Sleuthing Out Bad True Crime

I tuned into Netflix’s latest true crime offering, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, and almost immediately realized it would be rubbish. The tip off was the meandering opening, wherein a number of interchangeable talking-heads sputter in awe at the mysterious evil lurking the halls of the hotel. What could possibly cause it to become a focal point for murders, suicides, and drug dealing? Poverty. My guess is poverty.

Another tip-off was the presence of so many internet gawkers in the opening crawl, rubbernecking at the death of Elisa Lam. Now, I cannot claim any moral superiority over other people fascinated by macabre stories about human suffering, since I often succumb to the same bile fascination. My complaint is that YouTube personalities and podcasters typically add nothing to a true crime program. Even in the slightly better docuseries Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (2019), where the internet sleuths were directly involved in the case, they quickly become irrelevant to the investigation that ultimately caught Luka Magnotta. At least we got a hilarious clip of a well-meaning internet sleuth failing to pronounce Etobicoke.

Building a quality documentary around bile fascination is not easy. The best true crime documentaries, to my mind, have something to say about their subject, the times they lived in, and the events that transpired. I don’t just mean a recap of historical events, or recounting of the crime, but something to say about the politics, history, sociology, or psychology of the crime. This is a problem bad true crime programs share with most true crime YouTube shows and podcasts, which are often little more than a dramatic reading of a Wikipedia page. If I wanted merely some facts and conjecture, I’d just read Wikipedia.

Compare, for instance, Neflix’s The Ripper (2020), or Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer (2020). Peter Sutcliffe and Ted Bundy were active during roughly the same period, which might explain some of the shared themes between these documentaries. One pervasive theme is misogyny. In both cases, there were female witnesses and victims who approached police long before the murderers were apprehended, but they were ignored and dismissed. So, in addition to the misogyny that informed the murderer’s crimes, a more subtle version held back the investigations and permitted more people to be killed – women, naturally.

I state this theme more bluntly here than it appears in these two documentaries, and it’s far from the only value added by the documentarians to their retellings of the crimes. I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything morally wrong with enjoying less cerebral meditations on vicious crimes – my point is aesthetic. Better true crime programs have something interesting to say about their subjects beyond reveling in the gory details.

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