I must have witnessed hundreds of murders before I turned ten. If you walked into my house at any one time during my childhood, chances were there was some true crime show — 48 Hours, Forensic Files, Unsolved Mysteries — playing on the tube. We never actively sought these programs out, they were just … there, on A&E or TLC, the kind of entertainment that you just point your eyeballs at for 30 minutes as you relax.
For the longest time, I turned my nose up at these shows; they were base, tacky and even disrespectful, but I still watched. I mean, these people had died, and often their killer had never been caught. Entertainment fundamentally based around loss of life seems about as close to The Hunger Games as we’ll ever get.
I still remember the eerie feeling I had as my family gathered around the television to catch one particular episode of Unsolved Mysteries that featured the rape and murder of an old family friend. My family had known this person, actually known this person, and we’d all tuned in to see these dramatic reenactments, hear interviews with family members and relive the tragedy all over again. I could not and cannot, to this day, fathom that kind of masochism.
Why on earth do we enjoy true crime television? There’s a line to be drawn between fantasy and the truly macabre that remains unseen. I’m not one to shy from the disturbing or gruesome, but even I understand that not everything deserves a graphic dramatization.
Of course, I may be the most culpable viewer of them all, having gleefully devoured Serial, The Jinx, Making a Murderer and now American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, each within the last year and a half, and each a truly watershed moment in pop culture. One could say recent true crime has been serial killing it. No longer are the days of shoddy reenactments and over-dramatic music cues before every commercial break. Today, longform true crime delves far deeper into the minutiae of evidence, the complexity (well, more like fallibility) of law enforcement and the psychology of the killer than ever before. It’s not snuff TV, but it’s getting there.
What sets these new shows apart from their forebears, aside from the luxury of time spent on in-depth handwriting analysis or excruciating cross-examination of corrupt detectives, is their reluctance to see the world as morally absolute. In the days of 48 Hours or Forensic Files, it was clear from the beginning that the cops were the good guys, desperately trying to solve a cold case, and if you had any information regarding the whereabouts … Serial, on the other hand, never shies away from pointing out the incompetence of Baltimore law enforcement and Making a Murderer outright indicts the Manitowoc police force of railroading Steven Avery through the system based on socio-economic prejudice. The Jinx, more of an experiment in criminal psychology, forces the viewer to become so intimately acquainted with the accused that they may begin to empathize with him — and can you even empathize with someone who has no empathy? The “good guys” aren’t necessarily the good guys anymore. More and more has been written about the rise of grey morality and anti-heroes on television in the last decade, but I believe the cliché rings true here.
The latest show in this lineage, American Crime Story, is an interesting case as it already assumes — even demands — a passing familiarity with the story of O.J. Simpson. Of course, almost everyone knows the key bullet points of the double murder and trial/reality show that followed: the white Bronco, Mark Fuhrman, ‘if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” and all. On top of that, ACS may be the most dramatized of all true crime TV to date; after all, it is a star-studded tour de force with the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr., Courtney B. Vance, Sarah Paulson, David Schwimmer, and John “Adele Dazeem” Travolta from the mind of Ryan Murphy, the guy who brought you Glee and American Horror Story. Not exactly the benchmark of truthful, precise storytelling.
But make no mistake: as of the first episode, ACS is good. Really, really good. I’ve said that about pretty much every Murphy endeavor so far — his shows seem to be cursed with fizzling out like, five episodes in — but this one feels different, almost as if it’s ushering in an entirely new era of true crime on television. Is it actually true? Does that even matter, so long as it makes for good television?
And it does make for good television, that much is certain. Maybe it’s something about the tendency of armchair sleuths to play along with the case from the comfort of the computer screen, or the thrill of watching something “true” rather than the bore of watching something true, or the real, powerful emotions that death evokes in each of us, or some morbid combination of the three. It’s comforting, in some wicked way, knowing that we can take these moments of despair and divert ourselves from our own tragedies, if only for a few hours.