How Much True Crime TV Is Too Much?

We're being inundated with new limited series like "Under the Banner of Heaven" and “The Staircase" — but there is one show that is a nice palate cleanser.
Colin Firth as Michael Peterson in the HBO Max true crime limited series "The Staircase."
Colin Firth as Michael Peterson in the HBO Max true crime limited series "The Staircase."
HBO Max

At this point, it doesn’t really make sense to call the influx of true crime-related pop culture a “wave” because a wave would imply a rise and fall. Instead, the genre is now so firmly planted into our cultural landscape that the quantity of true crime series and their influence show no signs of cresting.

Still, the recent glut of true crime prestige limited series, including FX’s “Under the Banner of Heaven,” Hulu’s “Candy” and HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” felt like a bridge too far. Even I, a person whose job involves watching a lot of TV and making sense of it, gave up trying to keep up. Given the sheer amount of TV, for each one of these shows I managed to watch, there was probably another one I missed. (Also, too many shows premiered recently in order to compete in the very crowded limited series categories during this Emmys season.)

Like this spring’s boom in prestige limited series about shady tech startups, these dramatizations seem superfluous, even when they’re well crafted. We know how the story goes. Someone (usually a white woman) is murdered, leaving a family or a community shaken. Maybe there’s a shoddy investigation, a questionable trial and sensationalist news coverage. Sometimes, revisiting these stories in different formats can prompt something new, like societal reevaluations or unexpected developments years later, such as reopening the case or exonerating someone wrongfully convicted for the crime.

But the prestige limited series model is particularly superfluous because these shows are often retelling stories based on previous fact-based material, like books, documentaries and news articles. Therefore, there’s a higher bar to clear in justifying them. Why retell this story, and why now? What do we gain from doing it?

One approach is to make the show a meta-commentary on the true crime genre itself, which is at the core of “The Staircase,” a dramatization of the docuseries of the same name. Starring Colin Firth as Michael Peterson, who was convicted in the 2001 murder of his wife Kathleen (played in the series by Toni Collette), the show uses several mechanisms to deconstruct elements of the true crime genre and its appeal, such as the voyeurism and lurid fascination. For instance, the original documentarian, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, and his crew are characters in the limited series, showing how they filmed and edited their docuseries. (In real life, de Lestrade has said he feels “betrayed” by the limited series’ creator Antonio Campos and the way the documentary team is depicted.)

Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Vincent Vermignon as documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade in HBO Max's "The Staircase."
Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Vincent Vermignon as documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade in HBO Max's "The Staircase."
HBO Max

Among the most discussed elements of “The Staircase” has been its unsettling reenactments of the theories behind Kathleen’s death, depicting the sense of intrigue and speculation when there are varying theories in a true crime story. Still, it’s a lot to sit through and tough to stomach, even when the luridness is the point.

Instead, I found it more intriguing to view “The Staircase” as a family drama. We see how the legal proceedings, the docuseries and the public attention rippled through the lives of various members of Michael and Kathleen’s large family. Whether it’s accurate or not, it’s a perspective we don’t often see or are privy to. Similarly, the limited series (and Collette’s fantastic performance) gives Kathleen a humanity that we don’t often get either. Typically, the victims of these headline-grabbing murders become diluted down to symbols, fading into the background while people focus on the grisly details of their deaths.

Though the show does stand out for taking these different routes and examining the true crime genre itself, I’m still not sure it was worth it. Even in the best of circumstances, when creators and writers don’t generate controversy about how they’ve chosen to tell the story, there’s still something uncomfortable about the genre itself. It brings up a lot of concerns about ethics and exploitation, many of which have been well documented in the conversation around the countless true crime tales over the years. So why not just leave these murder stories alone if they’ve already been told?

Charles, Mabel and Oliver (Steve Martin, Selena Gomez and Martin Short) in the Season 2 premiere of Hulu's "Only Murders in the Building."
Charles, Mabel and Oliver (Steve Martin, Selena Gomez and Martin Short) in the Season 2 premiere of Hulu's "Only Murders in the Building."
Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

It’s telling that the only recent true crime-related show I’ve been able to stomach is one that expressly parodies the tropes of the genre. Premiering its second season Tuesday, the Hulu comedy series “Only Murders in the Building” gently pokes fun at the ways true crime has turned into a pop culture industrial complex and spectator sport. The charming trio of Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez star as Charles, Oliver and Mabel, three residents of the Arconia, a tony Upper West Side apartment building. When Arconia resident Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) is found murdered, the team launches a podcast called “Only Murders in the Building.” It’s inspired by their favorite true crime podcast “All Is Not OK in Oklahoma,” hosted by Cinda Canning (Tina Fey), which is clearly a parody of “Serial” and the subsequent profusion of true crime podcasts.

Throughout its first season, “Only Murders ... ” (both the show and the show-within-a-show) folds in various aspects of the true crime universe, to great comic effect. The bumbling trio of Charles, Oliver and Mabel chase after false leads and uncover secrets of the Arconia community. They build an ardent fan base of amateur sleuths, known as the Arconiacs, who debate their theories online. A group of especially devoted Arconiacs camp out in front of the Arconia and treat Charles, Oliver and Mabel like celebrities. Later in Season 1, the three invite the Arconiacs into the building to help them with the case, further extending the parody.

Charles (Steve Martin) and Oliver (Martin Short) recording their podcast.
Charles (Steve Martin) and Oliver (Martin Short) recording their podcast.
Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

When Charles, Oliver and Mabel finally crack the case, there’s another murder in the building. Mabel finds Bunny Folger (Jayne Houdyshell), the president of the Arconia’s board, stabbed with a knitting needle that belongs to Mabel.

Season 2 is even more meta, as Charles, Oliver and Mabel launch Season 2 of the podcast, investigating Bunny’s murder (while also trying to clear their own names). There are several cheeky self-references, like when Oliver tells the group that “we’re low on quality content this season.” The Arconiacs also return, expressing disappointment with the season.

Cinda is also recording her own new podcast “Only Murderers in the Building,” investigating Charles, Oliver and Mabel. Meanwhile, Charles — a washed-up actor best known for playing the titular detective on a 1990s police procedural called “Brazzos” — is now starring in a modern reboot of “Brazzos.” (It is unclear if this reboot is a prestige limited series, but I prefer to think that it is.) At times, the show can start to feel like it’s teetering on too much ridiculousness, with all of its goofy layers of parody. But somehow, it never feels like too much, thanks to its self-awareness and cozy Nora Ephron vibes.

An obvious difference here is that “Only Murders ... ” is a comedy and a work of a fiction, allowing a safe and comfortable distance from the macabre nature of many true crime tales. I, a Serious Journalist and Critic, should probably more closely interrogate why I have avoided the direct true crime shows and gravitated toward something largely escapist. But it’s not for any deeply profound reason. Real life is grim enough right now. On TV, it’s OK to want a palate cleanser.

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