clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Bloody Bubble

From ‘Tiger King’ to ‘The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ to ‘The Vow,’ true-crime documentaries are more popular than ever. But as filmmakers wrestle with the ethical concerns that come with the genre, some are asking whether it needs to adapt to stay afloat.

Ringer illustration

On June 30, Netflix debuted its latest big-ticket true-crime documentary, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, a three-part deep dive into the extravagant life and mysterious death of a French television producer who was killed at her vacation home in southern Ireland in 1996. The series drew praise from European critics, with the Telegraph and the Independent both giving Sophie four stars, and the Irish Times calling it “gripping” and praising it for bringing “the victim to life as a woman full of passion.” Stateside, however, Sophie failed to generate similar interest: Review aggregator Metacritic lists just two entries from U.S.-based publications, and an essay in BuzzFeed said that while the series “wrestles with the allure of the dead white woman”—a growing criticism of true crime—it ultimately doesn’t rise above the trappings of the genre.

None of that seemed to deter viewers from tuning in, though. Sophie debuted at no. 4 in Netflix’s daily top 10 on July 1 and spent six days on the list. Despite the limited domestic attention paid to Sophie outside the platform, the series became the latest in a long line of recent true-crime docs to garner substantial buzz.

But even with that success, Sophie may have underperformed relative to Netflix’s other recent nonfiction crime series. The movie-industry tracking website The Numbers maintains daily rankings for the streamer dating back to March 24, 2020, about a month after Netflix rolled out the top-10 feature on its app. Since then, eight Netflix true-crime docs have hit no. 1 and held that position for a total of 58 days—or more than 12 percent of the days available in the data set. Another four peaked at no. 2.

The above list covers a lot of ground—stories of famous serial killers and assorted real-life bogeymen, an art-heist series with a Boston accent, the early-quarantine balm Tiger King—but these 18 films and series make up the bulk of Netflix’s output in the true-crime genre for the past 18 months. And cumulatively, they’ve spent 232 days in the streamer’s top 10—a total that covers nearly half of the days tracked by The Numbers. The instantly memeable Tiger King may have been the peak of the current wave of interest, but the biggest name in streaming doesn’t need Joe Exotic or Carole Baskin to make a hit. In fact, you can basically guarantee the company will score another one later this month when it debuts Myth & Mogul: John DeLorean.

Expanding the scope beyond Netflix reveals similar trends throughout the industry. Parrot Analytics—a media-tracking company that measures audience demand with a formula that accounts for streams, search-engine traffic, illegal downloads, and social media—said in April that the documentary genre as a whole had become the fastest-growing segment of the streaming industry, with the number of series growing 63 percent between January 2018 and March 2021. In data prepared for The Ringer in May, Parrot revealed that true crime was not only the biggest documentary subgenre, but that it was also growing faster than nearly any of the others. (Interest in sports documentaries, which make up the smallest portion of the documentary market per Parrot’s data, grew slightly faster, though mostly all of that increase could be attributed to the popularity of the Michael Jordan docuseries The Last Dance.)

While some of that increase can be attributed to the runaway success of Tiger King—as of June, Netflix’s no. 4 show of all time by first-month viewership metrics—HBO series including The Vow and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark and the long-running Investigation Discovery show Evil Lives Here ranked similarly high in Parrot’s audience-demand metrics in both 2020 and 2021 (through April 30).

The exceptional interest in new shows—and, as with Making a Murderer, the sustained attention by the press in others—has been surprising to even industry veterans. Joe Berlinger directed true-crime classics including the Paradise Lost trilogy and Brother’s Keeper alongside Bruce Sinofsky beginning in the 1990s, and while he maintained a respectable career during the next couple of decades, the current boom has meant a surge in work for him. In the past two years alone he’s helmed massive hits for Netflix: 2019’s Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, the latter of which Nielsen estimated had 1.286 billion minutes viewed in its first week alone. He also attached his name to the Jeffrey Epstein doc and Murder Among the Mormons as a producer. Thirty years after his breakthrough success, his career is bigger than ever. “I’ll be 60 this year, and I thought that by now they’d be putting me out to pasture—I’d have my nice little career and I’d be done,” Berlinger says. “I’ve never been busier.”

True crime has proved over the past five years that it can be a tentpole for the biggest streamers in the game—or, as with Peacock’s John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise, a way for new ones to make a splash. That popularity has also given it a prestige sheen, with high production values, creative storytelling approaches, and unexpected names like the Duplass brothers and Meredith Vieira getting in on the action. It’s no longer just the province of Dateline or Oxygen—it’s become a major piece of the TV-and-film industry.

But with that increased attention has come increased scrutiny. Some critics dismiss the paint-by-numbers aspect of some of the genre’s biggest hits, while others worry that the truth often takes a back seat to dramatic flair. Perhaps most worrying is the fact that true crime often exploits or diminishes victims, survivors, and their family members—the people most affected by these horrendous events—while lionizing the perpetrators. As the genre continues to explode in quantity, there’ll be an even greater chance of such mistakes. But that explosion also ensures a captive audience, and an opportunity to meet demand with docs that elevate the genre rather than bow to its worst instincts—that push beyond blood and gore and explore deeper issues.

“You have those times where you think, ‘God, I wish I had been in indie rock in the early ’90s,’ or, ‘I wish I had been in Britain in the late ’60s,’” says Mark Duplass. “I feel like I’m here right now for documentaries. And I feel like I’ve got a chance to do some stuff.”

Carole Baskin in Tiger King

True crime may be the film format de rigueur, but interest in it existed long before Netflix got into the streaming game. In the 19th century, people could buy tickets to public hangings, which speaks to the blood lust still associated with the genre today (though a successful true-crime documentary in 2021 would likely interrogate the hanged person’s guilt). The concept likely predates that, however, depending on how you define it. A collection of short stories about fraud titled The Book of Swindles was published in China during the Ming dynasty, and Shakespeare himself is considered by some to be the father of true crime. Fast-forwarding a couple hundred years, in the early and mid-20th century, pulp-fiction novels and magazines like True Detective catered to crime buffs, while the 1980s and ’90s saw the rise of headline-inspired made-for-TV movies and media outlets like Court TV. (It’s estimated that 57 percent of the country tuned in to watch the O.J. Simpson verdict in 1995, and that says nothing of how the media turned people like Amy Fisher and the Menendez brothers into household names around the time.) It’s in our nature to love true crime. It’s just that now people love getting in it a format that Berlinger says was once considered akin to “a spoonful of castor oil: good for you, but not very tasty.”

“It’s not so much that there’s more interest in true crime,” he says. “It’s that the documentary has become the preferred medium.”

The current boom is most easily traced to the 15-month stretch across 2014-15 that saw the debuts of the podcast Serial, HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. Podcasting, which was still in its infancy as a global business in the mid-2010s, quickly became a new frontier for crime storytelling. Six years later, true crime is an audio gold mine: According to one survey, it was the third-most-popular genre in the medium in 2020—outpacing sports and even politics in an election year—and it’s produced a new breed of semi-celebrities, such as the hosts of My Favorite Murder and Last Podcast on the Left (the latter of which has an exclusive partnership with The Ringer’s parent company, Spotify).

Unlike podcasts, however, documentaries had been around for about a century. Even the idea of true-crime docs as serious art had existed for decades: Berlinger and Sinofsky’s ’90s work—along with Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line in 1988, Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans in 2003, and Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase in 2004—had gathered cult followings and challenged the way people think about criminal justice. But the interest wasn’t yet mainstream. Berlinger says that he and Sinofsky, who died in 2015, maxed out credit cards and took out second mortgages to make Brother’s Keeper, and even as Paradise Lost won awards and inspired a movement to free the West Memphis Three, they had to supplement their income with commercial work and other side gigs. “We used to be the bastard stepchildren of the entertainment industry, knocking on the door saying, ‘Hey, we tell interesting stories, too, and please let us in,’” Berlinger says.

The Jinx and Making a Murderer changed everything, seemingly overnight. The former, which was also directed by Jarecki, took on a life of its own because of the oddball character at its center and the many real-life twists, some of which were happening simultaneously as the show aired in early 2015. In the case of Making a Murderer, the core question of innocence or guilt wasn’t much different from the ones posed by The Thin Blue Line, Paradise Lost, or Capturing the Friedmans. What had changed, however, was the delivery system: Netflix had become ubiquitous by this point, and with the word-of-mouth buzz behind Making a Murderer, people came in droves to watch the story about the trials of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, doled out in 10 bingeable episodes available all at once. According to an analysis by an independent research company at the time, more than 19 million people watched Making a Murderer in the first 35 days after its debut in December 2015.

The market exploded in the few years after that. Netflix proved Making a Murderer was no fluke by producing a seemingly endless string of widely praised series, from The Keepers to The Ted Bundy Tapes to a doc on the disastrous Fyre Festival. (In the ultimate case of having it both ways, the streamer also released the parody American Vandal in 2017 that drew on the established beats of the genre; the series was as good as, if not better than, any of the real docs it lampooned.) Other companies followed Netflix’s lead, most notably HBO. The company has a long history of producing acclaimed documentary work dating back to Time Was … in 1979, but the years after Making a Murderer and The Jinx saw an influx of true-crime films such as Beware the Slenderman, Mommy Dead and Dearest, and I Love You, Now Die.

This was the landscape Mark Duplass says he found his way to almost accidentally. The 44-year-old director-actor is best known for his behind-the-camera work alongside his brother, Jay, and his starring role on the FX fantasy football comedy The League. But a few years back, brothers Maclain and Chapman Way needed help selling their series Wild Wild Country, which focuses on the often-illegal activities of a fringe religious sect in Oregon. (Duplass hedges by calling Wild Wild Country “lightly kind of true crime.”) They came to the Duplasses.

The project was “not an easy sell back then,” Duplass says, but it was an immediate smash when it was released in 2018, eventually going on to win an Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series. The Wild Wild Country experience got Duplass hooked on the process of making documentaries, a form he had loved as a fan since watching Hoop Dreams and American Movie in the ’90s. Today, the production company that Mark and Jay lead has a small handful of acclaimed true-crime docs under its belt besides Wild Wild Country, counting Evil Genius, The Lady and the Dale, and Sasquatch among its other titles.

“We didn’t know how much we were going to love that process,” he says. “And then from there it was just no turning back.”

In 2020 and the first half of 2021—as much of the world couldn’t do much besides sit inside and watch stuff—the genre reached a tipping point, with Netflix rolling out a new true-crime hit seemingly every month, HBO breaking through with The Vow and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Hulu releasing Sasquatch and promoting A Wilderness of Error through its partnership with FX, and Starz, Epix, and Peacock trying to claim their territory. And while it’s tempting to link the pandemic to the glut of new series—after all, talking-head-type content is much easier to make in a world of social distancing—the industry was already heading in this direction, and likely would have gotten there even without widespread lockdowns. “We entered quarantine and a whole bunch of true-crime documentaries were coming out,” says Emily VanDerWerff, a television critic for Vox. “It just sort of coalesced, and it seems like one caused the other when it was just kind of a coincidence.”

The benefit for the streamers to put out this type of content is many-faceted, says Alejandro Rojas, the director of applied analytics at Parrot Analytics. First, while the company’s data says the volume of documentary titles increased 63 percent between January 2018 and March 2021, the demand for them more than doubled to 142 percent, with the lion’s share of that coming from true crime. Second, Rojas says that Parrot’s data shows a correlation between these types of documentaries and retention, which as the streaming battles escalate, has become nearly as important as signing up new subscribers. “If you want to keep people around, you have to deliver content that is relevant for them to stick around,” he says. “And documentaries are basically filling that need for platforms to retain their subscribers.” (Netflix, HBO, and Hulu all declined to participate in this article.)

Rojas also points to how well-tread ground can find new audiences as younger viewers discover these subjects for the first time. Consider the recent successes of The Ted Bundy Tapes, Night Stalker, and The Sons of Sam—those three docs cover three of the most infamous serial killers in American history, but they still went viral once they hit Netflix. The phenomenon is similar to what Parrot observed with the sitcom Friends, which has captured young millennials and zoomers in recent years thanks to streaming. “It exposed the show to an audience that it really didn’t have,” Rojas says. “I think that some of that is what’s happening with true crime.”

Perhaps greater than any of those factors, however, is a simple cost-benefit analysis: Because there’s little need for sets, costumes, actors, or special effects, documentaries tend to be far cheaper to make than scripted shows. That means that even if a show like Ginny & Georgia pulls in more viewers, Sophie may provide a bigger bang for the buck. According to Marc Smerling, who coproduced The Jinx and Capturing the Friedmans alongside Jarecki and directed A Wilderness of Error, that’s what’s driving the rapid pace of new true-crime content more than anything. In the streaming era, every platform is involved in what Smerling describes as an “arms war,” where the goal is to make as much television as possible. The cost of making documentaries makes them easy to stockpile. “They’re trying to feed their production schedules, and they’re trying to keep their costs down,” Smerling says. “Nonfiction crime always has an audience. And if you make enough of it, you’re going to have a hit every once in a while.”

But for Smerling, the worry isn’t whether these docs will be hits. It’s the sometimes-questionable methods that go into making some of them successful. “That’s the biggest threat to the whole genre,” Smerling says. “Because if the public starts to feel like they’re being panhandled, then they’ll walk away.”

The meeting was like many Smerling had had in the past: A team of producers was pitching him on showrunning a true-crime docuseries that—shocker—purported to solve a cold murder case. But something didn’t feel right about this one to Smerling. The alleged perpetrator had never been tried, arrested, or, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, even investigated by police. The series, however, would conduct its own full investigation, which would purportedly prove this person’s guilt—going so far as to bang “things against a watermelon to crack the watermelon because it’s like a human head,” Smerling says. When the producers got to the end of the pitch, Smerling says he pulled no punches: “I was like, ‘You guys are going to get sued,’” he recalls. “‘What you’re doing is not necessarily truthful, because there’s no proof. Nothing you’ve told me proves this happened.’”

The murky line between factual storytelling and entertainment is one that true-crime docs have had to straddle since the beginning, with varying degrees of success. One of the most revered true-crime series in history, The Staircase, has been criticized for painting Michael Peterson as the victim instead of his slain wife, Kathleen, despite Michael’s conviction for his role in her death. Netflix is dealing with similar issues in regard to its greatest true-crime success, Making a Murderer, as a defamation lawsuit brought by an investigator in Steven Avery’s case winds its way through the courts. “When you’re watching it, it’s very gripping, and you’re like, ‘Boy, they did this guy wrong,’” VanDerWerff says. “And then you go and read anything about the case, and you’re like, ‘Oh, they left out a lot of stuff.’”

Most viewers walked away from Making a Murderer believing that Avery was innocent, but a closer look into the case reveals a host of evidence that the filmmakers didn’t include—things like bullet forensics and previous interactions between Avery and slain photographer Teresa Halbach, which pointed away from the series’ stated hypotheses. Like many true-crime series, Making a Murderer was an attempt to exonerate a convicted killer, à la the Paradise Lost movies or Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, but viewers didn’t have all the necessary information. “There is a bias in our brains toward, ‘This is the true story, this is what really happened,’” VanDerWerff says. “There is an assumption that nonfiction is ultimately more truthful than fiction—which is often true, but not always true.”

The question is, however, whether the creative liberties are a bug or a feature of the genre. As true crime has become a bigger business, its production values have improved and its status as a form of entertainment has become entrenched, says Dawn Cecil, a criminologist at the University of South Florida and author of the 2020 book Fear, Justice, and Modern True Crime. That has led to constructed narrative beats and heightened drama, and even the adding of music to get the blood racing—something once considered as taboo as reenactments in the documentary world because of its ability to influence an audience. “Even though it’s about reality, it does have the goal to entertain, even if they don’t say that right out,” Cecil says. “[A filmmaker] could do those shows or those movies and give us the facts. And it could be quite dull, and we’re not going to be interested. But once you increase that production level, people are going to be more interested.”

Smerling understands the desire for an explosive ending. After all, The Jinx had one of the most memorable conclusions ever committed to tape (even if that scene owed some of its impact to the magic of editing). Additionally, though, Smerling says the current level of competition for stories is creating an environment of one-upmanship, with some filmmakers even going so far as to pay sources, which creates another complicated dynamic in regard to the truth. “There are certain people who will create a shine to the story, just to get a bigger paycheck,” Smerling says. “That’s just not criminals.”

For Smerling’s most recent major film project, A Wilderness of Error, he used one of the most debated criminal cases in U.S. history to examine how we process these types of stories. Reinterrogating the case against Jeffrey MacDonald—an Army doctor who was convicted for the killing of his wife and two young daughters in 1979—and his claims of innocence, the series doesn’t set out for a firework finale. Rather, it’s asking viewers to question everything that’s been presented.

To Smerling, a project like that may be more attainable than one like The Jinx. Those big, salacious endings aren’t always how the world works. “I always say, ‘Go for the emotional truth,’” Smerling says. “There’s always an emotional truth. And if you can get to the emotional truth, that may be the best you could do, and that may be a great ending.”

Ted Bundy had been dead for 30 years when Netflix released two projects about the infamous murderer within a relatively short period in 2019, both directed by Joe Berlinger. First came the four-part documentary Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which was shortly followed by the Zac Efron–led dramatization Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. But if there were any worries about double-dipping into the story, they quickly faded: The Ted Bundy Tapes was the platform’s most-watched documentary that year, outpacing even Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, while Extremely Wicked was Netflix’s eighth-biggest release overall of 2019, according to the company’s own year-end data.

But while the documentary and film were both about as big as the streamer and the filmmaker could have hoped for, they also drew criticism. Most of it had to do with the film’s treatment of Bundy’s victims, who many reviewers felt were relegated to the background—“a string of names and silent faces sliding past on the screen,” wrote one. Berlinger says today he didn’t fully agree with that assessment, but he still took it to heart. That served as somewhat of an impetus for his most recent doc, Confronting a Serial Killer, a Starz series that shines a light on the trauma suffered by people at the hands of Samuel Little, the most prolific serial killer in American history.

“In hindsight, Conversations With a Killer could have spent a little more time on the victims’ experience,” he says. “And so when an opportunity presented itself to tell a story that was completely about victim advocacy, I grabbed that opportunity.”

While Berlinger was able to right what many had perceived as a wrong, the issue of how true crime treats the victims of the stories it covers remains a fraught topic in the industry. These films and series are supposed to be entertainment, and in the current environment, they have all the trappings of a prestige event, with sharp graphics and dramatic music cues—not to mention the twists and cliffhangers that are designed to keep viewers bingeing. But they deal with real-life crimes, and those crimes have real-life victims and survivors. They’re often made without input—or even consent—from the people most affected by the crimes or the people closest to them. Sometimes, that leads to works that ignore the life of the victim or treat them like a statistic. And at its worst, the genre can reopen old wounds for little reason more than salacious storytelling. As one family member of a murder victim covered in Netflix’s I Am a Killer told Time magazine last year, “When we continue to give numbers to these shows, they keep making them. And real people living real lives keep getting re-traumatized every time.”

“We still just very, very rarely allow the victim to be a full person, to have had a full life that was cut short,” VanDerWerff says. “If you have to think about the crime as a thing that happened to a person, then you stop being able to have fun with it.”

In the past year, a handful of docs have worked to do a better job at telling the often-untold side of the story. The best of those may be I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the 2020 HBO series that focused on writer Michelle McNamara’s quest to solve the Golden State Killer case. Based on McNamara’s book of the same name and released four years after her death, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark spends nearly as much of its running time interviewing family members of those killed and others who survived the attacks as it does examining the evidence. In instances like I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which focused on a case that had been cold since the 1980s, speaking to the victims and their families can provide both catharsis and important new details in an investigation. “Some true crime is giving victims a voice that they never had before,” criminologist Dawn Cecil says. “As long as victims and victims’ families are willing participants, it could be a powerful tool to get information out there.”

As a recent entrant into the genre, Mark Duplass says the topic is one he gives a lot of weight to. His and Jay’s process begins with seeking out the approval of survivors and family members, but also includes a lot of testing by putting early cuts before trusted friends and other smart filmmakers and asking how they felt about the film. The result of that work comes in a recent project they were involved in: Sasquatch, a three-part doc on Hulu that explores the Bigfoot phenomenon alongside the effects of the War on Drugs on Northern California’s cannabis economy, spends long stretches exploring the lives of victims, interviewing their family members, and trying to piece together their experiences. “We just listen to that feedback and let audiences guide us more than anything,” he says.

The ethically questionable stuff, however, is sometimes the most successful. The team behind Tiger King played up the most sensational elements of its story—the mullets, the parody-ripe songs, the outrageous quotes—to make it more marketable. It paid off, obviously—the series was a cultural phenomenon and one of Netflix’s greatest successes to date. But Tiger King treated the lives affected by its characters as secondary to the memeable antics of Joe Exotic and Co. Even the death of Carole Baskin’s husband became a meme in its own right in the weeks after the series’ release. And Tiger King did all this without engaging with what may have been the most interesting elements at play: the issue of class, which the series seemed all too happy to exploit for laughs.

“If something gets too exploitative, I get kind of turned off by it,” VanDerWerff says, “but at the same time, it’s what people want.”

Sophie Toscan du Plantier, the subject of Netflix’s Sophie: A Murder in West Cork

A young, wealthy aspiring actress crashed her car into a tree on Christmas night in 2007, somewhere near Redwood National Park in Northern California. Witnesses saw her pace outside her car before vanishing into the woods, but when police dogs searched for her, they were able to trace her scent only to the middle of a forest clearing, where it abruptly stopped. No one seemed to know what had happened to Julie Capsom, but more than a decade later, a journalist and a detective came together to try to solve the long-cold case.

If that sounds to you like the basis for a true-crime series, you’re partly right. It’s actually the premise for the first season of Arden, a fictionalized serial podcast run by VanDerWerff and a team of others that pays tribute to the genre while also subverting its conventions. “We are certainly a comedy, but we try to take the crimes seriously, even though they’re fictional, and examine the effects on the people that they happen to, but also the ways that the coverage of that misses big swathes of the story,” VanDerWerff says.

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Arden’s first season focused on a well-off starlet. If there’s one issue VanDerWerff has with the true-crime genre, it’s that it focuses on the wealthy, the white, and the elite, even as similar things happen to people from different backgrounds. “It tends to be about white women,” VanDerWerff says. “It tends to be about people who have means on some level, and it tends to be about the ways that that intersects in America, especially with race and class, without really acknowledging that.”

Those shortcomings create perhaps the greatest conundrum for filmmakers looking to grow the true-crime genre: How do you push past the same stories that have been told again and again in order to do something truly interesting and engaging that breaks through?

From the 10,000-foot view, it appears that it may not be easy. Of the list of docs that ranked in the Netflix chart from the beginning of this article, most fall into a few categories: famous serial killers (Night Stalker and The Sons of Sam), white female murder victims (Sophie, American Murder, and Why Did You Kill Me?), well-known cases of the elite abusing their power (Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, Fear City, and Operation Varsity Blues), and stories populated with characters ripe for memes (Tiger King and This Is a Robbery). That’s not to say any of these topics are poorly covered or unworthy of exploration—Athlete A, which covers Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of young gymnasts, is particularly important—but the list paints a picture of a genre that’s overwhelmingly white and cishet. None of the docs appear to cover the lives of queer people in any type of depth, and excluding Night Stalker’s retelling of Richard Ramirez’s crimes, only The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel and Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story spend the bulk of their running time on a non-white protagonist or victim, and only the latter explores race and the criminal justice system.

This isn’t always necessarily the case on the streamers. Last year HBO released Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered, a series that focused on convicted killer Wayne Williams, who police believe murdered at least 23 of the Black children and adults found slain in the Georgia capital from 1979 to 1981. But while the network did not make viewership numbers available for this article, Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered appears to have failed to gain the same traction as something like The Vow, a nine-part HBO series about the NXIVM cult that was renewed for a second season. “True crime is escapism, and that’s when it becomes dangerous, because treating a story about crime as escapism is a huge issue,” VanDerWerff says.

It’s a treacherous game. Ideally, a true-crime documentary would be less sensationalistic and more resonant than a fictional piece on the same matter. And at its best, it should challenge the way we think about the criminal justice system—and possibly society as a whole. But as the genre rapidly expands, so many of the popular nonfiction series of today either retrace well-worn territory, or tread in hyperbole, or miss the real story for the sake of virality. What we’re often left with is something not much different from a Dateline episode or a made-for-TV adaptation, merely stretched out over a half-dozen installments and buried behind slick filmmaking techniques. The word “true” becomes a bit of a misnomer, and when the subject is often literally life and death, those shortcomings begin to take their own kind of toll.

Those are the hurdles—Duplass, however, says he thinks of them more as opportunities. Sasquatch, which was directed by Joshua Rofé, focuses heavily not only on the Bigfoot legend and drug policy, but also on the trauma experienced by its protagonist, David Holthouse, as well as the migrant community who provide much of the labor for California’s grow industry. The Lady and the Dale, a visually stunning four-part series directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker, is ostensibly about a career con woman and her three-wheeled car, but ends up being an exploration of the struggle for trans rights in the ’70s and how growing up with a criminal parent affects children.

Duplass is reluctant to call either “true crime” with a full throat, but they certainly scratch that itch for fans of the genre. More crucially, he says that they’ve had a greater purpose beyond pure entertainment. “I get so many amazing comments on Twitter being like, ‘This was just incredible. I signed up for something that I had no idea what it was going to be. And I learned so much about the trans community,’” Duplass says. “And I’m just very, very heartened by people becoming much more educated by, and comfortable with, the documentary series form.”

Duplass hopes that eventually he won’t need the true-crime elements to get people to tune in for a documentary. He uses a metaphor not unlike Berlinger’s “castor oil” reference, just a little more hopeful. “The murder is the chips and the social-political stuff is the vegetables,” he says. “As long as there are enough chips, it’s going to be great. And then the more we do this, we’re going to need less chips. And eventually they’re going to be fine. Nobody’s going to need chips at all.”


From the Press Box to the Stage, James McNicholas Never Breaks Character

It Was All a Stream

‘Real Housewives of Miami’ Episode 11

Bachelor Party

Spiraling, the Surprise “New” Contestants, and Greer’s Apology

View all stories in TV