True-crime stories used to keep me awake nights.
Truman Capote's classic In Cold Blood; Ann Rule, writing about her old friend, serial killer Ted Bundy, in The Stranger Beside Me: These were the gateways to an addiction that left me more nervous about violent crime — not to mention the possibility that casual acquaintances might be homicidal psychopaths — than I had any right to be statistically.
When I eventually kicked the habit and returned to novels, I breathed easier. Turns out I'm fine with murder mysteries as long as they're fictional.
On television, I learned to avoid those 48 Hours episodes that might trigger a relapse, and if I was watching the Investigation Discovery channel, you can bet it was work-related. Because I don't think it's an accident that the network of Evil Twins and Deadly Women offers a prize for the "ID Addict of the Month."
But then true-crime TV went upscale, and I was forced to pay attention.
A millionaire murder suspect became an unlikely HBO star in Andrew Jarecki's The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (and ended up under arrest). The success — and quality — of the Peabody Award-winning first season of the podcast Serial, and of shows like Netflix's Making a Murderer and FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story inspired new long-form projects, including NBC's Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, an eight-part series that premiered Tuesday.
The best of these shows can make us question our assumptions about a justice system that doesn't work the way the rest of TV might lead us to believe it does. Even the so-so ones, like A&E's recent six-parter, The Murder of Laci Peterson — which I'll confess to having binge-watched last weekend — can show how relentless coverage, much of it on cable news, may shape a narrative long before all the facts are in. No one needs more stories that make us question our safety with strangers (or loved ones), but we might need the kind that make us question our certainty as armchair jurors.
At the moment, I'm watching NBC's so-far underwhelming Menendez Murders to see Edie Falco (The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie), who plays defense attorney Leslie Abramson. I'm intrigued, though, by the involvement of Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, who's not exactly known for being soft on crime, in a project that's not necessarily pro-prosecution. (He once said, "I don't hold criminal defense attorneys in very high regard, based on what they do for a living, which is basically getting guilty people off.")
Wolf has talked about this L&O being unique for the franchise in having an "agenda," and his take on Erik and Lyle Menendez, sentenced to life without parole in the 1989 murders of their parents, is that they got a raw deal.
"It's absolutely horrible, but when you see the information, I think people are going to realize, well, yeah, they did it, but it wasn't first-degree murder with no possibility of parole," Wolf told reporters last month. "They probably should have been out eight or 10 years ago, because they should have been convicted of first-degree manslaughter."
In some ways, of course, the Menendez case is a classic Law & Order story. The victims, Jose (Carlos Gomez) and Kitty Menendez (Lolita Davidovich) were wealthy. Their sons, Lyle and Erik (Miles Gaston Villanueva and Gus Halper), stood to inherit millions when their parents were found shot to death in their Beverly Hills home.
Crime stories involving the rich (or, even better, the rich and famous) have always been able to draw an audience, though in the absence of both, you can count on the most attention going to victims (and/or perpetrators) who are young, attractive, and, overwhelmingly, white.
The Murder of Laci Peterson, which attempts to introduce reasonable doubt about the guilt of Scott Peterson in the deaths of his wife and their unborn son, ticks all those boxes.
By the end of the series, which is still available On Demand and streaming at AETV.com, I couldn't say whether Peterson, who was sentenced to death and is appealing his conviction, was a two-timing husband who killed his pregnant wife or just a two-timing husband whose wife's death could have been more fully investigated. But I did know a lot more about what I didn't know about the case — and I'm pretty sure Nancy Grace will figure in some future nightmare.
What I didn't get from The Murder of Laci Peterson, and don't get from many shows revisiting once-notorious cases, is the sense that I've learned anything that truly mattered to anyone but the people involved.
The People v. O.J. Simpson was important television, not because it reenacted things we'd seen ourselves, but because it showed the disconnect between the perceptions of people watching the case on TV and the jurors, effectively explaining a verdict so many had long found inexplicable.
The Central Park Five, the 2012 film for PBS from Ken Burns and his daughter, Sarah Burns, about the five black and Latino teens wrongly convicted in the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park, was an eye-opening look at the dangers of coerced confessions, something that also figures in Making a Murderer. (The Burnses' film is available on Amazon Prime Video.) Ava DuVernay recently announced plans for a Netflix documentary series about the case, noting that Donald Trump, then a New York City developer, had publicly called for executing the teens, all of whom spent years in prison before a serial rapist confessed to the crime, his guilt confirmed by DNA evidence.
What the current wave of true-crime TV could teach us, if we let it, is to question how much of what we hear about crime is true. Where's the information coming from? Whose agenda is being served? Why does this victim matter more than others?
Dissecting old cases may help us see flaws in the way crimes may be investigated and prosecuted that are easy to miss in the midst of a media frenzy, but that's meaningful only if it changes the way we approach the next media frenzy.