The first acting credit Matthew McConaughey has on his IMDB page is for an episode of the television series Unsolved Mysteries (air-date: 2 December 1992). The show, which ran from 1987–2002, was known for profiling true-crime stories with detours into tales of the paranormal and alien abductions. A staple of Unsolved Mysteries was the dramatic reenactments. McConaughey got his first acting gig playing one of the victims of a killer on the run. The reenactments gave the show a trashy aesthetic as it tried to bridge the gap between fact and sensationalising these stories to draw in an audience for ratings. It was the kind of show you secretly watched late at night after everyone had gone to bed. You kept your fandom a dirty little secret.
Jump to 2016, McConaughey now has an Oscar, and documentary format true-crime now sits in the upper echelons of pop culture reverence. A lot has changed. It was only back in 2014 when the podcast Serial captured our attention by investigating the murder of Hae Min Lee with unprecedented access to the person convicted of the murder, Adnan Syed.
HBO’s The Jinx followed shortly after; then it was Netflix’s turn with The Making of a Murderer; heck, even the sports network ESPN had success this year with the gripping 8-hour series OJ: Made in America. Even the dramatic interpretations of these stories have excelled with the critically acclaimed The People Verses OJ Simpson cleaning up at the 2016 Emmys and kick starting a wave of interest in mini-series surrounding America’s high profile murder cases (an arms race to develop mini-series about Jon Benet Ramsey and the Menedez Brothers are now in the works).
True-crime tales have always been around but it was spoken about in whispers because any intrigue or obsession into the dark side of human nature would have you labeled as a ‘sicko’. Also, the style of true-crime wasn’t doing itself any favours with how it was being represented. It falls in the realm of documentary-style journalism, but without the code of ethics, so to chase a bigger audience certain liberties can be taken with reenactments, fear mongering experts and over-dramatic music.
A lot of the old guard of true-crime is based on hearsay, which is the big point of difference between now and then. The rise of true-crime over the last 5-years is the culmination of the unprecedented access filmmakers and show-runners have to information surrounding the cases they’re covering. There is a mountain of content: phone conversation recordings, CCTV footage, transcripts, police interview footage, hours of courtroom videotapes and more. There’s also the benefit of time, which allows the living subjects surrounding each story the confidence and hindsight to reflect on what happened.
More than ever, people creating the new wave of prestige true-crime are using the content they have access to craft the narrative to make it tangible to the viewer. Before there was disconnection with these stories because we were experiencing them through a dramatic filter. Why reenact something when you have the footage of the person committing the crime or confessing to murder; show, don’t tell. Using these techniques you can patch together a slick looking series that’s a far cry from shabby wrapping these stories used to come in. There’s now less shame around these productions because they have risen to the quality of television right now in 2016.
On the viewing side a similar thing is happening that’s vital to the way we use social media and the Internet to crowd source ideas and opinions. As we’re watching true-crime, we’re acting like mini-detectives looking for clues and coming up with theories to bounce around Reddit threads or drop in a Facebook rant. True-crime has a habit of offering only vague answers when it comes to the non-conclusive cases it covers, so our curiosity compels us to solve the problem ourselves. The 2015 doco The Thread looks at how Reddit users tried to find the culprits of the Boston Marathon Bombings by using social media to varying degrees of success and a whole lot of irresponsibility. There are a lot of amateur sleuths running around which adds to the fascination that borders on living out a fantasy. Throw in a little ‘fear of missing out’ (a fever running through pop culture, right now) and everyone is involved in the latest hit true-crime show or podcast out of social necessity.
Underlying it all is the fact that these true-crime stories manage to conjure narratives stranger than fiction. It’s too good to be true… but it is! The long-form nature of a lot of modern true-crime (dominated by television and podcasting) gives it time to breathe and lay out every detail. There’s no need to condense it into a 2-hour film or dramatic retelling because these stories are fascinating down to each minor detail that we put into our hive-mind analysis.
In the digital age, true-crime is a self-sustaining beast due to the massive amount of content we can access to tell these stories. Filmmakers and show-runners have figured out how to put the pieces together in the most compelling fashion and the shame of indulging in these nasty tales has been removed. Long live true-crime.
SBS' own true crime drama Deep Water: The Real Story is available now on SBS On Demand: