by Seija Rankin | Tue., Apr. 11, 2017 12:00 PM
Nobody likes curiosity more than...anyone alive in 2017. There's a reason that true crime is so popular right now: It's the living, breathing embodiment of getting to meddle in somebody else's very dirty laundry. No one can help that it thrills them.
There has certainly been an onslaught of material; from podcasts to documentaries and everything in between, it was only a matter of time before something went too far. The public outcry in reaction to the Missing Richard Simmons podcast is proof that true crime shouldn't be open to anyone with a mystery they want solved.
So, at what point does a healthy interest in seeing justice served cross the line into just plain nosiness? When does true crime stop being helpful or educational (or just plain entertaining) and start being inappropriate?
It's worth noting that true crime series can serve a fantastic purpose: Beyond the obvious entertainment factor, probing into an unsolved (or solved, but still unsettling) case can be a great learning opportunity. Certainly many loyal listeners of Serial wouldn't have been exposed to the work of the Innocence Project if it weren't for Sarah Koenig's altruistically nagging segments. Criminal justice reform, prison overcrowding, systematic poverty and plenty of other issues that most viewers weren't necessarily looking to educate themselves on have cropped up in the zeitgeist.
True crime can also, on occasion, solve a crime. Or at the very least, it can move it forward. Just Adnan Syed, whose case went largely ignored until all of America started prying into its loose ends. After Making a Murderer swept Netflix, Brendan Dassey's conviction was overturned. And Robert Durst accidentally confessed to several murders during a mic-ed interview for HBO's The Jinx, in possibly the most satisfying yet confusing conclusion of all time. There's no doubt that the family of Susan Berman is pretty pleased that this genre is so popular.
But no one can ignore the possible downsides.
First, there is Richard Simmons. The fitness guru and all around Svengali to thousands of men and women abruptly disappeared from public life three years ago, with nary a goodbye missive or even an explanation. Between that last sighting and, say, a couple months ago, there was relatively little press about the whole thing. Until the podcast landed.
A few episodes in, and everyone was hooked. We may not have realized it before, but it was very odd that Simmons suddenly stopped teaching or attending any workout classes. It is bizarre that he no longer greets tour buses in front of his house. The fact that people who considered him a close friend have not heard from him in years is strange. And it definitely isn't normal to remove one's doorbell. But hermit-like life does not a crime make. Nor does it suddenly become the public's business just because it's perplexing.
It's human nature to want to know the real story, to understand why a famous person would suddenly turn inward, to be curious as to what drives a celebrity to suddenly shun fame. But Richard Simmons doesn't owe us anything. Richard Simmons has every right to one day decide that it kind of sucks to always have to be in a good mood, or that he's spent so much time helping others that he just wants to do something for himself. And that's only assuming that his disappearance is innocuous—if the star's motivation for privacy is more serious, an illness or injury, then it definitely isn't the public's business. But in the name of true crime, a lot of listeners thought it was.
Missing Richard Simmons was a more obvious example, but sometimes it takes a little bit more digging (pun intended) to uncover that icky feeling. Take the Netflix series Making a Murderer—to borrow from a phrase coined by a New Yorker article, the show served as a court of last resort for its stars. As most people are familiar, it delved into the case of Steven Avery, a man sentenced to life in prison in Wisconsin for a murder he claims he didn't commit, focusing mostly on his admittedly unfair past with the police department in his small town.
Without overloading you with details, we'll just remind you that he had previously served jail time for a separate crime, of which he was later exonerated, and that was the reason for a huge lawsuit against the department. His family was also very poor and not exactly thought highly of in the city. That all makes for a very compelling docuseries, but Making a Murderer's producers have since been accused of deciding on the outcome before they even filmed a single frame. In this relentless pursuit of "justice," they ended up prying a whole heck of a lot.
We as viewers pried into the Avery (and Dassey) family's lives, of course. It was seemingly all in the name of seeking justice, to know more and more about the troubles of the family was to get closer and closer to proving they were framed. But regardless of the intent, something doesn't feel quite right about putting their hardships and troubles on display so enthusiastically. There's a good chance that when they agreed to cooperate with the documentary, they didn't realize that the entire world would bear witness to so much of their private lives.
And there's also the matter of prying into the victim's life. It might be hard to tell from all the media sensationalism over Murderer, but the biggest tragedy of it all was the death of Teresa Halbach. Poking and prodding into the intimate details of her murder is not exactly the most respectful thing to do for her family, especially when the search for justice is more focused on her accused killers than she herself.
Liken it to the OG of the true crime series (for this round of mania, anyways), Serial—in trying to figure out just what the heck happened on the night of her death, the podcast's producers and its viewers ended up treating her last hours, and any drama contained in them, like tabloid fodder.
Last but not least is the still-ongoing fascination with JonBenét Ramsey. Last fall a CBS series called The Case of JonBenet Ramsey attempted to take another stab at her unsolved murder and ended up not-so-subtly implicating her brother Burke in the process. Now let's get a few things straight: The show was compelling. The interviews with the investigators were compelling. Burke's own behavior was compelling. There's no denying all of that.
Yet, don't we all feel bad picking apart his every personality quirk and idiosyncrasy? When Burke went on Dr. Phil to give his first television interview, sure, it was creepy that he smiled while talking about the death of his sister. But this is a guy who most certainly shouldn't have been brought out in front of television audiences and paraded about as the portrait of a disturbed child. The true crime industrial complex, as we'll call it, took his story (and his weirdness) and ran with it. Unsolved crime or not, this was a troubled family and some mysteries, no matter how fascinating they are as television programming, should be tried in the courts.
Do these questions change anything? Does it mean that everyone should just cool it with the true crime? Probably not. History is made to be told, and networks are going to follow the ratings. But maybe we should all start thinking a little bit more about what really makes a crime.
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