, and there are heavy implications that domestic abuse led to murder – and unfortunately this is not uncommon.