From Trash to Treasure: Pop Culture Has Embraced True Crime and It's Never Letting Go

Shows like The Jinx, Making a Murderer and The People v. O.J. Simpson have turned the tawdry into prestige viewing, and there's no sign of a drop-off anytime soon

By Natalie Finn Apr 11, 2017 3:00 PMTags
True Crime SplitGetty Images; AP Images; HBO; FX

If you've ever wondered how many times a shocking, notorious crime can be written about, dramatized or otherwise delved into years—and sometimes decades—after the fact, the answer is...

Still to be determined. We certainly haven't reached capacity yet. In fact, mass interest in grisly murders and convoluted crimes has shown no sign of slowing down, let alone peaking. The true crime renaissance remains in full bloom, and everywhere you look, those who tell stories for a living—whether true or made up—are taking their cues from the real-life annals of justice (and injustice, for that matter).

Ask around and you may be surprised to find out how many people count ID as their guilty-pleasure favorite network. Oxygen is planning to re-brand with a focus on crime-themed programming this summer. If 2015 was the year of SerialMaking a Murderer and The Jinx, and 2016 was the year of O.J. Simpson and JonBenét Ramsey, so 2017 is planning on being the year of Erik and Lyle Menendez and Tupac and Biggie (and more JonBenét).

And you can bet 2018 will be the year of Gianni Versace, once the third installment of Ryan Murphy's American Crime Story premieres. 

Stars' Memorable True Crime Roles on TV

Not that the interest is anything new. "True Crime" was a genre long before O.J. Simpson fled in his Bronco, let alone before Serial and Making a Murder poked some serious holes in a couple of theoretically closed murder cases. Heck, ever since Charles Manson and his family terrorized Los Angeles in 1969—or more likely, since Jack the Ripper terrorized London in 1888—people have been fairly obsessed with crime, particularly the really scary ones.


But the fascination with grisly details has since evolved to encompass concern over how cases are investigated and prosecuted; the cultural and societal dynamics that may have contributed to a crime or its aftermath; and what became of everyone affected by a horrific event.

Not to mention, there are still all those crimes—solved or unsolved—that are plagued by nagging details that either just don't quite fit or, frankly, remain absolutely baffling. (See: Casey Anthony.)

And always, lurking at the heart of every story, even the ones long since solved, is the question: Why?

(Perennial interest in the Manson "family," almost half a century after they slaughtered seven people, including actress Sharon Tate, over the course of two nights is proof that that question never gets old.)

Celebrities Who Were Murdered

But that's where TV (as well as films, podcasts, web series and every other media) comes in. There are infinite roads to go down and endless stones to turn over in the quest for fresh angles, alternative perspectives and, if humanly possible, new information. 

The well-known sequence of events that made for one generation's "crime of the century" is the next generation's shocking new limited series (just get a group of people born in 1980 together with a group born in 1995 to talk about The People v. O.J. Simpson).

CBS' two-part The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey last year chronicled a re-investigation of the still heartbreaking murder of the 6-year-old beauty queen, found dead in the basement of her well-heeled family's home on Dec. 26, 1996. They even built a replica of the Ramsey house in order to recreate the murder scene down to the last detail.


Do we now know for sure who killed the child? Of course not. The experts who took part in the show have their theories, but at the end of the day, the majority of the 10-plus million people who tuned in couldn't have possibly expected an answer. (Same goes for the network-record 2.6 million viewers that ID averaged across three nights of JonBenét: An American Murder Mystery.)

But as the families of crime victims know all too well, closure is rarely an option.

How the 1996 Murder of JonBenét Ramsey Became a National Obsession

The Emmy-winning American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson was more about recreating the toxic atmosphere and the feelings that boiled over when football hero O.J. Simpson was tried and found not guilty of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman, more so than it was about retrying the case or otherwise re-pointing the finger at O.J.


Rather, the cultural, socioeconomic and sociopolitical climate that led to the crime, O.J.'s acquittal and the fractured response to the murders is what the FX series put on trial—as did the Oscar-winning five-part documentary O.J.: Made in America, which also revolutionized how Oscars are handed out, the seven-and-a-half-hour production having premiered on ESPN in addition to screening in theaters.

Shows like Inside Edition, 48 Hours, A Current AffairAmerica's Most WantedDateline and countless others proved decades ago that there's an audience for the subject matter—but that switch from guilty pleasure to critically acclaimed prestige viewing, as film and TV-makers delve more into why something happened, or how society let something happen, is a more recent phenomenon.

The Downfall of O.J. Simpson: Why We'll Never Stop Talking About the Murder Trial That Changed Media Culture Forever

For all of the old-fashioned water cooler obsession that Netflix's Making a Murderer engendered, Steven Avery wasn't exonerated—but the criminal-justice system was proved complicit in the situation he finds himself in today, beyond a reasonable doubt, and his convicted accomplice may be on the verge of being released from prison (pending prosecutors' appeal). Season two is due some time this year.

"I was so fascinated by that show. You end up asking, 'How is the judicial system so broken?'" Ryan Murphy said during the winter 2016 TCA press tour, revealing that he tore through Making a Murderer over his Christmas break. "I wanted to talk to more than one juror and I wanted to see more inside that jury room." (Hence the jury-centric episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson.)


"I think there's something different happening right now," added People v. O.J. executive producer Brad Simpson. "Great true crime stories aren't just about a crime, they're about a rupture in society...I think people are interested in justice right now in a way people haven't always been."

Unlike O.J. or JonBenét, most people knew nothing of Steven Avery before that series premiered—and now he's a household name. Seth Meyers parodied the series on Late Night. Similarly, Saturday Night Live did a pitch-perfect, Christmas-themed spoof of Serialwhose subject, Adnan Syed, is also getting a new trial.

Instead of one shocking case altering the pop culture landscape every few years, pop culture has now embraced true crime as a natural extension of itself.

Filmmakers and TV producers doubling as investigators and sociologists, or reporters and investigators doubling as entertainers (or at least as podcast narrators or onscreen facilitators of the action) is another way that the line between entertainment, information and, sometimes, the news is blurring—never more so than in the case of HBO's The Jinx.

Already your typical, everybody's-talking-about-it, glossy HBO production, the six-part 2015 miniseries blew many minds when, in the series finale, Robert Durst—the suspicious scion of a wealthy family who was considered a person of interest in his wife's disappearance in 1982 but never charged, then tried but found not guilty of murder after he admitted to killing and dismembering his neighbor in 2001—is heard muttering, "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course" into a hot mic.

The show, which in addition to the aforementioned occurrences was also probing Durst's alleged role in the 2000 execution-style murder of his friend Susan Berman, prompted authorities to arrest Durst for murder—and created controversy for director Andrew Jarecki with regard to what the filmmakers knew and how long they sat on it before HBO got to air its hit series.

Jefferson Siegel/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Durst was arrested the day before the finale aired—and in a motion to suppress whatever evidence authorities found in the New Orleans hotel room where he was picked up, Durst's lawyer insisted that authorities arrested his client because of the hubbub surrounding The Jinx rather than because they had new evidence against him.

Los Angeles prosecutors did later confirm that police were forced to move in fast as The Jinx unfolded—and that yes, the looming finale did spur renewed action in the Susan Berman case, knowing as they did ahead of time what would happen on the show.

Durst has since been extradited to L.A., he has pleaded not guilty to Berman's murder, and prosecutors are in the midst of trying to get the case to trial.

True Crime on Film

So that doesn't happen every day. But while artists don't always start out as activists, moonlighting as a detective can obviously lead a person in unexpected directions.

"Series now don't need to go on for 12 years to be successful," Jarecki, the director of The Jinx, said last year on the podcast Recode/Decode, talking about the true crime boom. "They just have to have a compelling story. The crime thing has a specialness to it, because you can lead the audience through this labyrinth. You can have twists that are true."

Sarah Koenig, a veteran reporter and the host of Serial, said in December 2014, two months after the engrossing podcast premiered, that she never set out to free a man—she and her team set out to tell a story. "We wanted it to feel like a live thing...a vital thing in the sense of the word of being a living thing—as we went," she told NPR's Terry Gross. "And we were still reporting last week for the final episode."

And even when you're working with a script—as deftly proved by the makers of FX's American Crime Story and as the makers of NBC's upcoming Law & Order: True Crime, USA's Unsolved, et al. hope to achieve—there are still things to learn about a crime and ways to inform viewers about what happened, to mold opinions and possibly broaden a few minds.

Human nature has ensured that we'll never run out of material.

(E! News, NBC, USA and Oxygen are all members of the NBCUniversal family.)