On the night I pressed “play” on the first episode of “Serial,” I realized I share an affliction with the majority of America’s population: I’m a true crime-drama junkie.
I hit the pause button about fifteen minutes into the episode and shuffled as quickly as my Birkenstocks would allow to the nearest convenience store. Ben & Jerry’s pint in hand, I returned to my dorm for what I knew would be a long night in. HBO’s 2015 mini-series “The Jinx” and Netflix’s even more recent release “Making a Murderer” grabbed my attention just as quickly—unsurprisingly, as all three of these focus on murder trials with questionable convictions (or in the case of “Jinx,” a lack of conviction).
Like so many people I know, I’ve always been a fan of tense entertainment. Rollercoasters, “Breaking Bad,” YouTube videos of people climbing tall buildings—I love that feeling of your throat dropping into your stomach when something unexpected happens. Of course, it’s always more fun when you know nothing is actually threatening you. All thrill with no risk.
But when I finished hearing “Serial” subject Adnan Syed’s story (only about 48 hours after I’d started listening), I didn’t feel the same sense of satisfaction or relief that I do at the end of a ride or a fictional TV show. Part of me felt a little guilty.
Maybe it’s because these three series came out in such close succession, but my gluttonous enjoyment quickly turned into hesitation. Something felt icky about spending downtime of my happy, largely un-stressful life listening to the story of someone else’s hardships for my own entertainment.
What was Adnan Syed—a man spending a life sentence in jail for a crime he may not be responsible for—gaining from my intrigued attention to “Serial”? And was I disrespecting Hae Min Lee, the victim of the crime, by engaging the voice of her alleged murderer?
I’ve come to my own conclusion that watching these shows—or listening to these podcasts—is nothing to feel guilty about. They don’t just entertain; they bring attention to stories that wouldn’t have been told otherwise, and to possible flaws in this country’s legal system that we should be aware of.
But I know I was not alone in feeling conflicted about enjoying these series. Plenty of think-pieces have been written in the wake of this genre’s newfound popularity, and they’ve all asked essentially the same question. Why are we drawn to true crime shows?
Please, let’s stop pretending like it’s such a mystery as to why we’re fascinated. It’s human nature to enjoy a good story, whether or not the plot is easy to swallow. The genre is popular for the same reason horror movies are popular. Death, murder and mystery intrigue us in fictional form, so why should true crime dramas be any different?
Even so, it’s important to remember how much power the filmmakers have over how these stories are told. “Making a Murderer,” for example, has faced backlash in the past month over accusations that filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi left out vital information from Steven Avery’s trial.
Ken Kratz, the prosecutor in Avery’s case who was portrayed as the antagonist in the series, is even planning to write a book on the trial to clear up what he believes the show did not properly address.
But when it comes to “Serial” and “The Jinx,” I don’t think there’s any question that these projects did more good than harm (if any harm at all).
“The Jinx” is especially impressive in that the show itself is the reason Robert Durst admitted to committing a series of murders. In the final episode, Durst mutters under his breath that he “killed them all, of course,” not realizing his microphone is on, catching every second of the confession.
If director Andrew Jarecki hadn’t decided to make the series in the first place, Durst would likely have lived the rest of his life a free man. “Serial,” while it left its audience on more of a cliffhanger, opened doors for Syed’s case. In November of last year, he was granted a hearing based on new evidence. What will come from “Making a Murderer”—if anything—is yet to be seen, but tens of thousands of people have petitioned to set Avery free, along with his nephew, who was also convicted.
So the somewhat exploitative nature of true crime entertainment is in many ways beneficial. It gets viewers/listeners hyped up, and creates actual change where change wouldn’t have otherwise existed. And aside from that, seeing each of these stories unfold is indescribably addictive. In my defense, and in the defense of the other millions of people who have sat with eyes and ears glued to these three series: true crime dramas are worth watching.