Thursday, March 15, 2018


Okay, I've been avoiding this TV genre, but it's been on my radar lately though. Well, it's been on-and-off it more or less, and it's hard to really explain it, but it's become distressingly popular in certain circles.

Eh, god how do I begin with this one. Alright, full disclosure, while I do have things like a Roku, I haven't had cable, cable in a while. Like a real hundreds of channels package deal in a while; it's just become too expensive, and there's a whole bunch of reasons for that, that I don't feel like getting into, but a few years ago, a friend of mine told me she watched a lot of ID, which I didn't know what the hell that even was at the time.

Naturally I looked it up, and yes, it's an offshoot of the Discovery Channel, it started as one thing originally but at some point, because of ratings, it basically morphed into a 24-hour True Crime documentary channel. It kinda freaked me out honestly.

Like I know, most channels are basically one genre of show that's runs on marathons these days, and sure some of those channels, especially some of those reality channels, they're pretty awful if you watch too much of them, but-eh, this still kinda took me back. I don't know why it does, or did, it did freak me out that I had a friend that said she basically only watched that channel anymore. Then, when I went on vacation back east for a bit last year, I found out that my Aunt basically spends most of her day only watching this channel too. Like, she knew it was bad for her to be watching it, but she kept it on all day, anyway. It was basically her background noise for when nobody else was home and nothing else was on, and then she gladly let everybody else change the channel, 'cause even she knew it wasn't healthy to do that, but she had just gotten used to it, and it appealed. I think we've all done some version of that at some point in our lives, where we basically put something on TV, just to have the TV on and only have pay attention to during the day while we work on everything else. I do it even now, I use to keep on PBS like that, you know, it was nothing else on, and even though it was kids stuff it was calming, nice, good,... honestly I should probably start doing that again, but I've done it with some reality shows, some sitcoms on Hulu and or one of those classic TV channels, the old game shows channels, I'm even doing it right now, I'm finally catching up with "House of Lies" on Amazon Prime as I write this.

I never understood doing that with something that might be too dark or morbid however; when I did pick something to keep in the background, I always wanted to keep something on that was, eh, mind-engrossing. That's why PBS always stuck on, 'cause sure, it's not the most complex thing, especially during the day, but it trying to teach kids to learn and it was calm and peaceful and some of those shows actually were really good and even funny; there's subtle adult humor in things like "Sesame Street" that you wouldn't catch as a kid, you know? Even with things that are essentially junk that I'd use, like, "Storage Wars" or something, a look at a culture of interesting people and there's also the historical aspects of what they're finding, among other things...- I would always be looking for the thing that would engross me and keep me interesting mentally, somewhat. I don't like things that simply shut you off when you put on something like that. To be fair, in that respect, these "True Crime" things, they don't do that. So I guess that's a plus and it's honestly not that they're talking about serial killers and murderers and whatnot, or that it's even morbid, and to be fair it's not just ID, there's also Justice, and Escape, there's a few channels focusing on this kind of programming, and the other weird thing, is that, these aren't objectively bad shows either.

I know it sounds like I'm demeaning or demoralizing this genre, in some way, but I can't even really do that, here, like I would, for say dating shows or judge shows like I have in the past, how I've looked at the differences in quality between the best and worst of those shows and I could I guess, but honestly, watching and analyzing any of these shows separately in a vacuum and not as a genre, I can't really say there's a bad show here. Nothing awful-awful, off the top of my head anyway; I'm sure I can seek something obscure out of course, but these shows, they have an objective, they're telling a story, through a documentary, usually it's exploitative to some degree, but even at their worst, it's still compelling, it's still a mystery, it's a profile on a real-life event, some of them might be funny years later in hindsight, 'cause of some of the claims and updates in technology and whatnot, but, I can't say that there's too many that are truly bad in of themselves. I know the ones I like more than others, and we'll go over the history of the genre and talk about one or two of those series, but is there anything inherently wrong an episode of say, "Forensic Files" or "American Greed", or even the really tacky and exploitative stuff like "Dateline: To Catch a Predator", okay maybe that one, but honestly not really, not in a vacuum. I get the appeal; I like a good mystery, we all like a fascinating true story, I took a Forensic Science class in high school, because of how fascinated I was with how detectives and police work to solve crimes and I loved watching "Forensic Files" and "Exhibit A" episodes during that class. (And it didn't hurt that "CSI..." was still watchable and the coolest show on TV at that time) I get the appeal..., in a vacuum I get the appeal.

It really does freak me out to see and know more and more people put this genre on top of their watchlist and end up binging these shows day in and day out though....

Alright, let's start at the beginning of the genre, which, again, "True Crime" is a weird modern genre. I guess the most notable beginnings of the genre start with stuff like Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood", these non-fiction stories. This is back when the real big idea was to take a true story and turn it from a journalistic narrative and form it into a structure that was more fictional. Since, we're focusing in on True Crime Documentary series here, that doesn't necessarily apply here, it's just taking one journalistic structure and turning it into another, in this case. It goes without saying that there's always been a journalistic appeal to the genre of course, for television, it's a little trickier, to pin down. I always like to think about this genre being more associated with "Unsolved Mysteries" or "America's Most Wanted" when I was a kid. Not only were those compelling, albeit, now in hindsight, they seem more open for parody, especially "Unsolved Mysteries" those shows at the time though, also played like public service announcements, and they were aired with an attempt to try to solve the mysteries, find the suspects, etc. There some aspects of those shows still around, but that's not really where these series get most of their inspiration from nowadays. Most of these documentary series, essentially are inspired by, what we used to call News Magazine shows.

While there are other thing that count in this genre, for instance, docu-miniseries like "Making a Murder" or "The Jinx" and technically there's also the narrative series, especially miniseries like "American Crime Story" and "Law & Order: True Crime-The Menendez Brothers", (That recent miniseries trend deserves it's own blogpost but maybe some other time) the series that I think about as really perpetuating this genre are these docuseries that are more inspired by those news magazines, the "Dateline"'s the- not "60 Minutes" so much but "48 Hours", "20/20", "Nightline" to some extent, those shows. It does make sense that news programs would be the inspiration for these things, although that's weird in it's own way, but you see, I remember back when all those shows previously had respectability. ("60 Minutes" still does btw, despite everything) and were actual integral parts of the Primetime network lineup, and again, they're not bad shows, in a vacuum, but they also were formatted a lot differently. The reason that genre is referred to as "News Magazine" is because they imitated the structure of a magazine at that time. People, Time, Newsweek, etc., they usually would have, three or four segments per episode, and each segment would be a little different. They'd be more in-depth stories than the Nightly News shows, but they've one darker topic, one somewhat light but informative topic maybe a celebrity interview segment,... the kind of longform stories you'd read about in a magazine, and once in awhile, you'd get a profile on a story that was a little more exploitative, that was about a shocking crime and investigation, once in a while. This would be a semi-regular thing, and when it actually happened, especially if it was a local story that somehow made this segment, it would probably be big news, and it would be really big news if they would devote the whole episode to it. We'd be like, "How, I guess they're doing the faux-Milgram experiment test thing next week!" (Yeah, that "What Would You Do?" show on ABC also started as a common segment like this. [Sidenote: Am I the only that runs into that title and thinks for a moment that they're gonna air reruns of that Nickelodeon game show Marc Summers hosted in the '90s?]

At some point, because news is supposed to make money now and everything else that "Network" predicted would happen, happened, at some point, and I'm not sure when exactly but within my lifetime, they started realizing that people tuned in for those exploitative murder investigation stories and suddenly there were more of those shows, being devoted, just to that every week. This is what made me go from, going out of my way to watch "Dateline" every couple days to, well, seeing it only when Bill Hader parodied Keith Morrison every week on "SNL".

It's not even really just that, it's the fact that I know people are just watching fascinating facts about disturbing death after disturbing dearth after disturbing death all day, and you know, most of these stories, because there's so much saturation now, they're not even necessarily that compelling. That parody is kinda right, "Let's forget the obvious suspect is the obvious suspect for awhile. and move on to whatever will kill time....-" I know most every part of the country at some point I guess, must have some huge case that fits these kinda shows theme, and I can certainly think of more than a few local ones in my lifetime that were ready-made for these sort of series to examine, and many probably have, but that leads to another issue, there's only a limited amount of interesting cases.

Forget the other twisted and maybe more disturbing aspects that if you're watching shit like this all day, you're gonna start thinking that America's just full of people killing each other, even though statistically murders have been going down in this country year after year for over two decades now, even with all the mass shootings, but beyond that, at a certain point, you're gonna run out of interesting cases to do these shows on. There's always gonna be a little more, but there's either gonna be a lot of shows retelling the same crimes or you're gonna be scrapping the bottom of the barrels and we're no longer talking about the more interesting and fascinating cases, we're just talking any murder.cases. Or suspected murder cases, or suspected-by-somebody even if their evidence and claims were fishy....

(Yes, despite the condition of the footage, that is a segment of the original "Unsolved Mysteries" doing an episode on Kurt Cobain's death; no I didn't remember they did that either.)

I'd honestly be impressed that they find all the content they do, until you realize that series like "Forensic Files" has actually had like five or six alternate titles throughout it's run and beyond by various networks that have broadcast the series. (Hell, that show was originally called "Medical Detectives", which I seriously doubt anybody even knew or realized until I just informed you.)

I don't know, I believe there's a time and a place where we can explore the more morbid sides of our curiosity and indulge in stuff like this, but if this genre really is becoming a go-to for people, the baseline for what they allow placed into their mind over everything else out there, I get concerned. This isn't a genre like sitcoms or drama series where there's such a wide variety of content within the genre where even divulging in the worst they have to offer can at least be fascinating on an intellectual comparison level, true crime documentaries-, the only real difference I can see from the best of the genre and the worst is how many exploitative tricks they have for enticing us to stick with them through the commercial before they reveal some not-at-all-shocking twist-that's-not-really-a-twist in the case later on. More of these are coming off like things that should've just a "20/20" segment that aired between the political interview and the test that determined which baby cribs were safest. I know there's a saturated market everywhere right now, but there's something, really irksome about having too much of this genre, and it's starting to bleed into everything else. Mostly in positive ways so far like those docu-miniseries and miniseries events I mentioned before but not always. This is the kind of trend that eventually lead to all the networks coming out with TV movies of Amy Fisher in the same ratings week that one weird time. If you like these shows, fine, hell, I like a lot of them too, hell, but maybe more than any other TV genre, you need to take in small doses at best, even if it requires drastic actions like racing to the remote to change the channel at the end credits before they start the next episode of whatever show with that frightening-yet-intoxicating narrator comes on and suckers you into wondering, "Just what did happen to those two toddlers after they were hijacked?" (Fuck it, I'll spoil that one if it helps; they weren't hijacked, the mother lied; she drowned them. There; let's hope that stops people from turning that nightmare of a '90s tabloid infotainment into a miniseries.)

Maybe I'm overreacting, I can admit that but...- but the thing is, that these are shows that's whole appeal is that they're making you uncomfortable. To freak you out, to keep you on the edge of your seat, etc. I may hark on people of all fan genres and trends for limiting their viewing choices and preferences too much, whether that's superhero crap or fantasy dramas to bad dating reality series, or whatever, and yes, in general, I'm not big on anybody being too fascinated by any one particular genre or subgenre or trend or whatever, but I'll take people who talk about nothing but comic book series and movies or watch the crappiest of bad reality shows or basically anything else, than people who's go-to genre is true crime documentaries, at least those things as bad and limiting they may be, they're not just this swan dive into the morbid deluge of death. So if you are one of those people who's go-to is this genre, please, actively seek out something else, something else that, for even a little while you can accept and keep yourself interested in for the sake of sanity and perspective, and just for clearing your mind's sake. Put on a random stand-up special, laugh for a bit, watch a sporting event, something, watch literally watch anything else for a little bit, except the News. Don't just fill yourself up on a diet od this genre; it may feel and seem healthy and nourishing at first glance, but it's empty calories disguised as carbs. Just something a little more nourishing regularly mixed in, that's all I'm suggesting.

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