HBO's I'll Be Gone in the Dark avoids true crime’s most egregious suspense-building clichés

  • The six-part docuseries from Liz Garbus has the dual focus of the Golden State Killer and author Michelle McNamara, who spent years investigating him for her book I'll Be Gone in the Dark that was published two years after her death. "I’ll Be Gone in the Dark has many elements endemic to the genre: the expert interviews, the ghostly re-enactments, the closeups of police reports," says Judy Berman. She adds: "That so many people who watch the series will come in with knowledge of the Golden State Killer might explain why it avoids true crime’s most egregious suspense-building clichés, from teasing cliffhangers to scores that make Jaws look subtle. Yet this is also a way of resisting exploitation. Like McNamara, Garbus gives weight to the victims’ suffering without making a spectacle of it. Viewers get to know several of the women beyond one harrowing night, through decades of undiagnosed PTSD, marriages that faltered, secrets kept even from family in a culture that stigmatized survivors. This core of respect for shared humanity differentiates Garbus’ as well as McNamara’s tellings from so much true crime storytelling, and justifies weaving the personal into the procedural. In the show, that means not just quoting McNamara’s insights into abuse and addiction, but also forming a portrait of the author through conversations with the people who knew her—particularly (her widower, Patton) Oswalt, who provided access to home movies, text messages and journals. It’s a fitting tribute that Garbus draws out the painful experiences that connected McNamara to many of her fellow citizen detectives, granting humanity even to talking heads."


    • The whole production is organized around moments that could be described in terms of darkness: "Light, darkness supplanting light, or light banishing darkness," says Matt Zoller Seitz. "This simple yet effective encoding of human experience encourages us to draw our own comparisons between the lives of its major characters. There’s (Michelle) McNamara, who endured many traumas before she became a true-crime author and started to understand herself better as she interviewed her quarry’s survivors. There’s (Patton) Oswalt, a thoughtful, gentle person who, in a sense, lost his own wife to the Golden State Killer, via collateral damage caused by time spent in a human monster’s headspace. There’s (Joseph James) DeAngelo, who was viciously abused by his own father and served in Vietnam before becoming a cop. And there are all of his victims and survivors, their stories humanized in a manner rarely seen in the crime reportage from the decades when their traumas occurred."
    • I'll Be Gone in the Dark wildly succeeds in one crucial way, but there should've been more focus on the victims: "Garbus seizes the torch that McNamara left behind in focusing on the survivors — how they might have been better protected, and how they suffered for decades," Says Inkoo Kang. "...Particularly compelling are the survivors' accounts of how the rape culture of the '70s — with cops seldom taking sexual assault seriously, and victims pressured to keep silent — facilitated the sprees of serial rapists. DeAngelo could count on that silence to target homes in a tight concentration of neighborhoods, with few the wiser." Kang adds: "By making McNamara's story such a major part of her account of the Golden State Killer case, Garbus is clearly experimenting with the true-crime genre and what it could be. McNamara did bestow DeAngelo with his sobriquet, but I'll Be Gone in the Dark never quite persuades that the killer couldn't have been caught without the author's contributions, making the connection between them, despite her book, ultimately feel somewhat tenuous. Given their extraordinary survivals, perhaps the spotlight should've shone just a little bit longer on the victims."
    • I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is an impressive feat of direction and editing, but it doesn't always succeed with its two narratives: "The show’s larger challenge," says Mike Hale, "is the balancing of two different dramatic arcs — the story of the criminal and his victims, and the story of McNamara and her crusade — that aren’t as easy to connect as you might expect. Here the documentary isn’t as successful. There are cursory attempts both to portray McNamara as another victim of the killer and to liken her sometimes maniacal efforts to the killer’s behavior, but neither has much impact....The uncomfortable truth is that McNamara’s story doesn’t give Garbus the elements she needs to make the larger tapestry she’s weaving come together. McNamara’s long, exhausting effort didn’t have any role in the arrest of DeAngelo, which was enabled by developments in DNA forensics, and she and her colleagues never knew of him."
    • It's a fascinating and powerful docuseries: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, says Matthew Gilbert, "contains a multitude of smaller stories as it builds to a climax, veering in and out of the lives of the victims and their families. We see rape survivors recounting attacks, sometimes with the kind of emotions that are more affecting for being held back. We hear a tape of one survivor’s hypnosis session; we listen, in episode two, to a woman recount her rape in excruciating detail; and we see the stricken face of the husband who was tied up while his wife was being attacked down the hall. When the series, from Liz Garbus, runs dangerously close to some of the coarse and fear-mongering-for-ratings impulses of the true-crime genre, these touching moments with the victims humanize it."
    • One thing that stays consistent is Garbus’ commitment to McNamara’s belief in foregrounding victims: "One interesting choice by Garbus is to give former Contra Costa County DA cold-case investigator Paul Holes a relatively minimal amount of screen time, which is unexpected given that Holes has become a celebrity in the true-crime world following his successful effort to match the killer’s DNA with a suspect," says Katie Rife. "The decision presumably wasn’t motivated by a conscious desire to downplay the role of cops and DAs in this story—more likely, Garbus was focused on uplifting the women, whose strength and solidarity are indeed inspirational. But it does have that effect. On a less progressive note, there’s no getting past the overwhelming whiteness of the interview subjects and cheering fans who show up to readings and book signings."
    • I'll Be Gone in the Dark is "glorious" in the way it isn't really focused on the Golden State Killer: "This documentary series isn’t really about DeAngelo," says Kimberly Ricci, "in the sense that he’s not given the spotlight once he’s apprehended. The way that this happens — this refusal to humanize him, to even speak his name more than necessary — is glorious and a fine flourish in an often devastating series. In this way, Liz Garbus honors Michelle’s quest to ensure that a victory in this case is about illuminating the stories of survivors and victims’ families. It’s about giving life back after decades of living with the ongoing terror that the Golden State Killer (once known as the East Area Rapist) wrought. More importantly, it’s about stripping away the final shreds of power held by a predator."
    • Retired detective Paul Holes is featured in McNamara's book and appears in HBO's docuseries, but he won't read the book or watch himself on TV: “I’m looking at the book right now sitting on my bookshelf, and I just can’t get the emotional courage to open that book and start reading it,” he says. “When she died, I lost somebody in my family. I can still hear her voice in my head.”
    • Patton Oswalt says he had trouble watching the episodes: "I’ve only watched four of the six episodes," he says. "I’ve watched the first four. I couldn’t get through all of them—it’s just still too soon, and it’s still too fresh. I talked to Liz about that, and she totally understood. That’s the best I could do." He adds that he just collected the material for the docuseries and let Garbus "shape it. I mean, every now and then I would go, 'You know, maybe not this, maybe this instead.' But for the most part, I just let her shape it. You have to trust and put it on other people’s hands."
    • Director and executive producer Liz Garbus on juggling the Golden State Killer and the Michelle McNamara stories: "I knew I could tell a compelling story, combining Michelle’s voice with their stories," she says. "Then, when we were able to learn that she would have conversations with her fellow citizen sleuths and with law enforcement and survivors, that really guided the style. Because we then felt like, OK, we want to shoot this in such a way and edit it in such a way that you feel like you’re on the journey with her, as opposed to it being a past-tense telling."
    • Garbus on how Joseph James DeAngelo's fate affected the docuseries: “Whatever happens with DeAngelo, it’s just really more of a procedural element for those curious. I don’t think it shifts the focus of six-plus hours of following their stories,” Garbus says of the survivors. “I don’t know if there’s any such thing as closure in these stories, but it definitely closes one chapter.”

    TOPICS: I'll Be Gone in the Dark, HBO, Joseph James DeAngelo, Liz Garbus, Michelle McNamara, Patton Oswalt, Documentaries

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