At this point, it doesn’t make sense to call the influx of true crime-related pop culture a “wave” because a wave would imply a rise and fall. Instead, the genre is so firmly planted in our cultural landscape that the amount of true crime series and their influence show no signs of cresting.
Still, the recent plethora of true crime prestige limited series, including FX’s “Under the Banner of Heaven,” Hulu’s “Candy,” and HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” felt like a bridge too far. Given the sheer amount of TV for each of these shows I’ve been able to watch, I probably missed another. (Too many shows have premiered recently to compete in the crowded limited series categories this Emmys season.) Even I, a person whose job involves watching and understanding a lot of tvs, gave up trying to keep up.
Like this spring’s boom in prestigious limited series about shady tech startups, these dramatizations seem unnecessary, even if they’re well-made. We know how the story goes. Someone (usually a white woman) is murdered, shocking a family or community. Perhaps there is a shoddy investigation, a questionable trial, and sensational reporting. Sometimes revisiting these stories in different formats can give rise to something new, such as societal re-evaluations or unexpected developments years later, such as reopening the case or acquitting someone wrongly convicted.
But the prestige-limited series model is mostly redundant because these shows often retell stories based on previously fact-based material, such as books, documentaries, and news articles. Therefore, there is a higher bar to justify them. Why tell this story again, and why now? What do we gain with it?
Starring Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, who was convicted of the 2001 murder of his wife Kathleen (played in the series by Toni Collette), the show uses various mechanisms to deconstruct elements of the true crime genre and its appeals, such as the voyeurism and lurid fascination. For example, the original documentary filmmaker, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, and his crew are characters in the limited series, showing how they filmed and edited their docuseries. (In real life, de Lestrade has said he feels “betrayed” by little series creator Antonio Campos and how the documentary team is portrayed.) One approach is to make the show a meta-commentary on the true crime genre itself, which is at the heart of “The Staircase,” a dramatization of the docuseries of the same name.
Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Vincent Vermignon as documentary filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade in HBO Max’s “The Staircase”.
One of the most talked about elements of “The Staircase” is the disturbing reenactments of the theories behind Kathleen’s death, which convey the sense of intrigue and speculation when there are different theories in a true crime story. Still, it’s a lot to sit through and hard to digest, even if the grimness is the point.
Instead, I found it more intriguing to see ‘The Staircase’ as a family drama. We know how the legal proceedings, the docuseries, and the public attention rippled through the lives of several members of Michael and Kathleen’s large family. Typically, the victims of these headline-grabbing murders are watered down into symbols, fading into the background as people focus on the horrifying details of their deaths. Whether right or not, it’s a perspective we don’t often see or know. Likewise, the limited series (and Collette’s fantastic performance) gives Kathleen a humanity we rarely get.
While the show stands out by taking these different routes and exploring the true crime genre, I’m still unsure if it was worth it. Even in the best circumstances, when creators and writers aren’t generating controversy over how they chose to tell the story, there’s still something uneasy about the genre itself. It raises many concerns about ethics and exploitation, many of which have been well documented in the conversation surrounding the countless true crime stories. So why not leave these murder stories alone if they’ve already been told?
Charles, Mabel, and Oliver (Steve Martin, Selena Gomez, and Martin Short) in the season 2 premiere of Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building.”
It’s telling that the only recent true crime-related show I’ve been able to put up with is one that explicitly parodies the genre’s tropes. Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” comedy series, which premieres Tuesday in its second season, gently pokes fun at how true crime has turned into an industrial pop culture complex and spectator sport. The charming trio of Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez stars as Charles, Oliver, and Mabel, three residents of the Arconia, a tony apartment building on the Upper West Side. When Arconia resident Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) is found murdered, the team launches a podcast called “Only Murders in the Building.” It’s inspired by their favorite true crime podcast, “All Is Not OK in Oklahoma,” hosted by Cinda Canning (Tina Fey), which is clearly a parody of “Serial” and the subsequent plethora of true crime podcasts.
Throughout its first season, “Only Murders…” (both the show and show-in-a-show) folds to great comedic effects in various aspects of the real crime universe. The bumbling trio of Charles, Oliver, and Mabel hunt for false leads and uncover secrets of the Arconia community. They are building an avid fan base of amateur sleuths, known as the Arconians, who debate their theories online. A group of extremely devoted Arconians camps before the Arconia and treats Charles, Oliver, and Mabel as celebrities. Later in Season 1, the three invited the Arconics into the building to help them with the case, further expanding the parody.
Charles (Steve Martin) and Oliver (Martin Short) are recording their podcast.
When Charles, Oliver, and Mabel finally solve the case, there is another murder in the building. Mabel finds Bunny Folger (Jayne Houdyshell), the chairman of the board of Arconia, stabbed with a knitting needle belonging to Mabel.
Season 2 is even more meta, as Charles, Oliver, and Mabel launch Season 2 of the podcast and investigate Bunny’s murder (while trying to clear their name). There are several cheeky self-references, such as when Oliver tells the group that “we’re running low on quality content this season.” The Arconics also return, expressing their disappointment with the season.
Cinda is also recording her new podcast, ‘Only Murderers in the Building’, in which she investigates Charles, Oliver, and Mabel. Meanwhile, Charles — a washed-up actor best known for playing the titular detective in a 90s police proceeding called “Brazzos” — is now starring in a modern-day reboot of “Brazzos.” (It’s unclear if this reboot is a prestige-limited series, but I’d rather think it is.) The show can sometimes feel teetering on too much ridiculousness, with all its goofy layers of parody. But somehow, it never feels too much, thanks to the self-awareness and cozy Nora Ephron vibes.
AI, a serious journalist and critic, should probably investigate why I’ve avoided true direct crime shows more closely and am drawn to something largely escapist. n obvious difference here is that “Only Murders…” is a comedy and a work of fiction, allowing a safe and comfortable distance from the macabre nature of many true crime stories. But it’s not for a profound reason. Real life is grim enough right now. On TV, it’s OK to want a palate cleanser.