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Netflix's Murder Among the Mormons feels weirdly bloated and malnourished all at once

  • Vox

    "The four-part series, from filmmakers Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and Tyler Measom (Jesus Town, USA), has a fascinating canvas to work with: a cast of obsessive Mormons and Mormon-adjacent Utahans, all connected by their interest in rare documents and other antiques," says Aja Romano. "It’s the kind of niche geekery that makes for a ripe subject even without the double murder at the series’ center. In this case, the double murder and the murderer himself are both fascinating — but not nearly as much as the stories around the story. The crime involved two separate bomb attacks on two different Salt Lake City antiques investors, Steven Christensen and Gary Sheets. The first bomb exploded in a downtown office building and killed Christensen instantly; the second bomb killed Sheets’s wife, Kathy Sheets. The attacks were the culmination of a years-long grift involving elaborate forgery, the fabrication of 'authentic' historical documents, and confidence-man scheming, with the Mormon church as the main target. And while the show treats that revelation as a spoiler, both the killer and their motive will be obvious to the audience fairly early on. This is one of many ways Murder Among the Mormons seems to strike just shy of its targets. It wants very hard to portray its central figure, Mark Hofmann, as mystifying. It wants to portray Mormonism as an intimidating shadow that loomed over the events that unfolded in Salt Lake City in 1985, when the two deaths occurred and when the church was embroiled in controversy over the events surrounding the crime. And it definitely wants to portray its lead guest, Shannon Flynn, as the latest Kooky True Crime Character. But none of these elements have the most interesting potential in Murder Among the Mormons, nor do they quite stack up the way the docuseries would like....For all it’s clearly targeting the true crime audiences who flocked to 2020’s Tiger King, Murder Among the Mormons just doesn’t have the same level of quirkiness, or as bizarre a cast of characters, to produce a similar level of tawdry spectacle."


    • Murder Among the Mormons is somehow both too long and too short: "At this point, it's practically a given that any HBO, Showtime, Netflix, Amazon or Hulu documentary with a running time of over two hours is going to be padded; that any eight-hour documentary probably should have been six; that any six-hour documentary probably should have been four; that any four-hour documentary probably should have been a movie; and that anything related to NXIVM probably should have been made two years ago," says Daniel Fienberg. "The inverse is that there are the 100-minute documentaries that probably could have been a six-hour miniseries, like Netflix's Biggie: I Got a Story to Tell or HBO's upcoming Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street. So maybe the message isn't that everything is padded, but just that nothing is the right length? Netflix's new series Murder Among the Mormons is somehow both too long and too short. It definitely could have been a 100-minute documentary, but with only three episodes — one at 45-minutes — at least it isn't abusively padded. Then again, at three episodes, it leaves so many unanswered questions that it surely could have been four or five episodes. This is a time-obsessed way of saying that Jared Hess (Yes, the Napoleon Dynamite director) and Tyler Measom's examination of the 1985 bombings in Salt Lake City tackles a pretty great story — one that mainstream audiences may not know at all — but never quite finds the tone or focus to properly tell it."
    • With its approximately three-hour runtime and three-part structure, Murder Among the Mormons is a bit of an ungainly thing
    • There's a warmth and curiosity to the series that helps it stand out from more traditionally grisly true crime fare
    • Many attempts have been made to delve into the Murder Among the Mormons' subject matter: "This story was always in the mythology of Utah," says co-director Tyler Measom. "Dozens of filmmakers have tried to tell it. I have a file of probably 40 to 50 production companies, large and small, that pounced as soon as the bombs went off up until just a few years ago. It’s a subject that’s always been wanting to tell, but a lot of people have had a hard time getting it done."
    • Did filmmakers Jared Hess and Tyler Measom want to tell this story so it wouldn't be exploited by non-Mormons?: "Yeah," says Hess. "We also spent a lot of time figuring out how much information about Mormonism to present. Because really, to understand the stakes of this story, you have to understand Mormonism, the founding beliefs, the world of document dealing, just so you could comprehend what a disruption the Salamander Letter was to the faith. We did have to strike a balance of giving enough information, but not boring people with too much theology. Ultimately, I think we figured out the best way to do that is just to show clips of old Church films that share their own origin story. Which we also love."

    TOPICS: Murder Among the Mormons, Netflix, Jared Hess, Tyler Measom, Documentaries