A Very Fatal Murder & American Vandal: Reflections on America's True Crime Addiction
I recently sat down to watch American Vandal and then subsequently I listened to the podcast A Very Fatal Murder. Each serves as a welcome response to America's (and my) true crime addiction. American Vandal, about a high school's student's investigation of a graffiti incident, serves as a love note to the True Crime genre. A Very Fatal Murder, on the other hand, is a quick listen and is a satire that goes for laughs and punchlines and does a succinct job of making fun of us.
Serial & The True Crime Craze
In 2014, American television was moving on to on-demand style of viewing and leaving appointment television watchers behind like dinosaurs of the past. If you still loved sitting down in the evening to receive whatever the TV had to offer sandwiched between your seven o'clock news and eleven o'clock news then the chances were that you would enjoy a Law & Order spinoff, a CSI, or something with the same crime-of-the-week set up. They were predictable relics of a different era that in a way weren't that much different from the nightly news--easily digestible crime that's happening somewhere else and perhaps feels just scary enough to justify some your more problematic opinions. And then Serial came out and America, as a whole, fell in love with crime again.
Serial managed to sneak into the hearts of those who had left network television behind because it was packaged up as a podcast, radio's sexy younger cousin. It had the exact NPR tone that was needed along with the Ira Glass seal of approval. Meanwhile, the show also built a bridge to a wider demographic by using a classic common denominator, crime. And it not just ripped from the headlines crime, but true crime. We were hooked. America binge listened to Sarah Koenig's calming voice as she wondered about our prison system and race bias in America. People who never shared any pop culture similarities were suddenly chatting at the water cooler about whether they were "Team Adnan" or not. We then leaped from Serial to Making a Murderer to The Jinx, to S-Town. Then we realized that there might not be enough true crime.
Feeding the Addiction
The problem was that it couldn't just be any kind of true crime. Serial had exposed us to a nuanced kind of true crime and Making a Murderer had heightened that. We wanted something that was more than just run-of-the-mill gruesome. It wasn't enough to make us afraid of what monsters humans could be. We, at large, had begun to crave that NPR mix of humanity, storytelling, and a reflection on what that means about our society at this moment in time. And there just wasn't enough "perfect" true crime for that. We tried to write shows to touch on it with True Detective, American Crime Story, and The Night Of. They were "based on" true stories. Once you've had the heroin of a real story though, anything less leaves you feeling hollow.
A Very Fatal Murder, skewers this attitude perfectly. It has amazing one liners about how we view small-town America, the tragedies of others, and the police. It takes a stab at the content creators as well and questions their motives. This is hugely important in evaluating our love of this kind of content because it is one thing to be Team Peeta when you are watching a fictional story like Hunger Games and a very different thing to be Team Adnan, who is a real person living out the consequences of his conviction. When we take on their stories and when we consume them, we need to examine our role in their lives. Are we just rubberneckers, craning to see an accident that we are glad that we aren't a part of, or are we opening up a discussion with the goal of advocating for change in the justice system?
We Aren't Monsters - Mostly
I have pondered why we love a very certain type of true crime and I don't believe that it's because we are monsters. I have come to believe that one of the things that we crave in the "perfect" kind of true crime, is the ability to play a role. When we experienced the story of Serial and Making a Murderer, we were able to learn about something that we felt like we could affect. We didn't just consume the content, we sought out information as to whether we could seek more fitting justice. We wanted to right the things that we felt were unfair. American Vandal takes its time and the two main roles, the Documentarian and the accused are acted in a nuanced and insightful way. This series comes away with a distinct point of view and asks the important question of whether we, the creators of these shows and the viewers are necessarily the best group to deliver justice. It also reflects on how we affect the other real lives involved when we watch these shows. More than watch--what happens when we become obsessed with them?
I still love True Crime. I listen to three podcasts devoted to the topic and if someone told me that there was a new series to watch, I would block off the time for it. Fortunately, with American Vandal and A Very Fatal Murder, satire and parody have now stepped in to remind us of what effect our obsession has on the world around us. We, as a society, have always loved crime stories but when we begin to use real people's lives as entertainment we need to begin to step very carefully and examine our motives often. Hopefully comedy will continue to be there to keep us honest.