Murder pitch: How Netflix has sparked a wave of true crime on TV

The genre once seen as the tasteless rehash of tragic events has gone mainstream

In RTÉ’s The Case I Can’t Forget, detective inspector  Pat Marry retraces his investigation into the murder of Rachel Callaly. Photograph: RTÉ

In RTÉ’s The Case I Can’t Forget, detective inspector Pat Marry retraces his investigation into the murder of Rachel Callaly. Photograph: RTÉ

 

Television is in the midst of a crime wave that shows no sign of crashing soon.

Its origins can be traced to Making a Murderer, a 10-part Netflix documentary series about Wisconsin man Steven Avery’s conviction for the murder of Teresa Halbach, which six years ago became the binge-watch of choice for millions. Exactly how many millions is unknown, but millions is almost certainly the right unit of measurement: for a while, it seemed Netflix users could talk about little else.

The knowledge that a single murder – one that law authorities consider solved – could be the basis of a long-form hit had been gained a year earlier after the breakout success of podcast Serial, a 12-part examination of the conviction of Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee.

But Making a Murderer was proof that Netflix could do something that most of its rivals in the television industry couldn’t: take a real-life case, stretch it out for as many episodes as possible and make it a global conversation piece.

Former State pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy. Photograph: Collins Courts
Former State pathologist Dr Marie Cassidy. Photograph: Collins Courts

Now the wheels of the commissioning process have had time to fully turn, the verdict is in: true crime has been hunted, chased and wrestled to the ground by an entire courtroom of broadcasters, including our own RTÉ and Virgin Media Television.

In RTÉ’s current season of programming, true crime surfaces in the form of the The Killing of Fr Niall Molloy, which aired in September; Cold Case Collins, which sees Dr Marie Cassidy and a cast of detectives, forensic scientists and historians “re-open the investigation” into the death of Michael Collins; and Crimes and Confessions, which delves into the operations of the Garda murder squad in the 1970s and 1980s.

There’s also The Case I Can’t Forget, which returns to RTÉ tonight for a second three-part series, beginning with the murder of Rachel Callaly, with now retired detective inspector Pat Marry taking viewers “through the twists and turns of his ground-breaking, three-year investigation” into Joe O’Reilly, who murdered his wife Rachel in 2004.

True crime is “one of the big trends” in documentaries at the moment, Seán Mac Giolla Phádraig, group head of factual at RTÉ, said in August. Although this is “inspired by the likes of Netflix”, he also attributed his own interest in it to HBO series such as The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Durst, a New York real estate heir, was arrested for the murder of his friend Susan Berman ahead of the 2015 finale and was recently convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Crime blitz

Bill Malone, director of content for Virgin Media Television, is our second witness in this case.

“The true crime genre has really caught on and Netflix has definitely been part of that growth and interest, and it’s an area we’ve stepped up in. We’ve always been in that space, but we’ve really upped our game now,” he told me last week, citing Virgin documentaries The Murder Files: The Killing of Jason Corbett and The Mr Moonlight Murder.

Virgin Media has added a true crime section to its Player, something that UK broadcaster Channel 4 also did this year as part of its crime blitz. True Crime on Channel 4, it said, would provide “hundreds of hours of premium crime content” to “real crime fans”, bringing together US acquisitions such as Surviving Jeffrey Epstein and Surviving R Kelly, and commissions such as Murder in the Alps and Bling Ring.

In a revealing comment in July, Channel 4’s outgoing head of factual Danny Horan noted that “year-on-year the quality [of programming] rises, as does the appetite for more stories, particularly with younger audiences”.

And then, in our last piece of evidence, there’s Sky, which in 2019 launched the channel Sky Crime, billing it as “the home of true crime”, and earlier this year delivered the much-streamed five-part series Jim Sheridan’s Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie. This was just one of two documentaries unveiled in June to take as their subject the unsolved 1996 murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier. The other, Sophie: A Murder in West Cork, came courtesy of Netflix, which has far from abandoned the genre.

Film-maker Jim Sheridan in Sky’s Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie. Photograph: Sky
Film-maker Jim Sheridan in Sky’s Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie. Photograph: Sky

Netflix didn’t invent true crime, but it did prove that it can pay. Everyone already knew about the special capacity of “murdertainment” dramas – fictional dead bodies and detectives – to transcend borders and compel an international audience. True crime, however, tended to be shunted away on lesser-watched cable channels. It was regarded as the unseemly and salacious rehash of tragic events it often was.

Multiple treatments

Now it feels like open season, with the same cases attracting multiple treatments by rival broadcasters, podcasters and streamers. Some are worthwhile, responsible and journalistic, some verge on being lurid and tasteless, others fall in between these two extremes.

More than one title is padded out by a focus on the “journey” of the people producing and/or presenting them, while some raise questions they can’t ever hope to answer. Ultimately, their merits depend on the ethics of the makers: what they intend to achieve and what they are willing to include or omit in order to achieve it.

The television industry will say it is catering for demand. As for why so many people are drawn to true crime in the first place, that’s a mystery that predates the medium. Maybe it’s just the plain old human instinct for the grisly. Maybe it’s the temptation to confront real horrors at the safe remove of a screen.

Or perhaps true crime is flourishing because it lets people indulge their inner detectives in a manner that is more acceptable than going full conspiracy theorist.

Whatever the reason, the phenomenon is so ingrained in the mainstream culture of 2021 that it prompted Disney to release a comedy drama series about it. In Only Murders in the Building, Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez star as three obsessive neighbours who react to a death in their building the way anybody would. They start a true crime podcast about it.

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