Thursday, February 1, 2024



By Jim Szantor

Perhaps unwittingly, the most prominent of all of the many  true-crime programs/documentaries on TV nowanights—“Dateline” and “20-20”--have spawned a nearly staggering number of “viewalikes” (for lack of a better term).  Such as:

"Murder in the Heartland,”  “Signs of a Psychopath,” “48 Hours,” “Death By Fame,” “See No  Evil,” “Murder Under the Friday Night Lights,” “Betrayed,” “Disappeared,” “Evil Lives Here,” “Very Scary People,” “A Time to Kill,” “I Went Undercover,” “Murder in the Wicked West,” “Buried in the Backyard,” “Fear Thy Roommate,” “Devil in Suburbia,” “Body Cam,” “The Murder Tapes,” “Real Time Crime,” “Murder Comes to Town” and two recent entries, “The Playboy Murders” and “Feds.”

And of course there is an old standby, Fox TV’s "Cops” and its derivatives (“Cops, Jailhouse Las Vegas” etc.) and the well-remembered “America’s Most Wanted.”  And who can forget “Unsolved Mysteries,” starring Robert Stack, he of the “grim presence and ominous narration” (Wikipedia’s words), who was taken out of mothballs in 1987 by NBC long after his storied run as Eliot Ness on “The Untouchables” (1959-1963). “Unsolved” mostly dealt with the paranormal, but crime left its fingerprints and blood spatter on more than a few episodes.

As you undoubtedly know and are constantly reminded (via the obligatory disclaimer at the outset of “Cops”), “All persons are considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” Left unsaid: Unless they are seen by millions on TV, usually sweaty, grime-streaked, shirtless and cuffed while doing their perp walk or the equivalent. (Pity goes out to the valiant lawmen or women who have to put their hands on the heads of these miscreants, the better to propel them into the back seat of the voiture de police.

What separates these imitators from the originals is their sometimes almost comical use of “re-creation footage” (usually and maddeningly not labeled as such), using actors chosen because of their alleged resemblance to the crime victims/participants back in the dark day when the evil deeds occurred. This gambit, never used on “Dateline” or “20-20,” often promotes confusion as it is often hard enough to determine who did what to whom in some of these multiple twist-and-turn sagas without having to remember which actor is supposed to align with which real-life victim, family member or law-enforcement official.  Cold-case episodes invariably feature grizzled and usually portly retired detectives, police chiefs, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the like, all there to lend historical perspective, key details and, occasionally, gravitas.

Another seemingly de rigueur hallmark of these shows is the apparently obligatory opening aerial shot of the city, town or hamlet where the atrocity/atrocities occurred, as if that provides any edification to the viewer.  Stock aerial footage of any typical town would probably suffice (do you really know what Elbow, Alabama looks like from the air?), and no one would be the wiser.  Essentially, the aerial shot basically tells us nothing at all about the event(s) about to unfold.  But you can count on one being there, the copy-cat syndrome apparently as hard to stamp out as Covid and its many derivatives.

--And now there is another notable entry in the True Crime pantheon: “Crime Feed,” starring the Poster Person for Hanging-Judge-Mentality-TV Folks-With-a-Law-Degree, Nancy Grace.  Unlike her confrere of the airwaves, the ubiquitous Dan Abrams, Ms. NG makes no pretense of trying to hide her contempt for anyone remotely connected to the crime du jour.  She seethes, she sneers, she snarls and nearly hyperventilates as she engages in discourse with her colleagues, a male private investigator and Mara S. Campo, a journalist and commentator.

Some viewers with a long memory may recall Grace’s role in the Melinda Duckett case:

According to Wikipedia:

On Nov. 21, 2006, The Smoking Gun web site exposed pending litigation on behalf of the estate of Melinda Duckett, asserting a wrongful death claim against CNN and Grace. The attorney for the estate alleges that, even if Duckett did kill her own son, Grace's aggressive questioning traumatized Duckett so much that she committed suicide. She also argues that CNN's decision to air the interview after Duckett's suicide traumatized her family. Trenton, Duckett’s 2-year-old son, has never been found.

On Nov. 8, 2010, Grace reached a settlement with the estate of Melinda Duckett to create a $200,000 trust fund dedicated to locating Trenton. "We are pleased the lawsuit has been dismissed. The statement speaks for itself," a spokeswoman for CNN said.

--As mentioned in an earlier Popcorn column, another true-crime entry, “Calls from the Inside,” shows the Dumb Criminal Syndrome in full cry as the male or female inmate, though aware that all calls made or received In prison are recorded, make blatantly incriminating statements, often in totally transparent “code.”  Either that or discussing thinly veiled plans to eliminate someone, usually a witness or recently released jailhouse snitch. So those in search of comic relief and more than a few forehead slaps in the process of getting their True Crime fix would do well to check out “Calls From the Inside.”  It’s must-see TV for me.

--And, of course, no discourse on this phenomenon would be complete without mention of “Forensic Files,” a series (now including “Forensic Files II”) that is apparently nearly the sole raison d’etre of HLN, it on many days accounting for virtually 100 percent of the programming (save for a few of those all-important, revenue-raising infomercials).  The narration on all of the original series episodes was the redoubtable Peter Thomas, whose stentorian delivery was perfect for the “just the facts, ma’am” context of the proceedings. He was memorialized at the end of the first episode of Forensic Files II, which aired on February 23, 2020.

The guilt-or-innocence outcome is never in doubt on these “Files” shows as regular viewers know that these dedicated forensics experts and “scientists” always get their man, or in some rare cases, their woman, even if it involves a white-coated bent-to-the-task technician painstakingly sifting through a vacuum-cleaner bag with a tweezers in search of a suspected rapist’s pubic hair.  (Actual episode.)  I would not be surprised if said scientist, bent to this disgusting, tedious task, found himself saying, “I spent 7 years in college, and I’m going through a massive heap of trash looking for a rapist’s pubic hair? While my idiot brother-in-law with a GED is making almost as much money driving a damn beer truck?”

--And, of course, what genre wouldn’t be complete with a podcast equivalent, and true crime is well represented in that idiom. These often devolve more into conjecture and oddball theorizing and are less documentarian in nature.  Sort of macabre talk shows with titles like “True Crime Junkie,” “True Crime Garage,” “Someone Knows Something,” “Court Junkie,” “Scam Goddess,” “Case File,” “My Favorite Murder,” and many many more.

And now comes word from the Washington Post that—in the spirit of If You Can’t Beat ’Em, Join ’Em—“Dateline” has also joined the podcast parade, a gambit that has propelled its TV version to new heights.  See:

Is there such a thing as binge-listening? Probably, and for some folks it’s apparently a great way to--wait for it--kill time.

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