Amanda Knox, OJ Simpson and Our Fascination With True Crime
By Stacy Lambe
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Amanda Knox, the original Netflix documentary about an American girl in Italy found guilty and later exonerated of murdering roommate Meredith Kercher, is the latest true-crime sensation to find its way to TV. A year after Italy’s Supreme Court determined Amanda Knox’s innocence in the nearly decade-long case, directors Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn are letting each of the key players involved -- Knox, co-defendant and ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, Italian prosecutor
Giuliano Mignini and Daily Mail reporter Nick Pisa -- tell their side of the story.
“We really hope that the film is a portrait of each of these people who are caught up in something far bigger than them,” Blackhurst tells ET, adding that “nobody had really taken the time to understand who they were as individuals.”
While the question of Knox’s innocence is not the focus of their documentary (streaming globally on Friday, Sept. 30), Blackhurst and McGinn acknowledge that people’s continued interest in the now-29-year-old is about whether or not she did it. “The No. 1 question we get is about her innocence, but that answer is out there,” Blackhurst says. “What’s fascinating
is that people are far more interested in having that conversation than wanting to understand anything else about who these people were.”
“These stories play to our fears and there's nothing more frightening than the idea of having a loved one brutally murdered in an extremely vicious way for no reason whatsoever. We're all terrified of that kind of scenario,” McGinn adds, explaining why Knox’s story continues to be a draw. “And in the same way, we're also all scared of being labeled as the murderer or trapped in a story that's hard to get yourself out of.”
The telling film about the public and media fascination with the real-life case follows a flurry of true-crime stories -- scripted and unscripted -- that have captured the nation’s attention time and time again over the past two years, whether it be FX’s dramatized retrial of O.J. Simpson or the surprise hit of Netflix’s Making a Murderer, about Steven Avery and his ongoing battle with an unjust criminal system.
The latest wave of the true-crime sensation was first sparked by Serial, season one of which aired at the end of 2014. During the NPR podcast host Sarah Koenig re-examined the trial of Adnan Masud Syed, who was found guilty of his girlfriend’s murder. It was quickly followed by director Andrew Jarecki’s six-part HBO documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, about a real estate heir suspected in two murders and the disappearance of his first wife.
“What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course,” Durst said to himself during a private (but still recorded) moment in a hotel bathroom following his final interview, which aired in March 2015. That watercooler moment, coupled with the news of Durst’s arrest on a murder warrant in Louisiana, had audiences and the media alike pondering his innocence in the three unsolved mysteries. (While Durst confessed to the dismemberment of Morris Black, he was twice acquitted of the charge of murdering him.)
What followed was Making a Murderer, Killing Fields on Discovery, Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, O.J.: Made in America on ESPN, multiple scripted and unscripted programs pegged to the 20th anniversary of the unsolved murder of JonBenet Ramsey, as well as the MTV serialized docuseries Unlocking the Truth about alleged wrongfully convicted prisoners fighting for their freedom. Not limited to TV, there are several newpodcasts dedicated to trending murders and mysteries, including My Favorite Murder with hosts Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff and the upcoming Wrongful Conviction with Lava Records CEO and advocate Jason Flomlaunching on Oct 4.
With each new series or film, audiences are given a chance to be a detective in their own right and perhaps study the human psyche. “I would imagine it’s just an interest in the human mind and human behavior, especially when something is so far from you,” says Samira Wiley. The Orange Is the New Black actress is starring in the new film 37, inspired by the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens, New York. The story became infamous when it was reported that 37 neighbors had witnessed the rape and murder of Genovese but did not intervene. “It's an interesting psychological study to me. I'm definitely caught up in the Kool-Aid of true-crime stories.”
“I’ve been a crime maniac since I was a child,” says Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor in Simpson’s murder trial for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. “But I think that when they’re televised like this, especially when you have these multipart series, there’s time to really invest and be a sleuth yourself.”
Clark’s story was later retold on American Crime Story by Sarah Paulson, who was joined by Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance in winning Emmys this year for their thoughtful portrayals of the legal teams on both sides of the case on the FX anthology series. When accepting the award, Paulson publicly apologized to Clark for the way the media and public famously villainized her over 20 years ago, most notably seen in the episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” which producer Nina Jacobson says may be “one of the most feminist episodes of television a person will ever get to see.”
Simpson’s story in particular reached peak nostalgia earlier this year, when, in addition to the FX anthology series, the Esquire Network aired a 12-hour special, The Real O.J. Simpson, featuring actual footage from the original trial, and ESPN debuted O.J.: Made in America, which explored the nation’s fascination with the athlete and the fallout of his fame.
While director Ezra Edelman says that his ESPN documentary is not a true-crime story, he does say that the continued interest around Simpson is because the two murders remain unsolved. “We don’t know the truth,” he says, “because none of us were there that night. We maintain this fascination.”
However, it should be acknowledged that true crime on TV is nothing new. The Crime + Investigation Network runs daily content dedicated to the retelling of real-life crimes, while Lifetime regularly airs movies of the week -- Cleveland's Abduction, I Killed My BFF and Girl In the Box, among many, many others -- inspired by true events. Then there’s the long-running Law & Order franchise with its many ripped-from-the-headlines plots, including the recent SVU episode “Making a Rapist” inspired by Netflix’s docuseries.
“Crime has always been a staple of television,” says Tom Fontana, creator of NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street and an Emmy-winning producer behind Killing Fields. “These days, because of the advances in technology -- both in fighting crime
and behind the camera -- we have a much larger palette from which to choose, so we’re able to tell fuller, compelling stories.”
It’s also a matter of finding new ways to tell these stories. In the instance of Killing Fields, the story unfolded in real time as Detectives Rodie Sanchez and Aubrey St. Angelo reopened the 19-year-old unsolved murder of Louisiana State University
graduate student Eugenie Boisfontaine, who was last seen alive in June 1997. When it came to the season one finale, Fontana says “the team had three possible ways for it to go, so we were prepared for any eventuality.” In the end, the investigators were forced to walk away with unanswered questions and a killer still at large despite narrowing in on a few suspects -- though six more episodes of the series have been ordered.
The dramatic buildup is partly why viewers were (and are) hooked week to week, and why Durst’s apparent admission of guilt was such a shock at the end of The Jinx. “The drama heightens the storytelling,” Fontana says, claiming he doesn't worry about whether it interferes with the facts of the story. If anything, it enhances the viewing experience. “This isn’t a casebook, it’s a TV series.”
In Making a Murderer’s case, directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos says the drama was already there. Wrongfully accused of the rape and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen in 1985, Steven Avery was exonerated after serving 18 years of a 32-year sentence when DNA testing proved his innocence. In 2005, two years after his release, Avery was charged with the kidnapping and murder of Teresa Halbach. “The thing about this story is that we really didn’t have to work to create plot twists or suspense or intense drama,” Demos says. “We could be factual and intense at the same time.”
“We were documenting events as they were unfolding,” Ricciardi adds. The documentary took 10 years to complete. “There were so many developments that just happened organically and we just tried to share that with the viewers through the editing process.”
Both hits have come under fire for biased storytelling, for possibly untruthful editing to create cliffhanger in The Jinx’s case and too great a focus on advocacy in Making a Murderer. “I’ve been very vocal about Making a Murderer because it’s simply not true,” Nancy Grace says. “It’s a beautifully put together documentary that leaves out over half the story.”
But Ricciardi doesn’t classify Making a Murderer as truly a crime story. “There are many ways in which it seems understandable that people would label it as true crime,” she says. “But from our perspective, it’s really a look at the criminal justice system and how it functions today.”
While there are arguments for and against the methods of storytelling used by these true-crime documentaries, there’s no stopping the trend. Killing Fields and Making a Murderer are both slated for a second season, with “more about this story,” Demos says of staying focused on Avery’s ongoing legal battle.
Meanwhile, scripted television is cashing in. TNT is working on a Chandra Levy scripted miniseries adapted from Scott Higham and Sara Horwitz's book Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery. American Crime Story will return with a new season about Hurricane Katrina and Murphy’s horror-themed FX anthology series, American Horror Story, is using a true-crime documentary as a frame for its new season, Roanoke, with Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. playing actors in a reenactment of the stories of their “real-life” counterparts, played by Lily Rabe and Andre Holland.
“Every time something hits big, it brings in a wave of people who enjoy that genre,” Murphy told The Hollywood Reporter. “It had been done before for years and years and years, many times before we did it.”
Inspired by the success of American Crime Story, Law & Order creator Dick Wolf is even taking a shot with a new anthology
series, Law & Order: True Crime, starting with The Menendez Murders. The show’s eight episodes will focus on the 1996 case of Lyle and Erik Menendez, two brothers convicted of murdering their parents and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Despite so many series taking shape, Wolf is not worried about burnout. “I think that there is an endless appetite for stuff that's really well done,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “If it's not really well done, yeah, I think you can go, ‘Oh, please, I've got to watch six more hours of this?’”
And sometimes it comes down to the case itself. In the instance of Simpson or Making a Murderer, “you’re talking about literally life and death,” Clark says, explaining why these shows are connecting with audiences and continue to do so with each new hit. “It’s all so very compelling because it’s like you’re living through it.” (And this is coming from someone who has.)