The True Crime Genre Has a Problem

After taking our time, limiting ourselves to one episode a week, My Darling Wife hit the homestretch of The Keepers, Netflix’s latest true crime documentary series, and banged out the final three episodes over two nights. I suppose it helped that the majority of creepiness and sickness had passed and at some point during the fifth episode the show returned to it’s whodunnit roots of the first episode. Binge-watching a show is easier to do when you don’t feel the need to take a shower after an episode and/or immediately watch something with some humor to balance out your emotions.

The Keepers is the latest true crime documentary series to grab our attention, following in the footsteps of Making A Murderer, The Jinx and Serial, among others. The seven-part series is built around the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a nun and school teacher in Baltimore, and the mystery surrounding who may have killed her and why it happened – mysteries that remain unsolved to this day. The series quickly becomes about more than the murder of Sister Cathy though, and quickly unfolds into a full-fledged expose into the allegations of abuse suffered by the female students at Archbishop Keough High School (where Sister Cathy taught) at the hands of Father Maskell. The two stories become connected when it’s revealed that one of the victims had confided in Sister Cathy, telling her about what was going on and then made the assumption that Sister Cathy’s murder was the result of her confronting Father Maskell.

As far as getting to the bottom of something, The Keepers gets the job done when it comes to the abuse part of the story. It was Maskell, it was covered up by the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the cover-up was helped along by the Baltimore City Police, Baltimore County Police and most likely the Baltimore City District Attorney. For all intent and purposes, it’s an open and shut case. But when it comes to the murder of Sister Cathy, the hook that brought people in initially, The Keepers falls into the same trap nearly every true crime documentary series that has come before it has – it doesn’t answer the who did it question that got the story started.

I think this is becoming a problem.

The team behind ‘Serial’

True crime documentaries, both one offs and series, existed before Serial exploded and became a cultural phenomenon in 2014. However, Serial changed the game by telling their story in a narrative style more akin to a HBO drama than a typical documentary. It really was an amazing work of art and fans waited anxiously for new episodes to show up in their feeds Thursday morning, hoping to find out who had killed Hae Min Lee and to know if the person convicted for the crime, Adnan Syed, was actually guilty or innocent. And we got so close, right up to the door step of finding one of these things out.

But then we didn’t.

The series’ finale didn’t give us the closure and the resolution we were hoping for and instead, laid out all the facts, rehashed what had been presented to us and essentially said “This is what we have, this is maybe what we think and I guess we’ll see what happens from here.” It wasn’t exactly fulfilling. In fact, it was initially kind of a bummer and if you were upset about it and felt even betrayed somehow, you weren’t alone. But that rage was misplaced, it was an in-the-moment reaction that diminished the fact that if you had been paying attention to both the podcast and your own common sense, then you knew Sarah Koening and her team weren’t going to solve the case. Serial had been presented and laid out like fiction, like something you find on television on Sunday nights courtesy of HBO, but it wasn’t. Serial was a documentary, it was real life, and in real life, a small team of journalists armed with microphones don’t usually crack the case and free man out of prison. Well, maybe sometimes they do. But it’s a rarity.

Because Serial was so new, the fact that they didn’t answer their driving question didn’t stick much in terms of criticism. It became more of an afterthought and as time passed, people started to realize it was unrealistic for them to actually solve Hae Min’s murder. Yet the true crime documentary series was so new, I don’t think anyone thought that this could become a reoccurring problem. In hindsight, this seems foolish. Think about it. If The Sopranos had spent X amount of seasons telling this one story and then ended it without a clear resolution, people would be justifiably pissed, right? Oh wait, bad example. Replace¬†The Sopranos with¬†The Wire and that makes a little more sense. If you’re going to tell a story in a dramatic fashion, it needs a suitable ending. If true crime heads were going to go in this direction, this would need to be included.

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Steven Avery, the subject of ‘Making a Murderer’ in a early mugshot

For the most part it hasn’t. Prior to The Keepers, Netflix had ventured into the realm of true crime documentary series with Making a Murderer, the story of Steven Avery and his questionable conviction for the murder of Teresa Halbach. Like with The Keepers, what started out as a murder mystery became more of a sociological study, this time examining class differences and the corruption of law enforcement. However, again, the murder mystery was the hook. Did Steven Avery kill Teresa Halbach or was he set up?

We never found out.

Just like with Serial, Making a Murderer brought us to the edge of closure, but then left us there. And just like with Serial, someone watching Making a Murderer left feeling like they were missing something, like they were being short-changed.

In the past few years, we’ve been inundated with stories of the wrongfully accused, the unsolved murder and the egregious and despicable behavior of those in power, but time after time, these stories, whether told in podcast form or on television have ultimately failed to stick the landing. The reason again is fairly simple – if you’re setting yourself up to answer a question, but then you can’t answer the question, you weren’t really successful in traditional story-telling terms. Perhaps in the documentary world, simply shining a light on an injustice and maybe adding some more questions to the mix is enough. But when you dress yourself up in more narrative-driven fashion, this is problematic. From what I can tell, there have really only been two examples of true crime documentary series that essentially answered the question they initially posed.

First there was The Jinx, the HBO miniseries about Robert Durst. Over five and three quarters episodes the show inched closer and closer to finding out whether or not Durst had actually killed his first wife, a L.A. publicist and a neighbor in Texas. It definitely seemed like he did, but up until close to the very end, it looked like the filmmakers were running up against the same problem law enforcement had – they just couldn’t tie everything together. Of course that all changed when in the waning moments of the show’s sixth and final episode Durst is caught admitting to the murders.

The show itself might not have solved the case, but they set everything up so it was able to be solved. That counts as a win. It also counts as closure. The Jinx told a story about a man who was suspected of killing three people, who had managed to not be charged and/or convicted of any of these murders and then put him in a position where he stumbled into confessing of the killings into a live microphone while he was in the bathroom. There was a beginning, middle and an end – a closed ending too, the most satisfying of endings.

Another example of a true crime documentary series that brought their story home was In the Dark, a 2016 podcast about the abduction of Jacob Wetterling in 1989. Once again, a confession was involved that made their job easier, although this time, the confession happened prior to the podcast airing. The fact that even with this happening the show’s creators pulled off and produced one of the best podcasts of the year is a testament to how strong their reporting was. As with most shows in the genre, In the Dark became about more than just the abduction and shined a harsh, bright light on the actions of the Sterns County Sheriff’s office, who were in charge of the investigation and seemed to botch it at just about every turn. That was the B plot though. The A plot was the abduction and thankfully, the A plot featured a clear cut resolution.

The true crime documentary series genre works, both in podcast form and on television, because in the end, we’re all suckers for a good mystery, a riveting and captivating whodunnit. Throw in some style, a great sound track and the ability to binge and everything is laid out perfectly. Yet all of that doesn’t matter if the story doesn’t end in a satisfying way – i.e. we learn who did it. The mystery will always work in film and literature because that final caveat will always be there. It was the butler, it was the neighbor, it was the ex-boyfriend, it was that dude we totally didn’t expect but now that we know, it makes total sense. We really are simple that way. We like a question, we like some facts, we like some ideas, we like a few more questions, we like to think of our own answers and in the end, we like to compare those answers with the ultimate, final answer.

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A still from Netflix’s true crime documentary ‘The Keepers’

If that final answer isn’t there though, we’re missing something and if we’re missing something, it doesn’t matter what preceded it, we’re going to be bummed and we’re not going to feel 100% satisfied. I thought The Keepers was good, I thought Making a Murderer was good and I loved Serial. But when each one ended, there was less of a feeling of elation that comes with finishing something you really enjoyed and more of a feeling of eh. I wanted to feel better than I did, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t because I just spent several hours invested in something and when it was over, I felt like my return on investment didn’t match up to what I was expecting. It’s not that I was disappointed, because at this point, especially with The Keepers, I kind of knew the mystery of who killed Sister Cathy wouldn’t be solved. I’d say I was bummed, which is almost worst than disappointment in some weird kind of way. Bummed means there was a realistic set of expectations involved and even with those expectations, they weren’t met.

I’ll continue to watch true crime shows and listen to true crime podcasts (to an extent, there are a lot of them now,) but I’ll do so now with the expectation that the ending I’d prefer won’t be the ending I’ll get. It’s not perfect, but it’ll have to do.





Categories: Podcasts, Television

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