True Fake Crime

On April 1, 2019, news broke that Awkwafina and Ike Barinholtz are producing and starring in a movie named Crime After Crime, a comedy about true crime podcasting. Earlier this year, fictionalized true crime podcast The Angel of Vine, which featured Hollywood stars like Joe Manganiello, Constance Zimmer, and Alfred Molina, wrapped up its 10 episode run. True crime fiction and satire are hot commodities, but why?

I admit to having a bit of a true crime parody obsession. Mockumentary is my favorite film genre and I’m a sucker for a well-crafted satire. I’ve watched Netflix’s American Vandal. I’ve listened to true crime satire and audio drama podcasts: A Very Fatal Murder, Done Disappeared, This Sounds Serious, Arden, and Murder We Wrote. True crime parody has even crept into my life through one-off episodes of television shows I was already watching, like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Documentary Now!

My fanatical binging is strange, in a way, because I don’t particularly enjoy true crime. I can’t get into Serial or Making a Murderer or the countless other investigative murder series out there. I share many of the concerns others have about the genre: its tendency for exploitation of victims and glorification of perpetrators, treating the grotesque as entertainment, and a frequent lack of meaningful contextualization. But, perhaps it is my skepticism that actually makes me such a prime target for parody and incisive takes on the genre.

Making A Murderer title. (Wikimedia Commons)

The hours of fictional true crime investigation media I’ve consumed ranges from over-the-top absurdist to more subtle works that could pass as real if you didn’t know better. Whether they’re talking about a goose ganking (kidnapping) in Done Disappeared or a murdered Florida weatherman in This Sounds Serious or a missing young woman who may or may not have had ties to a cult in Murder We Wrote, there are distinct similarities. Tragic stories of victims, particularly young women. “Big city” reporters sensationalizing small town crimes. Dramatic music. Blue Apron ads played after narration of gruesome crime scene details. And you can definitely expect some kind of twist.

Both This Sounds Serious and A Very Fatal Murder start with hosts obsessed with finding the “perfect” crime by combing through hours of 911 audio and using a troublingly-sentient computer, ETHL (Extremely Timely Homicide Locator), respectively. The hosts are conscious that the right story, a crime with the right combination of salacious violence and sympathetic (and, ideally, physically attractive) victim, could launch them into stardom. Done Disappeared is one of the most transparent in this critique, with host John David Booter shamelessly self-promoting and inserting himself into his so-called investigations over the course of three seasons.

Arden.

But some hit a little harder. Arden is an audio drama in which a reporter, Bea, and a private detective, Brenda, investigate the disappearance of a young actress, a case to which they both had professional connections. While it touches on many of the absurdist qualities of other podcasts, it isn’t afraid to be more cutting in its tackling of issues like sexual assault in Hollywood. Arden’s writers also engage directly with the questionable ethics of true crime as entertainment. Early on, Brenda is the one pushing the story’s salacious drama, claiming that’s what listeners really want—the twists, the gory details. Later, she has a change of heart, and she and Bea have a conversation that concisely pinpoints my unease with true crime:

BRENDA: …We turned it all into a sideshow. But somebody died. Most likely two people.
BEA: Okay. Right. I am sorry we’re not more solemn about all of it. But isn’t it kind of fun? Closing in on the truth?
BRENDA: It is fun. I’m wondering if it should be.

There it is. True crime sucks us into a puzzle to be solved and, in that process, the humanity of the victims sometimes gets lost. Good true crime fiction gets that and twists it. It makes you question the ethics of what you’re listening to. Should true crime be mindless enjoyment?

Through exaggeration, we can can more clearly see where ethical lines might be transgressed. It’s purposefully uncomfortable when A Very Fatal Murder’s host asks the sobbing mother of the victim to read a message from a sponsor (the promo code is her dead daughter’s name). Yes, to my knowledge, no actual true crime host has pushed it that far, but aren’t sponsorships still allowing them to profit from someone else’s loss? When Brenda and Bea find the answers to their case in Arden, leading to life-altering consequences for multiple people involved (no spoilers!), both the hosts and the audience are left to ponder whether their search for the truth caused more harm than good. In a world where public response to true crime series like Making a Murderer or Serial leads the legal system to reopen cases, shouldn’t we spend more time thinking about the power these storytellers wield?

True crime parody doesn’t even need to be murder-centric to make a point about the blurry lines of the genre. When American Vandal debuted on Netflix in September 2017 with its central question of “who drew the dicks?” I was hooked. It’s juvenile and vulgar (selling points for me, personally), but the show’s core mystery, 27 cars tagged with spray-painted phalluses, is a surprisingly poignant reflection on the investigative true crime genre. Even with something so silly, there are still moments where the show’s high school investigators get so wrapped up in the case that they arguably go too far, for example, exposing and airing secrets about the crushes and sex lives of classmates that are only tangentially related to the case. Lives aren’t on the line, but friendships, college admissions, jail time, and jobs are.

A careful watching of American Vandal raises another issue about the obsession with true crime: people love violence. Theoretically, American Vandal shows that non-violent true crime can be compelling. It still deals with problems in the criminal justice system while removing some of the icky ethical issues of focusing on violent crime. The writers recognize that the craft of the investigation and storytelling is enough to hook you. So, why then, is this not a standard across the real true crime genre? Why do most popular true crime shows focus on people killing other people in the most horrible of ways? That more true crime shows haven’t picked up on an American Vandal model of story seems to indicate that it isn’t the craft we want, it’s the fetishization of violence.

Despite this, perhaps one of the most fascinating parts of true crime parody is that it isn’t all negative. The writers and producers of this content often come across as genuine fans of the genre. Yes, they are pointing out its flaws, but they are also creating love letters to the form. The whodunit, the puzzle pieces, the building drama all make for good listening and viewing. They highlight the fact that some actual true crime investigations bring attention to unjustly overlooked or unsolved cases. They also might encourage me to try some real true crime shows again.

The explosion of these fictional series means I’m clearly not alone in my enjoyment of them. Just as true crime shows few signs of slowing in popularity, there is likewise little reason to believe true crime satire will stop either. And I will watch and listen to them all.

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