Other than “The Sopranos,” scripted television and I parted ways many, many years ago, and it was an ugly break up, as well. When someone has only three reasons to live and one of them is prematurely yanked off the air you have to expect he’ll take it a little personal. (My two remaining reasons are none of your business but rest assure they’re just as shallow and one involves chocolate jimmies.)
“24” lured me back for a few seasons but the epic double standard of watching the same industry that uses three weekly “Law & Order” primetime hours to demonize Christians subsequently air a “Muslims Aren’t Bad Guys” PSA made my stomach hurt to the point to where I’ve been psychologically conditioned to no longer watch. Everyone tells me television is where the best writing and acting is these days, at least compared to theatrical films (there’s a low bar), and that’s probably true. But God invented my DVD-purchasing addiction and Turner Classic Movies for a reason, right?
Which isn’t to say I never watch television. My “Sanford and Son” DVD collection is on regular rotation. As a matter of fact I’m watching “The Greatest American Hero” right now. On regular DVR rotation, though, is the growing list of documentary true-crime series that air constantly on, among others, the Bio, Tru, and Discovery channels.
My decade-long attraction/addiction to these programs has nothing to do with the grisly details involved in the various violent crimes (and I no longer need tips on how to plot, execute and get away with the perfect murder). If your goal is to wallow in crime’s ugliness there’s a series called “I Survived” where victims go into great detail about their abuse at the hands of murderers and rapists. There’s also MSNBC’s awful off-hours “Lock Up” series. Both programs make you want to take a shower. Both are unwatchable.
What fascinates about these investigative-driven shows are the stories themselves. Fact truly is stranger than fiction. The twists and turns even during the simplest of murder cases makes for compelling television and the characters are just as interesting. Usually, when it comes to the victim and killer, you’re talking about human drama at its very worst. But the underpaid professionals who log long hours away from their families and utilize great dedication, compassion and ingenuity to solve these crimes is a look at the very best in human nature.
Hollywood is loath to acknowledge this truth, but in reality there really isn’t a fine line between the good guys and the bad guys. That line’s actually something closer to a big, thick brick wall. The men and women who guard that wall aren’t all White Knights, but they’re nothing even close to those who prove capable of destroying another and punching a hole in the lives of those left behind to mourn.
My new supply of corduroy bell-bottoms are probably the best proof that getting out in front of a national trend is no specialty of mine, but true crime appears to be growing in popularity. Just a couple years ago Discovery renamed one of their channels “Investigative Discovery” and devoted it entirely to this kind of programming. Elsewhere on the cable dial, documentaries about mobsters, street gangs, forensic pathologists, missing persons, and homicide detectives seem to air constantly — which is just fine with me.
So here are the top five true crime shows that clog my DVR. My Must-See TV:
1. Forensic Files: The tagline of this exceptionally well produced half-hour series is, “No witnesses. No leads. No problem.” The program usually opens with a tease explaining the crime and then jumps right into the discovery of the murder and subsequent involvement of the police. Then, to the show’s great credit, the narrative will usually pause to remind us of the humanity of the victim(s) and his or her loved ones. All murders have a “sensational” aspect to them. “Forensic Files” doesn’t go near any of that. Like the everyday professionals who work these cases in real life, the program never veers from being both compassionate and professional.
That the crime will be solved is never in doubt. What the producers do so well is structure these forensic mysteries in a way that holds your attention with the hook of wondering of “how” the bad guy will be apprehended.
Simple, straight-forward, compelling and always airing right around bedtime. Dare I say, it’s the best show on television.
2. Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege and Justice: Sadly, we lost Dunne just a few months ago. He was very much the Robert Osborne of the true-crime genre; an elegant, likable, knowledgeable and bespectacled host who took you on a tour of murders all over the world at the highest levels of celebrity, wealth, power and fame.
When you’re talking about the super-privileged and exposing their human frailties as no different from yours or mine, it must have been tempting for Dunne to turn on the cynicism, snark and disdain as his lofty subjects were brought down to size. But Dunne never let that creep into his reporting. He certainly wasn’t starstruck, either. The irony of the chaos in the lives of those who had everything was never lost on him, but neither was the humanity of the victim – no matter how pampered and spoiled they might have been while alive.
Dunne got his start in this field tragically after writing about the trial of the man who murdered his own daughter, Dominique (the older sister in “Poltergeist”), in 1982. What a terrible price to pay in order to bring such a unique and appreciated insight to your work.
While the mystery itself is always the big draw so are the subcultures “Power. Privilege and Justice” takes you on an extensive tour of: From the cozy ski lodges of Aspen to the exclusive penthouses of Morocco. Each episode seems to reaffirm the cliché that money can’t buy happiness. But it’s also a lesson in how alike we all really are. The human condition is the human condition and no amount of zeroes in your bank account will ever change that.
3. American Gangster: Produced for BET and expertly narrated by Ving Rhames, this series jumped on the popularity of the Denzel Washington film of the same name and looks exclusively at Black gangsters; everyone from drug kingpins to gang leaders to bank robbers. This is also the best produced show of its kind with cinema-level lighting, design and score.
These gangsters are even more compelling than those covered by my number four pick because they’re more contemporary. Generally, they did their damage within the last thirty years, some as recent as just a few years ago. Just like stories of the Italian mob, almost without fail, you are alternately awed by the intelligence, guts and audacity needed to build a criminal empire, just as you are repelled by the complete disregard for human life. Had any of these individuals put their organizing, managerial and street smarts into a legitimate business they would be just as wealthy but still possess a soul.
The program also provides a broader context than other shows of its kind by exploring issues of race and poverty, and how these factors might play into the criminality. Before you roll your eyes, rest assure the context doesn’t stop there. What really sets “American Gangster” apart is its focus on the victims and how criminality (especially drugs) leaves a ravaged wake of human destruction.
Nothing and no one is romanticized. And frequently, those who buy into the idea that one of these gangsters has reformed himself into some kind of Community Leader, is made to look like a fool.
4. Mobsters: This series takes an hour-long look at individuals anyone at all interested in true crime is already familiar with: Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, John Gotti… Again, like my number three pick, you’re looking at an extraordinary waste of human potential as men with real talents sell their souls for a lifestyle they find addictive, for whatever reason. There’s no other explanation. They make millions, enough for twenty lifetimes and still, even in old age, they keep at it risking prison and a violent death.
Watching this program over time will give you a comprehensive look at how organized crime as a whole not only came about but intertwined and evolved over the decades. In one hour courses you’re watching a historical tutorial of the Mafia from its founding straight through to today.
And not just the bad guys, but the brave and tireless federal agents and police officers who stopped them.
5. The First 48: The opening narration says it all: “For homicide detectives, the clock starts ticking the moment they are called. Their chance of solving a case is cut in half if they don’t get a lead within the first 48 hours.”
No re-enactments here. This program follows homicide detectives for the first 48 hours of a murder investigation and sometimes longer if necessary. There’s a countdown clock (though it’s not as sensational as it sounds) and because this is real life, not every crime is solved in this fascinating look at procedural police work from the perspective of the very real and accessible men and women who put their entire lives on hold as soon as they “catch” a case.
The access the producers receive is extraordinary. Victims’ families and suspects alike are rarely blurred out and the trip into the interview room (usually over closed-circuit) is some of the best television you’ll ever see, and none of it is scripted.
What comes through in these reality programs is a real appreciation for detectives and police officers and forensic technicians, everyone who logs the long hours and does the hard, unglamorous work of tracking down the bad guys. It’s so apparent that each of them is extraordinarily capable and could just as easily work in some other profession with much better pay and shorter hours. Instead they choose to do what they do, and an overwhelming majority of them do it honorably and with great compassion.
There is evil among us. But there are heroes, too