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Sons Of Sam Contemplates Conspiracies, and Why We're Drawn to Them

Netflix's latest is on David Berkowitz, crackpot theories, and how true-crime stories become obsessions.
  • Did David Berkowitz act alone? Sons Of Sam: Descent Into Darkness explores the possibility that he didn't.
    Did David Berkowitz act alone? Sons Of Sam: Descent Into Darkness explores the possibility that he didn't.

    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.

    I wasn't sure whether Sons Of Sam would be for me. I've really enjoyed director Joshua Zeman's work in the past — from Cropsey to Murder Mountain to the underrated (and too-vaguely titled) Killer Legends — but I wasn't convinced he'd draw me into this four-parter. First of all, Sons Of Sam: Descent Into Darkness is about New York City's infamous 1970s Son Of Sam shootings, for which David Berkowitz was arrested and pled guilty, and which happens to be one of those legendary true-crime topics that give me "case fatigue." (If you consume enough true crime, you too may feel like you've seen all those screaming tabloid headlines and all old footage of Jimmy Breslin a gazillion times, and that a gazillion times is enough.)

    Ironically, the other knock on Sons of Sam going in is that it isn't only about Berkowitz. It's also about journalist Maury Terry and his decades-long preoccupation with proving that the entire case wasn't only about Berkowitz — and that instead Berkowitz was just one wrapped-up fly in a globe-spanning web of satanic cults and snuff films, a web that included Charles Manson, Roy Radin, and other bold-type true-crime names. Now, again, I trust Zeman to keep it frosty with crackpot theories like this, and I think questioning official stories is not just okay but vital to fixing a broken criminal-justice system. I can absolutely believe that the Son Of Sam investigation was compromised for the sake of "optics," sweeping a sketchy search warrant under the rug, and/or calming a nervous NYC populace. But another side effect of consuming a lot of true crime is that the phrase "satanic cult" tends to immediately slam a door in my head. To be fair, today we have the benefit of a hindsight that Terry didn't when it comes to how likely it is that Devil-worshipping played a role in any given case — i.e., not very likely — but you really can't overestimate how prone inexperienced or merely frustrated investigators were to grasping at the satanic straw 30 or 40 years ago.

    Despite these concerns going in, I'm delighted to say that I recommend Sons Of Sam highly. For one, Zeman gets excellent access to case figures, to contemporary footage and pics we haven't already seen a thousand times, and particularly to Maury Terry's notes and files. The first episode is devoted to reviewing the 1970s portion of the case, and while thorough, it thankfully doesn't linger on the oft-talked about topic of What It All Meant For Gotham. After that first episode, we follow Terry's investigations via excerpts from his book, The Ultimate Evil, and contemporary and present-day interviews. Terry himself died in 2015, so his narration is handled by the great Paul Giamatti — another feather in the production's cap, and a perfect casting choice, as Giamatti brings just the right relatably obsessive tone to the proceedings without going totally over the top.

    In the end Sons Of Sam ends up being less about Berkowitz and/or Terry, and more about true-crime stories generally. It's about what happened, but it's also about which "what" gets picked as the "official" story, and how the preoccupations of certain times in history can influence not just the official story but the conspiracy theories that spring up to contradict it. This is typical of Zeman's work; he's often more interested in what a true-crime "legend" says about the culture that mythologizes it than he is the actual crime. Sons Of Sam isn't out to convince you that Terry was onto something ... or that he definitely wasn't; the series stands back from compelling evidence that Berkowitz may have gotten at least semi-framed (the initial police sketches really looked like another guy who died "mysteriously" in Minot, ND later on, for instance), and the more-than-occasional instances in which Terry willfully mistakes correlation for causation, or seems immune to the idea that jailhouse informants are not necessarily reliable — and that sociopaths lie about literally everything. Sometimes it's almost painful to watch when Terry is interviewing Berkowitz using yes-or-no prompts that, in the final analysis, tell us nothing, but gave Terry answers he wanted.

    This all might sound a bit too meta, but Zeman lays out the various cases in a straightforward way, whether it's the evidence against Berkowitz, the satanic conspiracy, or Terry's refusal to back away from the story even after a major tentpole of his grand unifying theory gets yanked away. Sons Of Sam is an evenhanded, sympathetic study of Terry's work, of true-crime journalism generally, and of how it ties in to one reason we consume true crime: to get answers, even — especially — the ones that never come.

    All four episodes of Sons Of Sam: Descent Into Darkness drop on Netflix May 5th.

    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: The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness, Netflix, David Berkowitz, Paul Giamatti, True Crime