As you might have heard, we’re living in a prime time for long-form TV drama, with multiple series taking on the heft, scope and ambition of great literature. You’ll still find plenty of self-contained episodic fare, including crime staples like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and NCIS, but the real sizzle comes with narratives you can obsessively return to and character relationships you come to know intimately for the long haul.
In this arena, the crime serial is currently king. Documentaries in relatively new formats, from Netflix (the home of the much-mulled documentary series Making a Murderer) to podcasts (the similarly parsed Serial), have led the recent charge, along with the HBO miniseries The Jinx. FX, which has already brought us Fargo, returns to the action Tuesday with the shamefully good The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Still flying a little under the radar is ABC’s American Crime, currently in the midst of its second stellar season.
Law and order, guilt and innocence, race and class, crime and punishment: We can’t seem to get enough of the product or the conversation. Making a Murderer, which in a previous age would have been a feature documentary, is today a 10-hour epic. The People v. O.J. Simpson, which once would have been a hackneyed network miniseries, is instead an FX “limited series” with a superb cast including Sarah Paulson, John Travolta and Cuba Gooding Jr.
Forget just the facts. We want big, juicy stories that can’t be contained in an hour or two.
I’ve been soaking this stuff up over the last few weeks, and I’m tempted to ask for a lawyer before I spill my guts. Instead, may it please the jury, I present some observations based in my recent swim through the crime serial waters.
Documentary does not mean journalism, at least not in the sense of presenting all sides in a balanced manner. Making a Murderer has taken all kinds of heat for privileging the perspective of its defendant, the Wisconsin murder suspect Steven Avery, most notably in a recent New Yorker article. It’s easy to argue that the filmmakers, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, are as determined to argue their subject’s innocence as Errol Morris was when he made the Dallas crime doc The Thin Blue Line. But where Morris was meticulous, the Murderer team leaves out critical information on Avery’s criminal past, seemingly because it doesn’t fit the narrative they want to weave.
That’s their prerogative, for the simple reason that it’s their project. For hard facts, you can read up on the case in countless places. And the slant hardly decreases Making a Murderer’s value as addictive viewing. I don’t know if Making a Murderer is great TV, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t sturdy journalism. But I do know I couldn’t turn it off.
It’s fun to watch lawyers fight. The tangiest moments of The People v. O.J. Simpson come with the infighting and power playing within Simpson’s legal “dream team,” including Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane). Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark does battle with the defense and with media sexism. Her fellow prosecutor, Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), has to deal with the black community’s perception of him as an Uncle Tom. You can watch long swaths of this American Crime Story forgetting that O.J. even exists.
The most resonant crime stories incorporate issues of class and/or race. American Crime Story and American Crime — could we make those titles just a little more alike? — deftly incorporate both. Cochran, of course, masterminded the Simpson defense’s strategy of turning a murder trial into a referendum on racism, which also required the downplaying of Simpson’s identity as a rich guy who plays golf with white dudes in Brentwood. American Crime makes the mix even more intriguing: The high school rape victim (Connor Jessup) at this season’s core is derided by his fellow private schoolmates as “white trash,” while the most affluent, played by Regina King and Andre Benjamin, are black.
The white trash label also lingers over Making a Murderer, which makes it clear that the lower-working-class Avery family live as societal outcasts. Avery can afford good lawyers because of a wrongful conviction settlement from a previous case. Avery’s co-defendant and nephew, Brendan Dassey, has no money, which gives him pretty much no chance.
Crime and celebrity share an increasingly strange bond. Some people knew who Robert Durst was before The Jinx, but more didn’t. Fewer still had heard of Steven Avery before Making a Murderer; when I first heard about the series, I wondered why everyone was talking about the one-time Atlanta Braves pitching phenom. (Oops. different Steve Avery.) Today they’re not just people, but also characters discussed at cocktail parties as if they were fictional creations.
This brings us to the celebrity hall-of-mirrors effect created by The People v. O.J. Simpson. The FX series is at its best delineating the story’s intersection of fame, race and criminal justice. As the series takes us back 21 years, we remember a time when the public wasn’t familiar with Cochran, Clark, Darden, Mark Fuhrman, Lance Ito or Kato Kaelin (the epitome of celebrity for the sake of celebrity). Now they’re household names to just about anyone who was sentient in 1994.
Most of these people were once at least somewhat anonymous. No longer. They were touched by the crime limelight. It won’t be dimming anytime soon.