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.
What's the old line — "I come to bury Quibi, not to praise it"? I'm kidding, and besides, Quibi is doing just fine burying itself without my help. Between the poorly thought-out concept, its unfortunately-timed debut, and the clueless executives at the top, Quibi's had a rough six months. But who hasn't? And like the rest of us, Quibi is hanging in there, continuing to premiere content it hopes will raise its profile in a positive way — including a couple of true-crime offerings in just the last two weeks. Last Looks, a series on crime in fashion narrated by Dakota Fanning; and Murder Unboxed, which is hoping to emulate the success of YouTube unboxing videos with deep dives into boxes of evidence from real cases, join Murder House Flip in Quibi's true-crime line-up. Are any of them worth watching, or do Quibi's attempts to "take a 'quick bite' out of crime" embody (so to speak) the issues with the network's programming overall?
Unsurprisingly, it's the latter. I watched Murder House Flip when it first came out with the rest of the network's debut slate, and the show is exactly what it sounds like: a home-makeover show devoted to houses where notorious murders took place. Cute, right? Well, that's one major problem with Quibi's true-crime programming, namely that a cutesy or twee approach to the true-crime genre isn't appropriate; in fact, to a lot of viewers, including this one, it's actively off-putting. The question of what to "do with" a so-called "murder house" is an interesting one that's worth discussing seriously. Are some properties ruined forever, either by the nature and seriousness of the crimes that took place there and/or the notoriety brought to the address? Is there a way to continue to make use of an infamous plot of land while still acknowledging the pain caused by the events that occurred on it? I don't know the answers to those questions; I do know that Murder House Flip's "fun" chyrons about a serial poisoner who killed literally dozens are flip and disrespectful.
MHF doesn't show either of its genres much respect, either, and that's another problem with Quibi's programming both generally and in the true-crime space. Murder House Flip specifically is — somehow, despite the minuscule episode length — the most filler-y and least suspenseful parts of true-crime shows and house-flipping shows. The timeline of the renovations are inorganic and baffling; the accounts of the murders are cloying and confusing; and the first set of the series' episodes very clearly betrays a half-hour home-reno show rejected by HGTV and chopped into three parts to fit the Quibi mandate. This is also an issue with Last Looks, the fashion-crime show, whose premiere "case" is Anna Delvey, the fake-heiress scammer who dominated true-crime headlines two years ago. While well-kown, Delvey is a weird choice to lead off with, as she was only tenuously connected to the fashion world. And while the show does impart some intel that's new even to people like me who have covered the Delvey saga extensively (like the fact that she and Billy "Fyre Festival" McFarland traveled in the same circles for a while), Last Looks doesn't get great access to visual materials, relying heavily on a model to re-enact parts of the story. Here again, said story is a troika of five-minute episodes that seem to have been chopped down from a longer whole... yet they still feel bloated and slow. The choice to order the narrative chronologically doesn't quite work either.
And so we return, as we inevitably do when Quibi is the topic, to the central question: What's the point, here? I'm a big believer in our making room as a culture for shorter pieces of content — short stories, short films, web series, haikus. Not everything needs a feature-length runtime or a ten-episode order, so Quibi's "big idea" (or, I guess, little idea?) isn't unworkable on its face. But Quibi seems to have a real talent for missing interesting opportunities to do something with its format, especially when it comes to true-crime programming. Take Murder Unboxed, Quibi's newest show. It's actually not bad — the eight-minute episodes really move along — but the presentation is the same as a traditional true-crime show like Forensic Files, and it's not using "real" boxes of evidence, just facsimiles. The production seems to have chosen its topics based on the randomness of the evidence assortment, then built a predictably linear "here's how the investigation proceeded" story around it, albeit in a shorter format. Wouldn't it have been more compelling to film the unpacking of an evidence box without the foreseeable gauzy re-enactments and talking-head interviews — and just let the evidence speak for itself, meditatively unpacked and laid out on a well-lit table? Wouldn't the dried blood, dowdy carpet squares, .44 Magnums et al. tell their own stories about the passage of time and the fragility of life — reminding us in their ugliness and brutality that murder is ugly and brutal? The unpacking is literal, but also metaphorical, forcing us to look at our own participation in crime as entertainment.
Maybe Quibi should hire me to head up their true-crime division, because my take isn't great, but at least it's new. Quibi's crime stuff doesn't find anything new or insightful to do with the stories it tells; it doesn't think about what the short runtimes could do in terms of efficient storytelling, or bite-sized, service-y information delivery. It only gets as far as "true crime, but under 10 minutes." And ironically, who has time for that?
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.