The draw (and danger) of the docuseries
Nia Sylva | Tuesday, February 5, 2019
“The Innocent Man.” “Serial.” “OJ: Made in America.” Two Ted Bundy themed endeavors marking the 30th anniversary of his death. It seems as though true-crime docuseries have become utterly pervasive in popular culture. The medium’s rise in popularity began with the smash success of 2015’s “Making a Murderer” and has since snowballed. Indeed, it’s become hard to consume media without running into some new nonfiction series that proves to be binge-worthy, life-interrupting and controversial enough to spark additional research on the part of the captivated viewer. And that’s just it. While the success of entertainment that revisits and reenacts heinous crimes (sometimes in gory detail) appears somewhat counterintuitive, it is almost certainly the promise of intrigue — of shocking, novel information — that keeps audiences tuning into documentaries about JonBenet Ramsey and investigations into the possible innocence of convicted murderers like Adnan Syed.
We like docuseries that make us wonder. We like taking on the role of armchair detective, and we enjoy doing hours of independent research so we can argue with family members (about the finer points of a coerced confession or an attorney’s faulty courtroom strategy) around the dinner table. But there’s a problem with our easy acceptance of the information that journalists and producers divulge — sometimes the truth is blurred for the sake of entertainment. Sometimes, there is just as much spin and editorialization in accounts that claim to exonerate innocent men as there was in the narratives that criminalized those individuals in the first place. We may be unknowingly consuming fiction packaged neatly as entertaining truth. Even worse, this skewed truth, purported to be fact, has real-world effects.
Adnan Syed, convicted killer and subject of “Serial,” was recently granted a new trial, likely due (in part, at least) to the newfound attention his case has received. But is justice being served? Or is the victim’s family being forced to relive past trauma as a result of a journalist’s exploitative, skewed narrative? Hard to say.
Having listened intently to Sarah Koenig’s podcast myself, I believe that the prosecution’s case left a fair bit of reasonable doubt. But the hours of content I consumed were the final product of edits and cuts, as meticulously-crafted as the cases presented by the prosecution and defense at Syed’s original trial. Who’s to say that Koenig’s viewpoint was purely objective? Was her primary goal to tell the unabridged truth, or was it to entertain? And wouldn’t the answer to that question affect the way she presented her findings to the public?
With all of these questions in mind, how can we, as consumers, fully trust what we are being told? Of course, none of this uncertainty would really matter — there are more egregious things in the world than misleading narratives — if people like Adnan Syed weren’t being given second chances as a result of the questionable pieces (like “Serial”) that brought their stories to the public. Equally alarming, the individuals vilified in these docuseries have experienced very real, very negative backlash. Andrew Colborn, exposed as a corrupt cop in “Making a Murderer,” has since received numerous threats from viewers and is suing Netflix for defamation because of it. The family of JonBenet Ramsey filed a similar suit in response to CBS’s “The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey,” after the series theorized that the girl’s brother was her killer. The common denominator here is apparent: real world effects, potentially misleading or inaccurate facts.
True crime television, at its best, informs, but some of the information provided might be doing more harm than good.