With true crime TV, the devil is in the details – specifically, the ones that we didn’t remember, or even with high-profile cases, perhaps never knew.
Television is in the midst of a true crime explosion, motivated by both unscripted (“Making a Murderer,” “The Jinx”) and scripted (“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”) explorations of notorious cases. While the genre was once largely the province of TV movies – think back to the trio of films devoted to the “Long Island Lolita” trial in the 1990s – it’s now receiving series treatment, devoting from six to 12 hours to such projects.
At first blush, one might think multi-part retellings of stories where everyone knows the outcome would amount to, pardon the expression, overkill. But thus far, many of these programs have proved compelling, not merely rehashing the tabloid-style titillation but fleshing out peripheral players, and even placing the timing in broader historical and sociological context.
The latest entry, “The Murder of Laci Peterson,” premieres August 15 on A&E. It’s a six-part docu-series, recounting the Christmastime disappearance of a pregnant woman in 2002 and eventual conviction of her husband, Scott, after a protracted media circus.
Not surprisingly, it was previously turned into a movie (Dean Cain played Scott), as was the Menendez brothers murders, which will become a series under NBC’s “Law & Order” banner. Discovery Channel, meanwhile, is currently airing the eight-part “Manhunt: Unabomber,” while next month brings new seasons of Netflix’s “Narcos” and Univision’s “El Chapo.” And the next “American Crime Story,” “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” is due in January.
Unlike some of these programs, “The Murder of Laci Peterson” seeks to re-litigate aspects of the case, including interviews with Scott’s family members, among others, who continue to argue for his innocence.
The more sobering component, though, takes viewers back to when these events unfolded, and examines how the salacious elements – such as Scott’s affair with Amber Frey, weaving in their audiotaped conversations – wowed the media and consumed plenty of time and oxygen.
In perhaps the most surreal moment, then-CNN anchor Aaron Brown kills time waiting for a Modesto police press conference to start by discussing whether the U.S. might be heading toward war in Iraq, a juxtaposition made several times in the hours previewed.
News organizations decided “the audience is going to be riveted by this” and “went all in,” recalls journalist Ken Auletta in the documentary, citing a complicity between the media and investigators that were both playing to the public.
The producers also highlight Nancy Grace’s histrionics during the story, which included using her TV soapbox – then with Court TV – to serve as a de facto prosecutor, judge and jury – a role she played in a number of similar situations. (Grace is among those interviewed, in the process retelling the story about her fiance’s murder, a source of justification for her on-air demeanor.)
In part, the expansion of true-crime series represents a response to the shifting nature of the TV business: A proliferation of channels, with ample time to fill, eager to knife through the clutter with recognizable titles. For an audience overwhelmed by abundance, names like “Menendez,” “Unabomber” and “O.J.” provide a kind of marketing shorthand.
Nevertheless, the appeal of these extended programs has been something of a revelation, demonstrating that knowing the outcome doesn’t mean there isn’t more to learn – both in the particulars and filtered through a wider lens – about these sensational stories.
“The Murder of Laci Peterson” premieres Aug. 15 at 10 p.m. on A&E.