Your Holiday True-Crime Marathon Inventory
Because whiling away those awkward hours with the fam IS MURDER. ...Okay, but seriously: what to catch up on from 2016's non-fiction crime crop.
True-crime buffs had a good year in 2016: lots of prestige non-fiction crime narratives to choose from (not to mention the top-notch podcasts proliferating in the genre). Even the crappy true-crime shows seemed less crappy! That presented a scheduling challenge, though, because even OJ: Made In America isn't exempt from the problems of Peak TV, namely that it's Peak TV; even series the critics want to watch might end up triaged off the DVR, never mind the feeling that you couldn't enjoy a mindless COPS-athon on a Sunday afternoon because you thought you ought to watch something more substantive.
But now the days are short, as the man once said, and you've probably got a whack of free time coming up. When it's time to settle in with a stack of Christmas cookies and a show binge, which shows should you pick? Below, my recs for 2016's best, in no particular order.
The Killing Season
Joshua Zeman and Rachel Mills start out investigating the Gilgo Beach murders, but soon realize that many more communities around the country have slates of related, unsolved murders of sex workers -- and that a particular breed of serial killer may defy capture. Can sometimes feel network-noted, but the larger problem of the "missing missing" is worth attending.
Available on-demand and at aetv.com (authentication required).
The Vanishing Women
A series of murders and disappearances in Chillicothe, OH haunts the surrounding community (the case is mentioned in Killing Season extra footage). Some filler, but quite a bit better than most Investigation Discovery original fare, and resists sensationalizing the victims.
Airing straight through on ID on 12/23, and on ID's website.
Unlocking The Truth
I really liked MTV's take on true-crime investigation; it had some stagey bits, but I think that's down to Ryan Ferguson (unjustly imprisoned for some years) and Eva Nagao (a hipster human-rights attorney) not having spent much time on TV before. Ferguson, finally freed after the state had no choice but to acknowledge the egregious bullshittitude (that's the legal term) of the case against him, leaned into seeking justice for those in the same situation -- but in the cases the UTT team takes on, there's no guarantee the subjects aren't guilty...or will get out even if they aren't.
The cases are interesting; even more interesting, sometimes, is when the show tries for that brand of Catfish-y glibness, and fails.
Full eps on MTV.com (authentication required).
The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey
Real Crime Profile co-hosts Jim Clemente and Laura Richards team up with top investigators to recreate the Ramsey home, and hopefully the crime itself, as we approach the 20th anniversary of the murder of grade-school beauty queen JonBenét. The bit with the 10-year-old stand-in smashing a plaster skull is on the unfortunate side, and I can't help wondering how airing the full original six hours might have improved upon the mere four we saw. Or...how airing it on a non-broadcast network might have freed the production up a bit.
That said, amidst a literal barrage of related programming this autumn, TCO still managed to stand out. JonBenét died Christmas night, 1996, so you can expect the other purveyors of content related to the crime to rerun their contributions...and some of them weren't bad, but save yourself eight hours I'll never get back and stick to this one.
Available on-demand and at CBS.com.
Selections from POV's 2016 schedule
Finding POV in your local market is sometimes tricky, but if you set a season pass, it's a great way to find documentaries whose loglines might be a little more complex. In 2016, the public-TV stalwart aired a number of looks at crime and the justice system, including Pervert Park (the residents of a registry trailer park struggle to find their way), The Return (California's three-strikes law, and the downhills its shit rolled onto), and Kingdom Of Shadows (the war on drugs continues claiming casualties). Last year, HBO was king of the TV-crime documentary (The Jinx, the Grim Sleeper pic, others); this year was basic cable's time to shine.
Some of the films mentioned are streaming at PBS.org, plus others from past seasons; set your DVR for random surprises from previous years.
O.J.: Made In America
This 30 For 30 exploration of OJ Simpson in the context of his various times is one of the best three things I saw on TV this year: thorough, cleverly composed, unblinking. It manages to braid race, the role of athletes in America's idea of itself, Rodney King, Hollywood, and systemic injustice into a stunning tapestry, without lecturing the viewer. It's excellent, and it stays with you in the best ways, not least of which is its success at introducing us to Nicole Brown Simpson, actual person and not talking point or cardboard angel. (American Crime Story complemented it perfectly, too. Simpson the man is a piece of shit; Simpson the subject led to some of the brightest performances and most disquieting storytelling of the decade to date.)
On-demand, and airing on Vice New Year's Day.
Making A Murderer
"Um, wasn't that 2015?" 'Twas. Late December, as a matter of fact -- but it's the most talked-about case of the year that followed, and if you still haven't seen it, now's the time. It's not just a well-crafted and enraging story; it raises questions without meaning to about documentary narrative itself, what we mean by (and want from) "objectivity," and whether it matters when justice has become a privilege not available to many.