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No One Saw a Thing Wants to be Your Next True-Crime Obsession

But for those familiar with the case, it may not ring true.
  • The Skidmore, MO water tower as seen in No One Saw a Thing (SundanceTV)
    The Skidmore, MO water tower as seen in No One Saw a Thing (SundanceTV)

    Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting hosts her very own true crime podcast The Blotter Presents, so who better to break down SundanceTV's new six part true crime docuseries, No One Saw a Thing?

    On July 10, 1981, Ken Rex McElroy was shot multiple times, by multiple gunmen, while sitting in his truck in front of tiny Skidmore, Missouri's only tavern. Dozens of witnesses were within sight of McElroy's Silverado that day — most of the town's adult men, by some accounts — but no arrests were ever made, no trial ever held, because...well, it's right on the tin: No one saw a thing.

    For that very reason, the little town soon attracted national headlines and visits from big name journalists, and the more details that came out about McElroy and Skidmore — his serial livestock thievery; his predilection for young girls; his campaigns of terror against those who crossed him, from local shop owners to prospective jurors to law enforcement, into which his female family members were conscripted — the catnippier the story became to the national press. The law couldn't stop "the town bully" McElroy, the usual headline went... so the townspeople stopped him themselves.

    A logline like that presents an interesting challenge for No One Saw A Thing director Avi Belkin and his team, as every true-crime story has to decide, consciously or not, what it's about. Is it a straight whodunnit, a mystery to be solved? Will it attempt to explain the motives, seeking to bring order out of chaos? Or will it make a "justice-denied" argument in order to indict a system? The McElroy case is uniquely compelling, because while it's technically a whodunnit, we have pretty clear idea who the perpetrators are — they're just unlikely to ever face prosecution.

    It's also a why-dunnit — but here again, the "why" seems obvious. McElroy was a legitimately bad guy, one that local law enforcement had largely given up trying to control. At the same time, it's worth exploring how the town reached that fatal turning point, both morally and socially, and what that says about the community in a larger sense. Any case that inspires terms like "vigilantism" and "outside the law" is ripe for editorial analysis. Here then, is where the series faces a narrative choice: to try to solve the mystery in good faith; to investigate what brought Skidmore to this grievous moment; or to look forward instead of backward, and theorize about the fallout of this incident, attributing the town's present day struggles to a single event on July 10, 1981. That is the angle No One Saw A Thing chooses to explore, but it shouldn't have.

    That isn't to say the series is bad. It's well made. And the production gained impressive access to case figures, including David Baird, the local prosecutor who kept trying to get charges to stick to McElroy (and who might not have tried all that hard to bring charges against the alleged shooters). We even hear from several of McElroy's grown children. It's also not the production's fault that I recently read Harry N. MacLean's Edgar-Award-winning book on the case, In Broad Daylight, which gives an utterly thorough look at McElroy's life of crime, and provided me with additional insight into the town's terminal frustration that newcomers to the case won't have. But viewers of this series should be given that context; I don't know if the producers felt obliged to soft-pedal the breadth and depth of McElroy's behavior in order to ensure the participation of his family (and I do have compassion for his children, of course), but No One Saw A Thing attempts to present the case from both sides, which isn't effective, and it doesn't feel earned if viewers haven't been presented with the full picture. (This is noticeable to people who haven't read MacLean's book, as well; I discuss the series on my podcast The Blotter Presents with Allison Lowe Huff this week, and she agrees that the egregiousness of the behavior we do hear about is underplayed.) One talking-head interviewee, Cheryl Bowenkamp, isn't identified as the daughter of a then 70-year-old man McElroy shot in the neck over some misheard nonsense; another interviewee, McElroy's daughter, talks about her father liking "young women," averaging around age 14. That's not a woman. That's a child. McElroy wasn't just a bully; he was a rapist. Why soft-pedal such information at this late date?

    Unfortunately, No One Saw A Thing is more interested in exploring whether McElroy's killing brought a curse on the town, and that is where it lost me. There's an argument to be made that a community knowingly executing a man outside the law, then refusing to face the legal consequences of that action, will have an unconscious effect on those present, not to mention their children, but correlation is not causation, and the series' heavy-handed talking head pronouncements of curses and karma simply don't land. At least not for this viewer. McElroy's murder is cited as a possible reason for the withering of the town, but it's far more likely that it met the same fate as many small farming communities: crops fail, children move away. Other high-profile cases are grimly cited as evidence of a post-McElroy murder hex the town brought upon itself, when in at least two of these sad instances, it's pretty clear methamphetamine should take the blame. Attempting to fit other tragedies into the framework of the McElroy killing smacks of a cynical marketing strategy. It's narratively dishonest.

    For that reason, I can't really recommend No One Saw A Thing. The production probably had good intentions, but it passes up opportunities to examine the wisdom of crowds, the meaning of justice, and whether a homicide is ever justifiable. Instead, it tries to impose a theme of almost supernatural scale-balancing — "McElroy was bad, the town's actions were worse, and the aftermath was the worst of all." In this viewer's opinion, that's not just unconvincing, it's insincere as well.

    No One Saw A Thing airs weekly at 11:00 PM ET on Sundance TV, beginning Thursday August 1st.

    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.

    TOPICS: No One Saw a Thing, SundanceTV, Documentaries