The “true crime” drama is one that’s relatively new to pop culture. As a society, we’ve always been fascinated with media circus trials, but until recently, it’s never been translated over into a medium outside of the evening news. If the O.J. Simpson trial had taken place a year ago, it’s a safe bet that it wouldn’t have taken the better part of two decades to release a full TV series starring a prominent Hollywood actor. As it is, 2016 will see the debut of just that, in the form of American Crime Story, led by Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson himself.
American Crime Story is merely one of a whole new generation of entertainment in the realm of true crime stories. Serial helped pioneer the genre in the podcast/radio medium, and is already well into its second season after taking the listening world by storm in its inaugural year. HBO took things a step further with The Jinx, telling the chilling story of Robert Durst’s murder charges. It wasn’t long before Netflix hopped on board, releasing 10 episodes detailing the wrongful sexual assault and murder charges against Steven Avery.
The sum total of this is a full-blown phenomena in the world of entertainment. Fictional shows likes Law and Order and NCIS used to be enough to sate our need for crime-centric TV, but now, audiences are digging deep into real stories. All the while, most of these shows are centered around one question: Guilty or innocent? In the case of Serial, it’s tough to know one way or the other. For The Jinx, we got a story about a suspect who seems almost unequivocally and unapologetically guilty. Making a Murderer took things a step further, as a biting criticism of the corruption of our justice system, showing us the horrifying case of a wrongful conviction.
What all these shows have in common is appealing to our own natural fascination with the idea of guilt and innocence. A court case draws a line in the sand in terms of the what we’re supposed to think of a suspect. But what these series do is muddy the line, demonstrating that “guilty” doesn’t always mean what we think it does. Similarly, neither does “innocent,” and it makes it clear that little else intrigues us more than questioning our own sense of morality.
So when did Law and Order not become enough for us? To understand the answer to this, think about what an episode of the show entails: A case is presented to us as an audience, various law enforcement officials determine the guilty party, and things wrap up with a neat little bow in the end. Conversely, something like Serial plunges its hands into the mud, poring through every small detail in an attempt to find the truth. It presents every possible side of the case, allowing us to draw our own conclusions, rather than spelling it out neatly over a self-contained 22-minute episode.
More than all this, people get a certain amount of catharsis from the idea that someone the courts deemed guilty is in fact innocent. Serial‘s Adnan Syed has spent over 17 years in prison for a crime he may not have actually committed. Making a Murderer‘s Steven Avery was released after 18 years of incarceration for a sexual assault DNA evidence tells us was almost certainly someone else. The Jinx sits at the other end of the spectrum, giving us catharsis in the form of seeing a guilty man subjected to justice. Over everything else, we crave fairness, and true crime dramas show us real cases where we get to make that distinction ourselves.
The future for the genre seems bright. American Crime Story still has yet to debut, Serial is set to be franchised out in every possible form, and Making a Murderer is the most talked about show this side of Christmas Break binge-watching. For as long as the idea of seeing true justice enacted appeals to us as an audience, true crime will continue to collectively fascinate us.
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