#2. The Capabilities Check
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Staying with those wacky cops for a moment; at some point during any true crime documentary, they're going to interview not only the lead detective, but also the various police officers and lab workers and gas station attendants who acted as witnesses or were otherwise involved in the case.
This kind of stuff is always good times, no matter what the topic or even what show you're watching. A person being interviewed is just way more likely to say something entertainingly stupid than, say, the deep voiced narrator who's been tasked with conveying to you the viciousness of the attack.
One interview subject who can always be counted on to deliver the funny is the cop they talk to immediately after it's been revealed that the person who committed the crime is still on the loose. What makes this particular interview so enjoyable is that, inevitably, the person answering the questions will say something like, "If these people can hold a family of three hostage in their home before killing them execution style in the garage ... we have no idea what they're capable of."
Really? It seems to me that we know exactly what they're capable of, which is holding a family of three hostage in their home before killing them execution style in the garage. If nothing else, that should be enough information with which to form an opinion or make a rough estimate.
Maybe there's even some kind of threat assessment app we can run that information through to give us some kind of higher level idea of what they're capable of but, again, this seems unnecessary to me. We have the details we need already, thank you very much, now get to capturing, officer, what is taking you so long?
Hey, speaking of that ...
#1. The Warped Sense of Time
Watch enough murder shows and you'll notice an interesting pattern. When it comes to time, they either tell you that way too much has passed since the crime was committed or they give you absolutely no specifics at all. The investigation just happened over the course of some unnamed amount of time. I think I know why.
In their earliest incarnations, a lot of these true crime shows mostly profiled "cold cases," or cases that have gone years or even decades without being solved. The reason for that is simple: A case that takes a long time to solve is interesting. There are usually an array of witnesses and suspects and questions and plot twists and it all just adds up to the most enjoyable thing you'll ever watch that also happens to be about the horribly brutal death of another human (with all due respect to that Grizzly Man documentary where Werner Herzog was eaten by a bear or whatever).
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Unfortunately, those cases are few and far between. I mean, that's fortunate, actually, just not for television viewers. Crimes that are solved in mere hours rarely provide the same kind of drama that a good ole' cold case will.
Nevertheless, there are way more shows than there are cold cases to support them, so those less difficult to solve crimes also make their way onto television sometimes. And if there's one thing that murder shows do shockingly well, it's making you feel like the case they're profiling took months, if not years, to solve, even if that's the furthest thing from the truth.
They work kind of like a Beatles song works. The Beatles were masters at fitting all sorts of twists and turns into songs that were usually three minutes long at best. Take "Ticket to Ride," for example.
By the midway point of that song, they've been to the chorus and back like three times and there are still bridges and all sorts of other stuff to come. All of that change makes the song seem like it must be longer than it is but there's none of that "actually waiting ten minutes for the song to end" unpleasantness to contend with.
True crime documentaries employ similar tactics to make the cases they're profiling seem way more difficult to crack than they really were. In the space of 22 minutes or so (subtracting for commercials), you'll see interviews with no less than three people who authorities "thought may have been the guy" and will be treated to at least one send off to the commercial that implies a huge twist nobody saw coming is on the way. It's enough drama to sustain a person for months, and that's exactly how long it feels like they must have been working to solve this crime.
At least you feel that way until, like almost every other crime since 1998 or so, it's revealed that police obtained cell phone records about ten minutes into the investigation that show someone was not only lying about where they were but happened to be in the area of the crime. Cell phones pinging off towers close to crime scenes are the hastily left behind 1980's crime scene jizz of today in that most criminals were wholly unaware that such a thing could be used to convict them of a crime. In fact, pretty much any true crime show documenting a case that happened after 1998 or so should just be called "...And Then We Got the Cell Phone Records."
"Get this, everyone thinks I'm in Virginia right now!"
The thing is, they usually get those records pretty quickly. It's not difficult information to obtain and if it's part of an ongoing murder investigation that's especially true. So, all of those twists and turns and peaks and valleys that you traverse while watching an episode of Sins and Secrets that act to make the case seem like it was bordering on unsolvable were actually just standard operating procedure. In other words, you've just spent the last half hour of your life watching the tale of a crime that was solved through paperwork.
Not a lot of programs could pull that trick over and over and stay on the air for any length of time. Well done, murder shows.