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.
When we think of prestige true crime on television — shows like The Vow or At The Heart Of Gold — we usually think of HBO or Netflix. When we think of the more tabloid-like offerings in the genre — shows like Snapped or Fear Thy Neighbors — we usually think of Oxygen and Investigation Discovery. We probably don't think of Reelz; in fact, we probably don't think about Reelz at all. Between the straining-for-hip "z" on the end and the average day of programming at the network, which includes titles such as Jeffrey Dahmer: Killer Cannibal and Autopsy: The Last Hours Of..., the channel seems like a parody of a true-crime network, one focused exclusively on the sordid and/or suspicious demises of the rich and famous.
Still, Reelz is a real network. And while its programming is C-list at best, it appears to be positioning itself as a legitimate challenger to Oxygen and ID when it comes to "downmarket" true-crime content. As for whether that strategy is going to work... the expression "there's no such thing as bad press" comes to mind. Viewers who tune in to make fun of Reelz content still count as viewers, after all.
This viewer tunes in primarily to make fun of it, and my reviews of two true-crime specials from earlier in the month would certainly qualify as bad press. Preppy Killer: My Friend The Murderer is as cheap and tawdry as the title suggests; the show centers on a childhood friend of titular killer Robert Chambers, attention-whore Margo Manhattan, and delivers almost no new information about the headline-dominating case from the mid-1980s. One detail, about Chambers's remorseless "borrowing" of a friend's father's BMW, was one I hadn't heard before, but there's nothing else here that wasn't ably covered by Sundance's The Preppy Murder: A Death In Central Park — and Sundance's take features better interviews with many of the same talking-heads. Having said that, there's plenty of mockable material if you're watching the special with your quaranteam, or live-tweeting it. The re-enactments are superfluous and poorly acted, the actors look nothing like their real-life counterparts, and the voice-over often comes off like a social-hygiene film script — at one point, Chambers is accused of having "imbibed marijuana." It's decidely not good television, but it isn't boring, either.
The re-enactments are equally poor in The Affluenza Teen: The Jailhouse Sessions, and I felt guilty about snickering at the misguided attempts to recreate both the murder of Jennifer Levin, and the horrific DUI that ensued when spoiled 16-year-old Ethan Couch got behind the wheel of his truck in 2013. The actor playing the husband and father of two of the victims appeared to be going for some kind of silent-film award, and it's amusing... but people died, and it shouldn't be.
Reelz does get my begrudging respect for not pretending to be anything other than sleazy and exploitative. Unlike the more established tabloid TV outlets, Reelz doesn't waste anyone's time with disingenuously performative respect for victims and loved ones — the sentimental shots of headstones, or the host/interviewer nodding gravely as interviewees dab their eyes.
The network seems to understand that while its audience may not care to admit it, they are curious about what was in Whitney Houston's system the night she died, or how many times the Affluenza Teen's parents have gotten divorced from each other (twice, as of this writing). It's the sort of unseemly rubbernecking that a lot of true-crime commentators don't like to contemplate, but not every property can be In Cold Blood... and let's face it, Truman Capote was as big a rubbernecker as any of us. Like it or not, there's a market for slapped-together trash like World's Most Evil Killers, and Reelz wisely dispenses with any notion that it's performing some kind of cultural or journalistic public service.
What the network doesn't seem to have decided yet is whether it truly wants to lean in to a true-crime identity. On any given day, Reelz feels like it's hedging its bets, airing its trashy true crime fare alongside higher-brow, "artsier" shows like Sting & The Police: Story Of Their Songs, or blocks of prestige films like Rain Man.
Flipping through the channel's upcoming offerings on my guide, I made a note to the effect that Reelz's brand was "Ovation on the streets, Oxygen in the sheets" — only to remember that Ovation is, in fact, Reelz's sister network. Perhaps that's why there's some trademark overlap, especially if Reelz is looking to fill programming hours while it works to stake a claim in the true-crime space. As where the claim its staking, right now Reelz feels like it's what would happen if someone programmed a cable channel using an SEO spreadsheet of search terms related to celebrity deaths.
Which isn't to say that a network that's basically the TV version of clickbait can't work. To the contrary. But for viewers like me who remember Geraldo Rivera's "big reveal" of the contents of Al Capone's vault and the "big reveal" when he stripped down to his skivvies for no reason on Celebrity Apprentice, if you're building a primetime true-crime line-up around Geraldo Rivera's Murder in the Family, you really need to commit to the bit.
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.