Why TV’s true-crime spree is so troubling ... and important


Miniseries, game shows, Winona Ryder — true crime is just the latest genre resurrected by the ever-increasing powers of television.

And the shows now emerging may be the most troubling and important yet.

Long dismissed as lowbrow, exploitational and, in some cases, pornographic pulp, the genre that fed our guilty fascination with Charles Manson, the Black Dahlia and the alarming number of “nice, normal” men who kill their wives/girlfriends/fiancées is suddenly being taken seriously.

The success of the podcast “Serial,” the FX drama “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and multiple docuseries including “The Jinx” (HBO) and “Making a Murderer” (Netflix) have raised true crime from the lowbrow populism of “Forensic Files,” “Homicide Hunter” and “Dateline.”


Not content with the increasing darkness and moral ambivalence of scripted crime drama, television writers and audiences began going straight to the source.

The rise of true crime is a natural extension of an increasingly dark and more jaded view of crime shows.

— Mary McNamara

Not since Truman Capote wrote “In Cold Blood” has non-fictional brutality been the center of so much artistic treatment, used as a fulcrum for our need for authenticity and social awareness — and our desire to be entertained.

No one understands this better than Lifetime. The network has taken a lot of abuse for its “based on real events” films, but Lifetime was exploring the killing of heiress Anne Scripps long before FX’s rise, and aired “The Capture of the Green River Killer” starring Tom Cavanagh when Netflix was still supported by DVDs.

On Saturday, Lifetime airs not one but two versions of the truly horrific events suffered by Colleen Stan. Thirty years ago, while hitchhiking in Red Bluff, Calif., the then-20-year-old was abducted by Cameron and Janice Hooker. Cameron proceeded to systematically beat, rape and torture Stan until she “agreed” to be the couple’s slave. For the better part of seven years, Stan was held in various forms of extreme confinement. When she escaped, and Cameron’s arrest made her ordeal public, she became known as, God help us, “the girl in the box.”


“Girl in the Box” is in fact the title of the scripted film and the subtitle of the two-part documentary that follows it. Although it embodies the biggest problem with true-crime drama — the victims are most often women, who often suffer terribly — in both cases, Stan’s story is told with dignity and respect. Though the terrible details cannot, and should not, be diminished, both versions avoid salaciousness and emphasize Stan’s remarkable ability to survive; she is a large presence in the documentary.

Read: Your weekly guide to fall TV »

Even so, “Girl in the Box” is just about as ghastly a true-crime tale as there is, reminding us, as the genre loves to do, that fiction can only dimly reflect the actual depths of human depravity.

It’s also a fitting start to television’s upcoming spree of ripped-from-the-headlines (and history books) horrors.

CBS launches a six-part examination of the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation later this month; TNT is working on an adaptation of the book “Finding Chandra,” about the disappearance of D.C. intern Chandra Levy; and the latest “Law & Order” spinoff, subtitled “True Crime,” will debut with a look at the Menendez brothers murder case.

Ironically, Lifetime had recently begun distancing itself from the genre it kept alive for so many years. As the network struggled to find a foothold in the new ’n’ glorious age of television, it focused more on its reality programming (“Dance Moms,” the “Little Women” franchise), impact dramas (the “Flowers in the Attic” films, a Lizzie Borden miniseries) and a select slate of scripted series, including the hot and Emmy-nominated “UnReal.”


Meanwhile, the rest of television suddenly decided that true crime was not hackneyed, it was haute.

Or maybe not so suddenly. The rise of true crime is, in fact, a natural extension of an increasingly dark and more jaded view of crime shows in general.

As in popular fiction, crime is a pillar of American television. From Stu Bailey of “77 Sunset Strip” to the geek squad of “Scorpion,” mystery-solving has long been the modern morality play.

Week after week, on show after show, the sanctity of everyday life is threatened with varying degrees of gore for no immediately discernible reason. People, and the social fabric, are endangered until a detective or team appears, assembling the clues in time to prevent the next crime, expose the criminal and bring him or her to justice.

Catharsis provided with minimal emotional risk. Yes, the prevalence of half-naked and often sexually abused female corpses could be problematic, but they were, after all, fictional. The stuff of enraged commentary perhaps, but not nightmares.


As antiheroes began dominating dramas, though, a gloomier view of justice prevailed. Far from the monochromatic morality of “Dragnet” or even the wry world view of “Columbo,” modern crime dramas increasingly focused less on the reassuring establishment of justice and more on the back story of the criminal, the corruption of law enforcement, the imperfection of the justice system or all of them together.

When “Dexter” became the Robin Hood of serial killers, justice took on a new and very elastic definition.

In this darker environment, stories of investigations gone wrong, or cold, with no promise of righteous resolution broadened the crime story from clever cozies to high-wire character drama. Though many traditional procedurals remain popular, the post-“Dexter” school of murder mystery eschews the classic moment of closure — in which the detective explains the crime and apprehends the perpetrator — in favor of ambivalence, failure or an sideways view of morality.

The next logical step then was to explore this new unsettling and unsentimental view of the crime narrative with real cases. “Serial,” “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer” all began as attempts to right a wrong, to sift through the information one more time in search of the truth. The authenticity, and feel of personal engagement, took crime-solving to a new level — the final moments of “The Jinx” appeared to capture its subject confessing, leading eventually to his arrest; “Making a Murderer” brought attention to police tactics that led to the overturning of a conviction for one of the alleged murderers.

Meanwhile, dramatic interpretations of true crime, like “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” did the opposite, turning history into myth with cinematic portraiture.

By airing two versions of its “Girl in the Box” story, Lifetime reveals the power and risks of both methods. The scripted version is, by definition, filtered through interpretation; the documentary is more shocking but less narratively dramatic.


And while, on one hand, it is old-school storytelling — justice, or at least that which was possible, prevailed — it is also quite revolutionary. Murder remains the preferred crime of television, in part because it revolves around a silent lead. The victim becomes a set of behaviors, secrets and relationships or is forgotten altogether.

Unlike JonBenet Ramsey or Chandra Levy or, for that matter, the Black Dahlia, Colleen Stan is alive and well and capable of telling her own story. More important, she reminds us that a real murder or disappearance is more than just a puzzle and brutality is rarely stylish and never sexy. True crime can be an art, but it remains queasy entertainment.

‘Girl in the Box’

Where: Lifetime

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

‘Colleen Stan: The Girl in the Box’

Where: Lifetime

When: 10 p.m. Saturday

Follow me on Twitter: @MaryMacTV



Beyond the buzz, a world of good TV is out there for the watching

Michael Gambon is the Churchill of all Churchills in ‘Masterpiece’s’ powerful ‘Secret’

Tig Notaro’s new Amazon series ‘One Mississippi’ powers through the pain with humor, wisdom

New Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay drama ‘Queen Sugar’ a lyrical study in landscapes