In 2022 you don’t need Mark Twain to be the one to tell you that truth is stranger than fiction. If you’ve braved a scroll through social media recently you’ll have seen the sweating face of notorious hate merchant and online snake oil peddler Alex Jones. The Infowars host is finally facing justice in court for his repeated attacks on the families of the children who died in the Sandy Hook school shooting. An event which Jones maintained was fake or a so-called “false flag” event. Yes. Read that again. And weep if you have to.
The courtroom drama is splashed across the headlines. As NBC News reporter Ben Collins understandably Tweeted after a particularly dramatic event “Seen a lot of Law & Order, haven't seen a twist as good as "Alex Jones' lawyers accidentally sent Sandy Hook parents' lawyers the entire contents of his phone and his long-hidden financials, but they waited 12 days to let him lie" in my life. Just an absolutely wild day.”
True crime stories have an allure like nothing else. Collins’ comparison to Law & Order is apt. Reality has a “no one would write this” element that creates unpredictable and relentless drama. The stratospheric rise of the hunger for true crime podcasts, documentaries, and series over the last decade means that in 2022 every crime can be rehashed, reworked, and plated up as a 4K drone shot-packed documentary or a star-studded drama. The dust won’t even have settled on this latest Jones trial when we have our first glossy talking head-filled documentary with those oh-so-perfectly-lit soft focus backgrounds.
Reality has a “no one would write this” element that creates unpredictable and relentless drama
But these series have a duty of care to those involved in the real life case to tell their stories in a sensitive way. It’s not out of the realm of possibility but documentary and drama creators have an obligation to make sure that the truth is being told and victims are clearly depicted as such. Sarah Ferris is a true crime podcast host and producer who started working in the genre when her sister, Emma, began a relationship with a conman. As they discovered his lies, the sisters started a podcast about the case, Conning the Con, interviewing experts along the way to help any future potential victims spot a scam. This means Ferris has a very clear idea of what she wants from true crime media.
“It has to be a victim-led story without glorifying the culprit. The story should be told empathetically and not ‘trauma porn.’ I personally want to feel empowered and like I have a few more tools in the toolbox to spot evil when I finish a true crime story,” she says. “Knowledge is power. As a woman I personally consume true crime because from as far back as I can remember I have lived with the knowledge that women are targets of crime. This is obviously not exclusive to women but we grow up taught to be aware of our surroundings… walk with keys between our fingers at the ready… don’t walk alone at night. The list goes on. Which goes back to my reason - knowledge is power -I want to see my enemy coming.”
Ferris says that documentary makers are “heading in the right direction” with series like Netflix’s The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman with its focus on the victims whose lives were destroyed by a cruel liar. “After that came out the conman in the doco’s face was everywhere and I’m sure the tip lines lit up with information about his whereabouts,” she says. “That is a doco with purpose.”
But it’s when true crime stories are dramatised with a focus on pure entertainment that the moral compass can suddenly swivel off course. Ferris was especially disappointed with the series Inventing Anna, an Emmy-nominated dramatisation of the story of notorious scammer Anna Delvey who targeted the New York elite. “I have to confess, as a story and drama it was entertaining and produced plentiful memes but at the heart of the story Anna was made into a cult icon,” she explains. “She was portrayed more like a Robin Hood character because of the wealth of her victims, but at the end of the day she was a con artist with criminal intent with an oversized entitlement chip and a healthy serving of psychopathic traits - in my humble opinion”
Good true crime drama isn’t impossible though. There are plenty of series that don’t make us feel grubby for watching as entertainment but there needs to be thorough examination of the material and those involved. “It’s a real balance because real life trauma has to be sensitively portrayed and not sensationalised which is essentially what TV and film often does,” explains entertainment critic and broadcaster Rhianna Dhillon. “One of the best examples is when a series takes a crime and interrogates it from all aspects, points out that this is a TV show, makes sure that if they don’t have all the facts, that they are telling us that this is fantasy - ie Landscapers, which was done brilliantly.”
As the HBO Max series The Staircase earns Emmy nominations for its stars Colin Firth and Toni Collette, more eyes than ever are on the genre. The Staircase - depicting the story of Michael Peterson, a man accused of murdering his wife who was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of their home - comes after multiple other high profile documentaries about the case. “The Staircase, although well done, mirrored its earlier documentary counterpart so closely at times that the drama felt unnecessary,” says Dhillon. “It starred great actors and perhaps tried to bring this story to a wider audience but didn’t reveal a huge amount that wasn’t already in film form - and even went so far as to gruesomely portraying the different ways in which Kathy might have died - which felt like conjecture and speculation for entertainment’s sake.”
So how can you make a true crime drama that isn’t damaging for those involved in the original case or treads the same ground as what has come before?
So how can you make a true crime drama that isn’t damaging for those involved in the original case or treads the same ground as what has come before? Dhillon has some suggestions. “I think [drama] can do a couple of things; either distance itself quite dramatically from the details of the true life crime, ie change the characters/protagonists/central players, keeping the bare bones and making sure there’s enough distance between the original crime and their interpretation of it which is for entertainment purposes only. Sherwood on the BBC is a good example of this, using inspiration from real life murders to create something fictional and impactful.
”Or make it as accurate as possible, humanising everyone, really digging into the detail, not just of the crimes but of the victims and the perpetrators themselves so that audiences realise that their preconceptions may have been wrong or that they were never told the full story in real life, ie something like When They See Us - although there had also been a documentary of The Central Park 5, this felt like a story that needed to be told.”
And it’s that idea that we need to keep in mind. These are stories that do need to be shared. For a spotlight to be shone on malicious behaviour and potential injustices. There’s no shortage of tales of nefarious deeds but speaking to those who have suffered and telling their stories with respect and truth, means that both documentary and drama makers can push the genre forward without glorifying these events.
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