Monday 20 November 2017

Stranger than fiction... 'The Jinx'

Why TV's answer to 'Serial' is more compelling than the hit podcast

Tangled web: Robert Durst
Tangled web: Robert Durst
Vicki Notaro

Vicki Notaro

Every now and then, a television event comes along that gets everyone talking. Think The X Factor's heyday, with Gamu-gate and Cheryl crying perfect diamond tears, Game Of Thrones' infamous "red wedding" and the culmination of the recent Eastenders storyline when we finally found out who killed Lucy Beale.

More recently, podcasts entered the mainstream when Serial took off. The 15-year-old murder mystery captivated listeners all over the world, but what really had us all hooked was the fact that this wasn't a drama - it was real life and focused on real people.

Millions of tweets and myriad watercooler discussions revolved around the case against Adnan Syed as the public tried to unravel the mystery, and it's about to happen again - but this time, it's all about The Jinx - The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.

Anyone active on social media might have scrolled past the series being discussed, or noticed the Durst's name floating around news websites without paying much attention - but prepare for that to change.

The six-part HBO true crime mini-series aired in the US in February and March, and is due to start here on Sky Atlantic this month.

However, those who have Sky On Demand can watch the whole thing now. I did and it's truly one of the most remarkable pieces of television ever made, where truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's also up for debate in every episode.

A bit of background information is necessary to explain the show's origins. In 2010, a fictional film named All Good Things was released, directed by a man named Andrew Jarecki. It was loosely based on the story of Kathleen Durst, her disappearance in 1982 and the fact that her husband Robert was widely suspected to have had something to do with her going missing. In reality, Robert Durst was never officially arrested in conjunction with her apparent vanishing, and a body was never found. Kathleen was declared legally deceased in 2001.

Many people, including Kathleen's family and closest friends, still believe that Durst was responsible for murdering and disposing of Kathleen, and that the man has quite literally got away with murder.

After the film's release, Robert Durst contacted Jarecki and told him he would like to be interviewed by the filmmaker. Having turned down many requests in previous years, Durst wanted to speak to Jarecki because he felt like he understood his life and his story better than anyone else.

However, as the viewer is to realise in the first episode, Durst's tale doesn't begin and end with his wife's disappearance. Firstly, he's no Joe Soap. Durst is heir to a massive New York real estate fortune worth more than $4bn, with a personal fortune estimated in the millions. Estranged from most of his family, we learn at the beginning of the first episode that his brother is so afraid Robert will try to kill him, he has hired a bodyguard to protect him - odd when we get a first impression of Durst as a slight, almost meek man.

The reason for the plural "deaths" in the title becomes obvious when we learn that Durst has also been implicated in several different crimes since Kathleen went missing - two of them murders of people close to him - without being convicted. To say much more would be to give the game away and risk spoilers, but that's been enough of a hook to draw an audience in.

And once you get in to the story, it becomes all the more fascinating. A tangled web of one man's word against many others', a wealthy, powerful family marred by death and shrouded in mystery and silence, and the people desperately trying to prove that Durst is a pathological liar responsible for taking the lives of many - and determined bring him to justice.

The secret behind the success of The Jinx has something to do with the high production values. HBO is known for making some of the most successful television shows of all time, from The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones and True Detective to Girls, Sex and the City and Entourage. When those three letters are attached to a series, it instantly lets the viewer know that this is a show of a certain calibre - and with a big budget.

Its opening credits are slick and impressive, it's edited wonderfully and framed perfectly, drip-feeding the viewer just enough information to keep them hooked, and gasping. Since the show aired in America, the producers have been accused of deliberately skewing the timeline to make it even more compelling viewing, but that's not important when you're watching it. And the frantic Googling after to fill in the missing pieces is part of the allure.

But the real draw, to me, is Durst himself. Initially presented as quite a creepy character, he certainly looks like a villain - his dark pupils and irises seem to dominate his entire eyes, showing only a tiny bit of white. He's scrawny and stooped, with an almost perpetual sourpuss that sometimes give way to a chilling, vacant expression. His gait is uncertain and stooped, he seems to wander rather than walk with purpose and he looks like what he's purported by many to be - a real loner someone you might cross the street to avoid.

However, once the interview with Durst begins, he's a revelation. He's intelligent, articulate, witty and - unbelievably - almost likeable. Despite the plethora of evidence against him, it's possible at times to believe he's telling the truth about his extraordinary life and the viewer is inexplicably drawn in. The balance of Durst's version of events and that of his detractors is the friction that keeps you watching, amazed at how truth really can be relative to some.

Since the show aired in the US, another chapter has been added to the incredible story, mainly due to the fact that Durst is a real man, who's been living among us relatively in the shadows until now. Many questioned why on earth he'd want to draw attention to himself and the crimes many believe he committed by appearing on the show, and that's a valid point. One thing is for sure though - Durst's life makes for compelling TV, and we defy you not to be hooked.

The Jinx begins on Sky Atlantic on April 16

Irish Independent

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