“The Jinx,” the HBO true-crime series that ended March 15, engendered a wave of intense attention and discussion as it rolled through its six-episode season. The finale was almost upstaged by the arrest of the documentary series' subject, real estate heir Robert Durst, and since it ended, there's been something of a backlash regarding its narrative techniques. I caught up on the show in recent two-day binge and had a few thoughts about what worked, what didn't and what will haunt me until the Durst saga takes its next turn.
Canny recycling. Nothing about “The Jinx” is new, and I don’t intend that to be a dig at the show at all. But if you’ve ever watched a “Dateline” or a “20/20” that focused on an unsolved case, you’ve seen many of the elements that made “The Jinx” addictive: murder, money, marital discord, newspaper clippings, archival footage, swanky and tawdry real estate, re-enactments, dynastic squabbles, grieving friends and family, trial scenes and unexpected revelations. There are dozens of TV shows that traffic in this sort of thing, but “The Jinx” did what so many HBO programs do: It took a sturdy, reliable TV premise and it polished it up to a high, glossy shine. Just as “True Detective” is a really expensive, well-acted buddy-cop drama and “Game of Thrones” is a very pricey, often thoughtful take on fantasy epics, “The Jinx” took the kind of fare you often see on Discovery ID and in middlebrow TV news magazines and made that format seem fresh and compelling. Once you began watching “The Jinx,” it was hard to stop, and that’s what any network wants, no matter how fancy it is.
The rise of the “cork-boarder.” The past decade or so has witnessed the rise of a genre of television (and podcasts) that wants you to head out to an office supply store and stock up on push pins, highlighters, note cards and yarn -- items you’ll need for your cork board when you fall down a popular narrative’s rabbit-hole of theories, conspiracies and connections. As the radio drama “Serial” did, “The Jinx” presented not only a lengthy investigation into a sometimes bafflingly complex series of murder-related events, it also took you on a journey into the inquisitive mind of the person investigating that mystery. Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, it ensured that the cat stayed up past her bedtime looking at message boards, websites and comments positing any number of theories and ideas about a particularly compelling cork-board narrative. As I said on Twitter the other day, it doesn’t matter if a “cork-boarder” is fiction or non-fiction: “Homeland,” “Lost,” “True Detective,” "Sherlock" and even “Breaking Bad” have driven both their characters and their viewers to puzzle over disparate facts and plunge headlong into unsolvable mysteries. Who can forget Carrie Mathison having a psychotic break in front of her elaborate “Homeland” Abu Nazir note board, or “Lost” fans doing freeze-frames in frantic attempts to unlock the secrets of the island? Those folks have a lot in common with people trying to solve “Serial” via Reddit crowdsourcing or trying to find the truth in Durst’s cleverly manipulative version of the “facts.” I’ve no doubt that we’ll get a lot more fictional and documentary cork-boarders in coming years as networks try to cash in on our twin desires for schadenfreude and elaborate yarn-and-note card constructions. (By the way, can we agree that Jason Sudeikis will play Jarecki in the inevitable film? They look so much alike.)
The doorman! I have a contribution to the rabbit hole of “Jinx” theorizing, and it has to do with a question I wish the film had done a better job of addressing. The doorman of the building where the Dursts lived said he saw the heir’s wife, Kathie, arrive at their building the night she disappeared. Later, a private investigator reported that the doorman said he did not see Kathie arrive. Why didn’t the police re-interview the doorman? Did they, but we just didn’t see it? Given that much of Durst’s alibi rests on this claim, it seemed odd that we didn’t get more information about it. Why didn’t the filmmaker Andrew Jarecki press any detectives on this point -- or if he did, why not include that in the film? I would have preferred more on that topic to some of “The Jinx’s” re-creations, which were not always well done and which came off, at times, as mildly pretentious padding.
Durst as a real-life Walter White. Durst is, to borrow a phrase from "Breaking Bad," one of the dumbest smart people of all time. As was the case with TV’s Heisenberg, Durst’s tremendous narcissism blinded him to the risks he was taking -- risks he ultimately didn’t care about because he was able to talk himself or buy himself out of every jam. Think about this “Breaking Bad” parallel: Durst did not really accomplish anything in his life, except the destruction of the lives of many other people. One of Jarecki’s theses is that Durst was driven in part by a lack of recognition from his father and family, but the heir never attempted to accomplish anything that would elicit the approval of others. With that vast fortune, all he did really did was drift around, nursing his resentments and apparently plotting revenge on those who’d crossed him. Walter White finally admitted that he did terrible things because he liked it and was “good at it.” Durst, compelled by his ego to undertake this project in the first place, also ultimately made a damning admission that contained the strange phrase, “Oh, I want this.” Maybe that admission is not so strange if we consider that attention may be what he wanted most. He certainly got it.
Director as subject. It was a bit jarring that Jarecki’s presence became so pronounced in that final episode, and as Anne Helen Peterson points out, the finale worked overtime to ensure that viewers accepted Jarecki’s version of events and agreed with his impressions of the show’s subject. How Jarecki and Durst struggled over the narrative and how each of them presented themselves to the world made for a juicy clash of egos. This was like watching savvy, fame-hungry boxers go a few rounds, but “The Jinx” was much cleaner and slicker than the sweaty fights that HBO broadcasts.
Those blinks, those burps. A few years ago, Fox aired a show called “Lie to Me,” which drew on the work of Paul Ekman, who studies the ways in which body language and facial expressions express emotions and ideas, sometimes inadvertently. I would dearly love to read what Ekman or another expert in that field thinks of “The Jinx,” in which Durst presented one narrative with words and a very different one with his gestures, mannerisms and body language. In interviews with Jarecki, Durst made the case that he’s simply a hapless man who had several runs of bad luck, but his blinks and bizarrely timed burps appeared to tell a different story. It's as if the tension and emotion in him simply had to express itself in some way or another, and it emerged in these tics and physical eruptions. I could be wrong, but every time Durst appeared to be embroidering or altering the truth, he blinked in that weirdly emphatic way, to the point that each time he did it, I thought, “Lie!” Those narrative wars -- between Durst’s version of his life story and Jarecki’s, between Durst and himself -- helped drive the show past its slower patches, and made me think about the furious repression that had been drilled into Durst from childhood. According to him, that is.
The timeline shift. BuzzFeed and others have done deep dives into how “The Jinx” presents certain events in its timeline. Reputable writers have claimed -- with some convincing evidence -- that Jarecki played around with various sequences of events, and one apparent alteration in particular is, if true, disappointing. The show makes it look as if Durst’s 2012 arrest for violating an order of protection led the heir, who had been evasive regarding a second interview, to sit down to talk to Jarecki again. Jarecki used the word “leverage” at one point in the finale, in a segment in which he and his team discussed the fact that they had footage Durst’s lawyers wanted. It appears, however, that the arrest took place after the second Durst interview, though I’m still not entirely clear on this point (I appreciate the detailed breakdowns of "The Jinx's” timelines, but I must admit that they all tend to give me migraines). I have two thoughts relating to the fudging of that timeline, if that alteration did take place.
It shouldn't have and didn't need to pump up the ending. Every documentary shapes the facts and impressions within its narrative, but if the 2012-2013 arrest-second interview timeline is depicted differently from how it played out in reality, Jarecki created a new fact or impression. That’s not shaping or massaging a reality-based narrative, that’s creating a fact that didn’t exist before. If -- and again, this may still be an “if” -- Jarecki created the impression Durst only sat down with him a second time because circumstances surrounding the heir’s 2012 arrest led him to do so, that’s misleading, at best. I don’t care that “The Jinx” is a TV show or a piece of entertainment or whatever. It came from HBO's Documentary division, which generally does journalistically solid work, and unless a piece is presented to me as fiction, it should not contain fictional or invented elements.
The ending was amazing. The thing is, “The Jinx” didn’t need any timeline fudging to have an incredible coda. The ending of episode five was great: One thing I won’t soon forget is the face of Sareb Kaufman as he realized he had befriended and defended an alleged stone-cold killer. But the ending of the sixth episode packed even more of a wallop. If, when he was editing the final installment, Jarecki knew he was sitting on that audio of Durst saying, “Killed them all, of course” -- one of the most jaw-dropping TV moments of the year -- my goodness, wasn't it clear that the episode didn't need to be goosed with further drama? That installment already had everything any TV show would need to keep people talking for days.
Those eyes. It’s common to say of a creepy person that their smile doesn’t reach their eyes, but I got the impression that Durst had never in his life had a smile that reached his flat, black eyes. Even in vintage pictures, his eyes look like bottomless portals to hell. How could those twin black voids ultimately be so compelling? But wait, there’s another question that haunts me: What is creepier, Durst’s eyes or the chipper way he says, “Bye bye!” (It's the eyes. Definitely the eyes.)
Ryan McGee and I discussed “The Jinx” and “Bloodline” in the most recent Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.
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