Saturday 20 April 2019

The 7 cliches of the true crime epidemic gripping television

TV is gripped by an epidemic, with the latest documentary delving into the JonBenét Ramsey murder

Documentary: One of the young actresses in Netflix’s CastingJonBenét Ramsey
Documentary: One of the young actresses in Netflix’s CastingJonBenét Ramsey

Ed Power

Television is in the grip of a true crime epidemic. In 2015, the double-barrelled salvo of HBO's The Jinx and Netflix's Making A Murderer put an upmarket gloss on what had been deemed the lowest form of documentary making.

In The Jinx, we were introduced to stranger-than-fiction murder suspect Robert Durst. Making A Murderer, for its part, revisited an obscure murder trial in Wisconsin, arguing a terrible miscarriage of justice had transpired.

With that, the flood-gates were thrown back. Last year's Amanda Knox sought to dispel the half-truths surrounding the murder trial of the American exchange student. At around the same time, ESPN released OJ: Made In America, which went on to win an Oscar for its revisiting of the 1994 "trial of the century".

Just arrived on Netflix today, meanwhile, is Casting JonBenét, an arty rumination on the 1996 killing of six-year-old pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey. To mark its debut, we count down the inescapable tropes of true crime's golden age.

It's not about the crime - it's about the media

Amanda Knox directors Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn insisted they hadn't made a true crime film as much as a film about our obsession with true crime. A similar perspective informs Casting JonBenét and OJ: Made in America. "We are all interested in these true crime stories and trying to solve these whodunnits," McGinn told me last year. "We forget there is a tragedy behind them."

When in doubt, go weird

Casting JonBenét is a particularly meta addition to the genre. Rather than the standard voice-over and witness interviews, we see Colorado locals audition to play the principals in the story. "I picked the key moments in the Ramsey case... and then we drip fed the information," said director Kitty Green. "So you get the ransom note, you get the 911 call...without having to actually show a single frame of the actual family."

Have a moody minimalist soundtrack

The original art-house true crime doc was Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (1988). Its understated-yet-insistent Philip Glass score set the template for the genre.

No narrators

Modern true crime is aimed at sophisticated audiences who don't care to be led by the hand. Instead, they want to piece the story together utilising the testimony of the assembled interviewees.

No heroes or villains

Good guys and bad guys are for Hollywood; true crime TV is a lot murkier. In Amanda Knox, for instance, the villain wasn't Meredith Kercher's killer, but the prurient masses feeding the tabloid frenzy.

Focus on the accused, not the victim

At the heart of every true crime is a tragedy. But this grisly reality doesn't make for rewarding viewing. Hence the emphasis on the accused.

Binge, baby, binge

It is no coincidence true crime should be having a moment. Demanding obsessive attention, the genre is perfect for the binge era.

Don't give viewers the complete picture

At the heart of every true crime doc is a sharply-honed perspective. We are being presented with a specific argument - for example, that Making A Murderer's Steven Avery was stitched up by police or Amanda Knox's offence was to be a pretty woman who had casual sex. Once the credits roll, armchair detectives clamouring for more details can often be found spinning theories with their fellow sleuths on Reddit forums.

Irish Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top