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.
I tend to focus on "prestige" true crime in this column — the big-name HBO or Netflix project of the moment — but I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge Oxygen's workhorse true-crime docuseries Snapped as it airs its 500th episode this weekend. That's a pretty remarkable achievement. Famous original Law & Order "only" ran for 456 episodes; the surviving L&O franchise, Special Victims Unit, just cleared the 500-episode bar earlier this year. Hell, Snapped is darn near nipping at the heels of TV's longest-running drama Gunsmoke, which ran 635 episodes.
And yet, if you asked me a week ago to recall the details of an episode of the series that I'd watched in the past, I would have had nothing for you. How could a show that a network built its brand around, a show that has 28 seasons under its belt, reach half a thousand episodes being so unmemorable? Or is that very unexceptional quality the secret to Snapped's success?
I think it's part of it. Before sitting down to write this article, I watched a couple of vintage episodes, and found them extremely predictable (albeit with less filler than I'd expected). The literal construction of the show is competent and workmanlike; each story proceeds in an orderly and formulaic fashion, starting with the crime, flashing back to the prime suspect's background, then zooming back in to the investigation and trial. The same eight or nine photos appear over and over, and the talking-head interviewees — who are lit and made up with, I'd say, minimal effort — drop the sound bites they understand are required of them. The average Snapped episode is basically a Mad Lib. That's not a bad thing, necessarily. I'd compare it to travelers going to Starbucks in strange cities: it's not that the coffee's that great, but it's exactly the same in Augusta, ME as it is in Augusta, GA.
And while Snapped is probably not going to send you running to social media to gasp over twists or revelations, it's not boring. The longtime voice of Snapped, Sharon Martin, became a legend of true-crime fandom thanks to her distinctively plummy and melodramatic delivery — which in turn underscored a certain crass wordplay in the narration. In a sixth-season episode about Misty Witherspoon, who admitted to shooting her cop husband Quinn but claimed it was an accident, Misty breathlessly tells the 911 dispatcher that her heart is pounding. Cue Sharon Martin's narration: "But Quinn's heart had stopped beating. FOREVER." Delivering a line like that, one that's almost a parody of itself, requires gravitas, and Martin joins Dateline's Keith Morrison and Peter Thomas of Forensic Files on the Mount Rushmore of true-crime narrators who come dressed to play in every episode. (Martin handed voice-over duties off to Jody Flader a couple of seasons ago, but if you happen across a first-season rerun, keep an ear out for Snapped's inaugural narrator, Laura San Giacomo. San Giacomo's gig immediately prior to Snapped? Just Shoot Me. Go figure.)
So Snapped has a strong formula, no shortage of material, and somewhat casual production values that imply the content is the priority, not the presentation, which lends said content credibility. But "soothing familiarity" is just one part of the larger reason Snapped is such a lasting success; the other part is where it really excels in knowing its audience, and that's its strict adherence to a short list of extremely effective true-crime tropes.
Basic-cable true crime tends to return to the same narrative frameworks again and again — stories about cute small towns with dark secrets or publicly devout Christians with hidden sins. The aforementioned Misty Witherspoon episode folds in both of those, plus a couple of selections from the suite of retrograde frameworks assigned to women: the good mom with bad habits and the shopaholic who would literally kill for that new pair of boots. Witherspoon doesn't qualify for another of the show's go-to narratives about murderous ladies, the cheating tramp, but boy, does Snapped love a fatal love triangle. There is, strictly speaking, no need to specify in the episode descriptions that the participants in the catalyzing extramarital affair are both ladies, but the Snapped team has evidently learned that including the word "lesbian" in the logline adds a frisson of the forbidden for the show's demographic. It's pretty gross, but it does get results.
Snapped isn't the type of show that's going to end up on any best-of lists, and it shouldn't. (Misty Witherspoon's explanation of the "accident" that killed her husband should make the podium at the Dumbest Excuse Olympics, though. Lady, even if that's actually what happened, don't blame the cats.) But it isn't trying to be The Staircase or Tiger King, the same way Doritos don't try to be filet mignon — and in the same way that Doritos are very good at being Doritos, Snapped is very good at making temporarily satisfying true-crime snack food. How did Snapped get to 500 episodes? By recognizing that sometimes, the audience just wants powdered cheese.
Snapped's 500th episode airs on Oxygen Saturday November 22nd at 6:00 PM ET, preceded by the show's never-before-seen pilot episode.
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.