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HBO Goes Meta in Michelle McNamara Docuseries I'll Be Gone In The Dark

The TV adaptation of the late author's true crime best-seller is as much about the stress of the hunt as it is the hunt itself.
  • I'll Be Gone In The Dark (Robyn Van Swank/HBO)
    I'll Be Gone In The Dark (Robyn Van Swank/HBO)

    Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.

    The logline for I'll Be Gone In The Dark describes HBO's new docuseries as "gripping examination of the unsolved crimes of the Golden State Killer who terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s." While accurate, that description is incomplete, as it fails to mention the fact that the series takes its name from a book that was near completion when its author, Michelle McNamara, died in her sleep at age 46. Or that the book was later finished with the help of, among others, true-crime author and commentator Billy Jensen. Or that McNamara was married to comedian Patton Oswalt. Or that, while McNamara's True Crime Diary blog was a reasonably big fish in the internet's true-crime pond, what put I'll Be Gone In The Dark on most people's radar wasn't just the story the book told, but the story of the book, and the premature death of the book's author.

    That's a lot of backstory to fit into a couple of sentences, but when it comes to true crime, that kind of narrative — one that's as much about the creator's own process, or struggle to marshal the elements of their tale, as it is about the case or trial she's researching — is a proud tradition in the genre. We've seen Joe McGinniss grapple with his role in the Jeffrey MacDonald case, and Janet Malcolm and Errol Morris grapple with McGinniss. Ronan Farrow's Catch & Kill exposed Harvey Weinstein's predations, and surfaced the testimony of his victims — but it was also a journalistic thriller of sorts, tracing the life, death, and rebirth of the Weinstein story itself. I'll Be Gone In The Dark in its book form isn't just about McNamara's hunt for the EAR-ONS rapist/Golden State Killer; it's about the hunt for meaning and answers that any true-crime consumer embarks upon... and the resultant stress of the hunt, which in this case, may have played a role in McNamara's death.

    That's a fascinating place to start from, and series creator/producer Liz Garbus (There's Something Wrong With Aunt Diane, Lost Girls) is no stranger to complex chronicles that span decades. Unfortunately, I'll Be Gone is a bit of a letdown. It's not badly made or insensitive, but for one thing, I'm not sure it knows who it's for. Viewers like me who read the book, watched the follow-up specials, and know all of the backstory may wonder why the series is structured the way it is. To be sure, I'll Be Gone is handsome to look at, and creates an excellent sense of the time in which the EAR-ONS crimes took place, and the hamfisted-at-best treatment sexual-assault survivors could expect from law enforcement and the media; the victims who relate their stories in interviews give bracing testimony. But the series jumps back and forth between vignettes about McNamara (why she fell in love with writing; how she and Oswalt met and fell in love) to anecdotes from case detectives about linkage blindness and contemporary victim-blaming, then back again. It can feel a little unfocused. The series is also cagey about the fact of McNamara's death, while simultaneously assuming it is common knowledge. Trying to create suspense around an element of the overall story that made the story as big as it is strikes me as a strange choice.

    Amy Ryan's narration as McNamara is another decision that may have sounded great on paper, but doesn't quite work. I like Ryan a lot, but she's spreading a lot of mustard on writing that frankly doesn't support it. True-crime reporting is a bundle of several different skill sets, most of which McNamara absolutely had, but while it pains me to say this, her prose is often strained. "Curiosity turned to clawing hunger," "impatience roiled"... she's just trying too hard. Ironically, there's a lot of unscripted footage of McNamara talking about the case and true-crime research in general, and in those sections, she hits descriptions right on the sweet spot without even trying. "The blankness of this person's face" in unsolved cases? Exactly right. But while reading the book, I thought an editor might have helped her get out of her own way, and I thought it again while watching the series.

    Certainly it's striving to paint as rosy a picture as it can of McNamara herself — her talent and wit, her dedication. It's not unexpected under the circumstances, but I can't help thinking that McNamara herself would have taken a more gimlet-eyed approach to the material, and asked that a few of the gauzier passages be cut. There is a place for deeply personal, subjective remembrance in the documentary genre, and in I'll Be Gone in particular; it's not impossible, or inappropriate, to braid together a love letter to the author and an exploration of the case she brought into the light and solved. But the way it's done here is awkwardly careful, another reason I wonder who the series is for.

    The Golden State Killer case and McNamara's pursuit of its secrets were each arduous and complex, and there are a lot of issues at play here. I just wish the series had the propulsive confidence that made McNamara's work so inviting, greater than the sum of its occasionally clunky parts. I'll Be Gone is meticulous, but not quite mesmerizing.

    I'll Be Gone In The Dark airs on HBO Sunday, June 28th at 10:00 PM ET

    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: I'll Be Gone in the Dark, HBO, Amy Ryan, Liz Garbus, Michelle McNamara, Documentaries, True Crime