The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime TV.
Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has a great line that, as a critic, I come back to often: "The worst TV show you’ve ever seen was miserably hard to make." I try to keep that assertion, and a little compassion for the creators of true crime that doesn't quite hit its mark in mind for everything from tony prestige docuseries on HBO, to the tawdrier installments of network-TV fare like Dateline: directors have deadlines; many shows have fixed runtimes; and sometimes case figures won't talk, or they'll talk but they're awkward on camera, or they only have two pictures of the victim you can use. Then there's the matter of repetitive B-roll footage, stuff that shows up over and over again because some viewers find the formulaic build-up appealing. After all, not everyone's a critic who wades through hours of true crime each week.
But with so much true crime out there, creators and producers have an opportunity to set themselves and their projects apart if they can identify (and then avoid) some of the visual and structural banalities that led me to create a TV-tabloid bingo card some years ago. Below are seven clichés true-crime TV should cut:
The trailer for itself at the top of the first episode. It makes sense that network newsmags do this to try to grab channel-flippers who might otherwise click past if they're confused (catch-up montages before and after every ad break are there for the same reason). It's less clear why prestige docuseries do it; perhaps to induce viewers to commit to the entire series based on what's promised in the opening montage, but for those who wish to remain unspoiled it's a real drag. Hey streamers, if you insist on doing this, how about offering up Netflix's handy "skip" button?
The same three overexposed photos over and over. I salute the editors who, in an effort to gin up visual interest, flip the photos or try a Ken Burns pan and scan... but it smacks of stretching 20 minutes of material over twice the time. Again, I know networks have immutable time slots and "act" breaks, but you are allowed to make a half-hour show if you don't have a full hour of story, and trimming the fat would avoid…
Boring B-roll. There's so much bland stock footage in true-crime television that I often wonder whether certain series might not work better as podcasts, the better to spare true-crime fans yet another portentous drone shot of a small town (bonus for a water tower with the town's name on it), or a B-roll collage of crime-scene tape waving wanly in the breeze; a cassette deck turning ominously alongside audio of an interrogation; a focus pull along the front seat of a jury box; a pipette entering a test tube as a voice-over discusses a DNA test result; jail-cell doors clanging shut, or angry-looking concertina wire to punctuate a guilty verdict (see also: a gavel banging down on a pad); and of course fuzzy re-enactments, deliberately left out of focus so the audience doesn't seize on bad acting, poor resemblance to the real-life case figures, or both. Speaking of re-enactments…
Silent-movie flailing seldom adds anything to an informational voice-over. We all know what a couple arguing looks like. Either write dialogue, cast the scene with competent actors, and shoot it like it's a docudrama; or skip it. Once you've seen the inventive way Transy-book-heist doc hybrid American Animals does it, with talking-head interviews of the real-life perpetrators and re-imaginings of scenes with name actors, you'll wonder why every property doesn't at least try it the way director Bart Layton did.
Lack of transparency. I get that keeping to a strict timeline can make a story less compelling, but it can also be distracting when it's unclear when certain conversations took place and how the audio was obtained. I'm looking at you, HBO NXIVM doc The Vow, which I otherwise love. Showtime's Love Fraud is equally watchable, and equally murky as to whether various voicemails were truly saved or recreated. (If it's the former, who saves that many phone conversations?) If the confusion is meant to reflect the disorientation suffered by victims of either cults or con men, I can respect that as a creative choice. But it can feel a little sketchy.
Putting survivors and/or loved ones in cheesy situations. Let me be clear: I don't blame victims or family members who choose to participate in these. These people have been through hell, they aren't professional commentators, and they're not going to give a director notes when their priority is to share their stories. So it's that much more important for directors to stop 1) letting loved ones describe their late sibling/child/spouse as "lighting up a room" (seriously, it's every time, and no doubt sometimes it's true, but it's also okay for your late friend or sister to have been shy or socially average — nobody deserves to get murdered!); 2) creating saccharine visuals like loved ones gazing tearfully at horizons or headstones; 3) making survivors stare, unblinking, into the camera for thirty full seconds so that the chyron that inevitably follows about how they didn't get justice is more of a gut-punch. It's filler that often borders on disrespect.
Typin' 'n' drivin'. True-crime shows love to show detectives and journalists either performatively typing/Googling; or driving during an interview instead of merely sitting on a sterile set. This is fairly realistic — investigating cases does require these activities — and it's marginally preferable to another slow pan over that family-reunion photo, but it usually feels inorganic, and doesn't give the narrative the kinetic energy that producers seem to think it does.
As I've said, I'm sympathetic to the structural limitations of a visual format — and as I've also said, it's my job to consume boatloads of material in the genre, so I'm probably more critical of these shortcuts than other viewers. But it's also my job to let "civilians" know whether a series or episode is worthwhile, and with everyone's true-crime viewing schedules packed to the gills these days, true-crime TV that makes an effort to avoid these tropes is more likely to get my recommendation.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.