'We're all car-crash snoopers now': the truth about the TV true-crime wave

From Serial to Making a Murderer, our appetite for unsolved cases is insatiable. But does it suggest dark impulses – or are we addicted to proving innocence?

Not long ago, sales of Faroe Isle jumpers like the one worn by detective Sarah Lund in Danish murder drama The Killing went through the roof and TV viewers fetishised not just Malmö homicide cop Saga Norén’s leather trousers in The Bridge but also her 1970s Porsche. Today, though, a new crime wave has broken on our screens. So long Scandi noir, it’s true crime that is captivating TV viewers right now.

We’re being gripped by documentaries such as Netflix’s Making A Murderer (watched by 19.35 m million viewers in the States alone, and series which provoked a 275,000-signature petition calling for convicted killer Steven Avery to be pardoned) ; HBO’s The Jinx, about eccentric millionaire and possible serial killer Robert Durst; (whose finale was watched by by 1.05 million US viewers) and Audrey & Daisy, about a teenage rape that led to a girl’s suicide. Listeners, too, have been caught up in the case of Adnan Syed, the Baltimore teen convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, thanks to the weekly podcast Serial (the first season of which proved an iTunes smash hit, garnering more than 5 million downloads and streams).

Meanwhile, dramatic reconstructions of true-crime cases are proving equally compelling: Tim Roth as British postwar serial killer John Christie in BBC1’s Rillington Place; Sheridan Smith in The Moorside, also on BBC1, (its concluding episode dominated Valentine’s Day ratings and was seen by 7 million British viewers) about the hunt for purportedly missing nine-year-old Yorkshire schoolgirl Shannon Matthews; and Cuba Gooding Jr as the former American footballer accused of murdering his wife in The People V OJ Simpson (US cable TV’s most watched series last year with 6.2 million viewers tuning into the finale).

Admittedly, plundering true-crime cases for drama is hardly a new phenomenon. Nearly 50 years ago, cinemagoers were watching Tony Curtis as the eponymous serial killer in Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler and, three years later, Richard Attenborough starred in the same director’s take on the Christie case, 10 Rillington Place. But certainly, given the popularity of the true-crime genre, it’s easy to see why dramatists are repeat offenders, drawn again and again to adapting high-profile real-life crime cases for the screen.

“If drama is about conflict, then true-crime drama is the sharp end of it,” says Jeff Pope, who exec-produced Appropriate Adult (about serial killers Fred and Rose West), wrote Mrs Biggs (about the wife of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs), and whose drama about the murder of Liverpool schoolboy Rhys Jones, Little Boy Blue, will be shown on ITV this spring. “Sometimes fictional dramas feel similar to others; high-profile true-crime dramas are always unique.”

The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.
The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. Photograph: FX

But where does the new rise in the popularity of true crime come from? And what does it say about us as a society? One reason for its resurgent popularity is the binge factor, according to David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University and a frequent presenter of TV documentaries about unsolved murders. “I remember my 19-year-old daughter Fleur saying to me: ‘You’ve got to watch this. This is amazing. It’s called Making A Murderer.’ I thought it wasn’t particularly new. It’s a classic miscarriage-of-justice case.”

Disappointingly for Wilson, his daughter was much more captivated by the Netflix series than his own well-received Channel 4 documentary Interview With A Murderer last year, in which Wilson cross-examined convicted murderer Bert Spencer, the man suspected of – yet never charged with – killing paperboy Carl Bridgewater in 1978. “My children have seen me on the telly but they’ve never mentioned anything I’ve done,” he says. “What was interesting to me was that Fleur’s generation were discovering true crime in a way that made sense to their generation because they watch it on Netflix. Not on the BBC, ITV or even Channel 4.”

Now, there are a number of specialist true-crime channels to feed our obsession. In the States, the Investigation Discovery channel offers true crime 24/7 and will be joined in the summer by another channel called Oxygen. Both are targeted principally at women. Why? Salon TV critic Melanie McFarland argues: “Ladykind’s obsession with love and exploitation and murder appears to be insatiable.” Investigation Discovery ended 2016 as the second most popular ad-supported network for women between the ages of 25 and 54.

Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s vice president of original documentary and comedy, is responsible for commissioning not just Making A Murderer but a raft of true-crime docs, including one about Amanda Knox’s trial for the murder of her British roommate Meredith Kercher a decade ago, and another about the still-open, 20-year-old case of murdered six-year-old Colorado beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey, to be aired in April.

Nishimura reckons Netflix subscribers consume her shows in a new way. “The shows really do drive you to want to engage in a conversation; we’re seeing that happen more and more on social media where there’s no time zone or geographical restrictions. That’s where we can create a cultural moment and where the film-makers’ work becomes part of the conversation and the zeitgeist.”

The likes of Nishimura are enablers of a global true-crime addiction. The headline for a piece by McFarland on Salon investigating the phenomenon piece was Opiate For The Masses, but that’s probably the wrong drug parallel: true crime gives viewers more of an adrenaline rush. US criminologist Scott Bonn, author of Why We Love Serial Killers, says: “The euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters. Although we may feel a bit guilty about indulging in them, we simply cannot stop.”

Steven Avery (left), subject of the Netflix series Making A Murderer.
Steven Avery (left), subject of the Netflix series Making A Murderer. Photograph: Dan Powers/AP

Wilson argues that there’s more going on than mere addiction. He notes that most of the most successful true-crime documentaries recently have been about miscarriages of justice. “They’re looking for stories that are quite anti-state. And that feeds into a public scepticism about the state and criminal justice,” he says. “If you’re a billionaire like Robert Durst in The Jinx, it looks like you can work the criminal justice system and avoid jail; if you’re a poor man from Wisconsin [like Steven Avery in Making A Murderer] you can’t.”

Indeed, Nishimura argues that much of Making A Murderer’s appeal was due to how queasy it made Americans (though not just Americans) feel about their criminal justice system. “The things that we had assumed to be the privileges of every citizen felt like they were being compromised,” she says, “so the fact that it exposed a vulnerability was extremely emotional for many people and felt very threatening.” The success of Making A Murderer Two, due for release later this year and following the cases of Avery and convicted cousin Brendan Dassey, who both have new lawyers, is likely to depend on whether it can again outrage viewers by showing what looked like grotesque miscarriages of justice.

“We are all car-crash snoopers when we watch true crime,” concedes TV dramatist Pope, “but there’s much more to it than that.” When he worked as executive producer on The Moorside he was struck by what the drama said about the British class system. “The context was that the estate where Shannon lived had been written off as full of feckless scroungers. That was not the case. There were a lot of decent people there and we focused on that.” Decent people who came together in 2007 in what turned out to be the misbegotten hunt for Shannon, a community with more spirit and fellow feeling than wealthier ones.

Sheridan Smith in The Moorside.
Sheridan Smith in The Moorside. Photograph: Stuart Wood/BBC/ITV

But as The Moorside highlighted, friends and neighbours such as Julie Bushby (played by Sheridan Smith) were duped by Shannon’s mother Karen Matthews who, along with Michael Donovan (an uncle of Karen’s boyfriend), was jailed for kidnap and false imprisonment for hiding Shannon after plotting to claim the reward money.

It is also significant that true crime has become popular in the social media age. Wilson says: “There is this sense of armchair detectives meeting other armchair detectives.” But those armchair detectives aren’t just spectators, they can affect ongoing cases. When a judge ordered a new trial for Adnan Syed last summer, 16 years after he was originally convicted, a key reason was that Syed’s original lawyer failed to cross-examine an expert witness, a detail from Serial picked up on social media. Syed has always maintained his innocence.

Still, true-crime dramas and documentaries are often attacked for being exploitative. Pope, for instance, is steeling himself for attacks on his looming drama Little Boy Blue, based on the murder of Rhys Jones. “I’m not in this to exploit anybody’s suffering,” he says. “I know I have a responsibility. I know it particularly well now I’ve got a family. I’m always asking, ‘How would you feel?’ if I was in the situations I write about.”

Adnan Syed 1998 - image courtesy of Serial.
Adnan Syed from Serial. Photograph: Courtesy of Serial

Pope wrote the script for Little Boy Blue after meeting the murder victim’s parents. Rhys, 11, died when he was shot in the back in Liverpool in 2007 by Sean Mercer, a 16-year-old later convicted of the murder. Didn’t family involvement constrain his writing? “Counterintuitively, it helped. After I met Mel and Steve Jones [Rhys’s parents], I realised cutting between different perspectives – witness, police investigators and everybody else – would provide a three-dimensional portrayal of what happened.”

But isn’t true-crime television just facilitating viewers’ salacious, voyeuristic motives? “Well, I’m using their interest to bring them into the story and once they’re there, leading them into an understanding of what happened.” Pope argues that the true-crime wave involves dramatists and documentary makers directing viewers, like motorists who have slowed for a crash, away from gawping. “When you make shows about true crime,” he says, “especially now when it’s become so popular, you have a responsibility not to show something grotesque and sick. You leave that to Quentin Tarantino.”


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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