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.
Netflix's new three-episode docuseries Murder Among The Mormons wraps several varieties of true crime in one. The story begins in 1985 with a string of pipe bomb attacks in Salt Lake City that killed two people and seriously injured a third, then it winds backward into the world of rare documents and ephemera, and the forgeries that make their homes in that world. It examines the early history of the Mormon church, the corridors of power in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the cover-ups church elders might have engaged in. Then it leaps forward — spoilers ahead — to after forger Mark Hofmann is arrested for the bombings, to paint a portrait of evil motivated only by self-interest.
In theory, it's a super-compelling "treasure tale," as one talking-head interviewee puts it, terrifying and mystifying and process-y at the same time. In practice, I don't think it works, at least not for those already familiar with the case.
Executive-produced by the ubiquitous Joe Berlinger and co-directed by Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and Tyler Measom (who directed the Warren Jeffs doc Sons of Perdition), Murder Among The Mormons boasts an impressive pedigree and excellent access. Just about everyone involved in the case appears in interviews, and the way the murders still weigh on so many people — from a book dealer who was ruined by Hofmann's machinations, to Hofmann's ex-wife Dorie — is affecting. The raspy-voiced Shannon Flynn, styled much like Mr. Waternoose from Monsters Inc., has natural storyteller charisma, and the filmmakers might have done better to structure the project around Flynn's perspective.
That's a narrower point of view than the overall case might seem to warrant, but part of the problem with Murder Among The Mormons is that Hess and Measom seem reluctant to dig into the more arcane aspects of the case. MATM repeatedly refers to document-dealing, early Americana, and related antiquarian fields as "nerdy" — which they are — but if viewers don't understand that world, it's difficult to grasp why Hofmann set those pipe bombs. We won't really get that Hofmann's forgeries threatened decades of received Mormon wisdom about the founding of the church; we won't really understand why Hofmann was, to coin a phrase, forging Peter to pay Paul when a few of his contacts started to question the authenticity of his finds. And we won't really see why he targeted the people he targeted.
MATM fails to give its audience a basic understanding of the specific documents and materials Hofmann chose to forge and why, which makes it difficult to grasp the significance of their being accepted — or not — by authenticators, and then by church historians and elders. Viewers also need to be grounded in the literal process Hofmann used to fabricate the forgeries; MATM does give us a taste of this, but it only serves to whet the appetite for more, and then fail to satisfy it. Also missing is a better overview of the shell game Hofmann was playing with his finances, with aliases, and with document dealers in cities across the country.
It's a reasonably complex case, but context is essential here. Linda Sillitoe and Allen Roberts's book Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders wasn't a dazzling prose experience, but it moved through all the background in an orderly way without being dull. The authors seemed to understand in a way MATM doesn't that people who choose to learn more about this story won't be scared off by discussions of ink analysis or LDS history — in fact it may be why we've tuned in in the first place. Towards the end, MATM mentions in passing that we have no way of knowing how many early-American documents and autographs that Hofmann copied are still out there, being passed off as the real deal. But because the series hasn't wanted to "bore" us with background on literary rarities, we don't understand the stakes.
Where Murder Among The Mormons excels is in getting inside the mind of a psychopath — primarily because of the filmmakers' access to chilling interviews with Hofmann, in which he seems only to regret getting caught. While he was the third "victim" of the bomb series and had intended to take his own life with that blast, he had also considered killing a close associate with it instead. Hofmann's affectless admission that he really didn't care if "a child, or a dog" had found the explosives before his intended victims did will send a shiver up viewers' spines, but those interviews, and the series overall, would be even more affecting if the filmmakers trusted the forgery and finance parts of the story, and trusted themselves to make those parts as compelling as a psychopath and his IEDs.
Murder Among the Mormons drops on Netflix March 3rd.
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.