Enough With the Damn Murder Docs, Netflix


I miss the days of the old Netflix.

I mean, I don’t miss the old, old Netflix, where you had to rent individual films, which were then mailed to you, which you then had to return (??) at a store. No, I definitely don’t miss that strange Twilight Zone-esque era in which we all apparently lived.

No, I miss the era where Netflix made original content, not just nonfiction documentaries. Where I could go over to a girl’s place for a date and we pop on some Big Mouth or some BoJack Horseman (okay, maybe not that last one) to watch.

Nowadays, all we get are pages upon pages of murder documentaries. True crime, multi-part miniseries where you spend six hours getting into the psychology of this or that killer. Docuseries that give us four episodes on the planning, one episode on the actual act, and three more episodes on the ramifications.

It’s exhausting. It seems like today Netflix has fully jumped onto the bandwagon of binge-watching documentaries on murders, assaults, and robberies, so that now we’re all subjected to the same stories of terrible men (and sometimes women, but let’s be real, mostly men) doing terrible things.

Where did it start? Well, while clearly these existed prior to this event, I would argue the 2016 docuseries O.J.: Made in America is actually the catalyst. This miniseries, which aired on ESPN as part of their 30 for 30 series of documentaries, took a look at race and celebrity through the lens of O.J. Simpson’s life and career.

It talked about his football career’s origins at the University of Southern California, it talked about the height of his success and prosperity as a football legend…and it, obviously, talked about the second half of his life, from the murder trial to even the 2007 robbery conviction.

The Ezra Edelman-directed docuseries was a cultural event, inescapable in the first half of 2016 due to its ability to meld the story of O.J. in with general racial overtones in Los Angeles. It inflamed, questioned, and criticized the way in which the “Trial of the Century” was painted by the relationship between African-Americans in the city and the police.

Once everyone saw the awards and ratings it pulled in, it was all over.

While nuanced television analysts would tell you that the series saw such success, way more than other ESPN 30 for 30 entries, due to its complex grappling with what O.J.’s rise and fall meant for a historically disenfranchised community, television executives are not nuanced analysts.

They saw that big murder = money money money.

And thus it began. Every famous crime of the past half-century, especially those committed by celebrities, got a documentary miniseries on it, regardless of its relevance to the greater world today.

Lifetime got in on it with Surviving R. Kelly in January 2019, perhaps the first true case of cancel culture. Y’know how for years we all kind of just knew he was a monster and yet that was the end of it, we just all moved on with our days accepting the industry rumors?

Well, less than a month after the documentary finished airing, R. Kelly’s record label had dropped him as an artist, and ten different charges of sexual abuse had been filed against him. Goes to show, sometimes all it really takes is a Dream Hampton documentary.

Netflix went big with just having entire television shows dedicated to certain murders or crimes. The hit show Making a Murderer was entirely dedicated to the story of Steven Avery and his conviction, and later exoneration, of sexual assault and murder – before he was then convicted again of a separate murder.

They also feature smaller, single-episode cases, such as the third episode of the first season of Dark Tourist, entirely focused on the infamous Jeffrey Dahmer case. This pairs nicely with the Oxygen documentary that goes through the entire Dahmer case and its consequences, in case that screwed-up story is more your style.

Then, there’s HBO, who obviously spent all of that sweet sweet dragon money (assuming they still get money from that show despite its trash finale) on the big one. HBO’s 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland went after the white (no pun intended) whale himself, Michael Jackson.

Now, the O.J. Simpson case was theoretically the Trial of the Century, right? But I don’t know that anybody predicted how much of a shockwave the Michael Jackson documentary would send out when it aired in March of last year.

After all, the allegations of Jackson being a creep around little boys (and sometimes girls) go back decades – I believe the first one was in like 1993. And yet, the impact was undeniable.

A decade after his death, a series of interviews with two alleged victims, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, completely rocked the world. Every journalist desperate for a Friday-night story hopped on it, while the legions of Jackson fans who didn’t dare question their own love for the King of Pop came out in droves to defend him against slander.

HBO didn’t claim that he did it, they simply stood by their creators making content. And that’s exactly the point. These channels, these streaming services, they don’t care about the truth or about the real story.

They just know that we love a good, juicy story, we love overly-edited interviews and multi-hour documentaries on why our heroes were actually terrible people.

In theory, good journalism would be the way to uncover the truth, but you can’t put on a New York Times article while you cuddle with your girlfriend, so instead, we get a smattering of murder mystery documentaries.

It’s genius, really.

And the ironic part of it all is that the original, the one that kicked off this current wave of murder mystery documentaries, was the ESPN O.J. Simpson one. Made in America wasn’t an exploitative cash-grab designated to repeat facts we already know with higher production value.

And yet, all of its peers are. Oh well.

Guess this is what we get when we let Netflix dominate our dates.

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