Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel: From Whodunnit To "Wheredunnit"

Joe Berlinger's latest Netflix docuseries is a new take on the genre, with some familiar problems.
  • Netflix's four-part Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel  is the first installment in a new anthology looking at the role of place in a major case. (Netflix)
    Netflix's four-part Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel is the first installment in a new anthology looking at the role of place in a major case. (Netflix)

    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.

    There's a lot to recommend in the new Netflix docuseries Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. It's a very watchable four hours, mainly thanks to the case it centers on: the 2013 disappearance of 21-year-old Canadian tourist Elisa Lam from inside the notorious Los Angeles hotel (the Cecil was the inspiration for American Horror Story's "Hotel" season). Lam was found weeks later in a water-supply tank on the Cecil's roof, and everything surrounding Lam's disappearance — the hotel's longtime reputation as a magnet for tragedy; the "elevator video" of Lam behaving oddly; her inexplicable journey to the water tank, and her nudity therein — seems almost designed to create an internet sensation. And that's what happened, as YouTubers, Redditors, Websleuth regulars, and others promptly wove a thick web of tenuously correlated "knowns" into complex conspiracies. The more outlandish theories involving CIA cloaking devices aside, it's an understandable impulse, because the provocative unknowns of Lam's final hours are what so often feed into popular interest in true crime — the idea that, if we can solve mysteries like Lam's, we can avoid ending up at the center of a mystery ourselves. Information is power.

    But information is most powerful when it's organized, and Crime Scene often feels unfocused, following the expected beats of a true-crime docuseries but not confident in which issues it should emphasize, or who it's for. Again, it's not bad by any means, and it's not as though series creator and director Joe Berlinger is a rookie. The director of hall-of-fame docs like Brother's Keeper and the Paradise Lost trilogy, Berlinger has also created underrated fare like Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders and Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio — and his Ted Bundy docuseries was pretty good. Berlinger gets fantastic participation, including the Cecil's longtime manager; journalist Josh Dean, a producer on Crime Scene whose 2015 deep dive into the case is a must-read; the death-metal musician who was cyberbullied by overzealous 'net detectives; and retired cops who still get emotional about Lam in interviews.

    Still, Crime Scene misses some opportunities. (Warning: spoilers ahead.) This docuseries is the first installment in an anthology that, per Berlinger, aims to explore the role of place in notorious crimes and cases, and it's a smart concept that lets Berlinger put those cases into larger historical and social contexts. That's what sets great docs like OJ: Made In America or Ken Burns' Prohibition apart. There's a ton of potential material, too — from New York's Chelsea Hotel, to H.H. Holmes's "murder house" and beyond. But while Berlinger uses local tour guides and Skid Row historians for informative interviews, Crime Scene doesn't dig into the concept of the Cecil as the center of its story until the second episode. Before that, the series jumps around in the timeline of Lam's case, which feels like stalling until Berlinger is obliged to reveal Lam's death was likely not a crime at all. That isn't a choice that works for viewers who know the material, and even those who don't may find it strange that the Night Stalker's time in residence at the Cecil doesn't get more screen time.

    That some of that screen time is wasted on visual clichés isn't great either. Myriad slow pans across the Cecil's signage; drone shots of the rooftop tanks; deep-focus re-enactments that add little (and, in the case of Crime Scene's "re-imagining" of Lam floating naked in the tank, feel tone-deaf). There's even a Dateline-ish highlight teaser at the top of each episode, a "feature" these streaming-service docuseries should really consider deleting in favor of getting into the story ASAP.

    But the most frustrating aspect of Crime Scene might be its treatment of the amateur internet detectives who got so (over-)involved in Lam's disappearance. You could argue that the Websleuths forums and Reddit threads where so many became obsessed with the case qualify as a "place," a "squad room" of sorts, and that that's why Berlinger includes several of the sleuths as "expert" talking heads in Crime Scene — and I don't disagree. This kind of case crowd-sourcing goes back to at least the original Unsolved Mysteries, and when the late Michelle McNamara leveraged it to great effect in her work on the Golden State Killer case, the value of internet groupthink in finding solutions to cold-case puzzles became an even more fascinating and relevant topic.

    Unfortunately the series can't find a point of view on that aspect of the investigation; it clearly disapproves of the hounding of "Morbid," the falsely accused musician who became suicidal after a social-media mob went after him based on flimsy "evidence," but it doesn't push very hard on some of the sleuths who have visited the Cecil over a dozen times, or who talk about "owing" Lam "justice" despite never having met her IRL. After journalist Dean calls Lam's case, and others like it, "a hobby that becomes an obsession," Berlinger cuts to something else instead of digging into what's dangerous about that — that "hobby-izing" violent crime reduces it to a game, an entertainment. Berlinger may simply have run out of time to contemplate the ways social media can distort appearances and emotions, or maybe he didn't want to indict himself by condemning the true-crime genre as exploitative... but if you're going to give a self-described YouTuber as much or more screentime as a forensic psychologist, you need to have a firmer grasp of what that means to your narrative. Who counts as a case "expert" is a compelling question, but Crime Scene chooses not to go there.

    Berlinger is onto something with Crime Scene, and it's a solid option for a snowy afternoon; I'll be watching future installments, for sure. Here's hoping that moving forward the series does a little less filling time with B-roll, and a little more thinking about what it's really about.

    Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel drops on Netflix February 10th.

    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.

    TOPICS: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, Netflix, Elisa Lam , Joe Berlinger, True Crime