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I'll grab a nonfiction book over a novel, and stand in line for a documentary instead of the latest Brad Pitt blockbuster. So it's no surprise that on the small screen, I prefer to hear about true crimes as opposed to the fictional murders committed on "Law & Order," "CSI," and their many spin-offs.
Some people are horrified by this habit. It seems to them to be something Ted Bundy would do. It's almost impossible to convince them you're not in it for the gore — what little of it there is, since true-crime shows are often lighter on this aspect than scripted dramas.
There's something to be learned from true-crime tales, especially those that focus on forensics and the scientific side of crime-solving. I don't have a lot of patience for the romances and work turmoil of fictional detectives. But in true-crime shows, the case is all that matters, and if the lead detective is having an affair with the victim's sister who once aspired to be a cop herself — well, that kind of minutiae never enters the show. It's all about the crime-solving. In that sense, true-crime shows are a much purer form of mystery than their fictional counterparts. And plots from real-life crimes often end up thinly fictionalized on "CSI" or "Law & Order" months down the line.
The Laci Peterson factorCertain cases seemingly are made for true-crime shows. It's clear to me that the Laci Peterson and Lori Hacking cases, still unsettled at this writing, will eventually be prime fodder for these shows. (The Peterson case has already made it onto a few.)
True-crime shows do cover famous crimes and serial killers, but if I had to guess, I'd say the producers of these shows prefer to cover a case in which there is only one, regular-joe victim, and where that victim was killed by a member of his or her own family, usually the spouse. Serial killers kill because that's what they do, and it's nigh-impossible for the shows to explain why. However, in a case where the motive was a lover, or insurance money, or jealousy, there's a meaty plot for the show to delve into and attempt to explain.
There's about why so much media attention was paid to the Laci Peterson case — it's obvious to me why we take such an interest. Laci's life was presented to us by the media as perfect. She was lovely, with a gorgeous smile in all her photos. Her friends called her the Martha Stewart of their circle, and spoke fondly of her formal dinners, with everyone instructed to dress up and with the menu ("First course: ginger-carrot soup") written on a kitchen chalkboard for all to see. We see people with lives like this all around us, and as Edwin Arlington Robinson wrote so memorably in his poem "Richard Cory," we're stunned to find out that what goes on behind closed doors is not always what it seems.
Unlike fictional crime shows, true-crime tales don't always wrap things up in 60 minutes with a nice bow. Oftentimes, the criminal is not caught and the case remains open. Frustrating, sure, but a realistic picture of our world today. I only wish that the shows were more consistent about tacking a follow-up on when the show is rerun. Let us know if a case was ever solved — just stick a message up after the final credits roll or something.
Court TV and A&E offer most of the true-crime shows, although some are scattered among other cable and even a few broadcast networks. As with any TV genre, there are true-crime shows that get it and shows that need to get a clue. Here's a rundown of 10 of the major offerings.
Cold cases heat upDon't confuse "Cold Case Files" (A&E, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET, Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET, and Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET) with "Cold Case" on CBS. In the CBS show, a fictional drama, Kathryn Morris plays Lily Rush, a Philly detective with a knack for solving cases that have gone unsolved for years. On A&E's "Cold Case Files," a revolving cast of real detectives and police officers discuss actual cold cases, usually murders, that they've solved.
While "Cold Case Files" is a somewhat new show, it has quickly established itself as one of the smarter, more thoughtful of the true-crime genre. Two to four cases per show are handled, and the show begins with a full look at the case, then moves quickly to interviews with the investigators who handled it the first time around as well as those who picked it up decades later, perhaps due to a guilty-conscience phone call or a newly discovered clue.
"Cold Case Files" must be a heartening show for those still living with the pain of an unsolved crime — and threatening for those who think they got away with murder. Often the detectives interviewed are long retired, but it becomes quickly apparent that they never forgot about the case, and the victim. "Cold Case Files" feels smart, not tawdry.
You belong to the cityWhen "City Confidential" (A&E, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET) is good, it is very, very good. And when it is not, it is a loooong 60 minutes between the credits.
The theme of "City Confidential" seems to be that the location of a crime is every bit as interesting as the crime itself, and that sometimes the city and the crime are irrevocably linked. (Other times — well, they're not, but the show doesn't seem to mind.) The show has perhaps the cheesiest opening credits of any true-crime show, cutting in snippets of people saying things like "it was kind of like...a movie" and "the last place you'd expect a murder!"
Sometimes the town is really just an adjunct to the crime, but other times, it's easy to believe that the location did play a part, at least in setting up the crime. A murderer is still a murderer, but if his hometown saw the oil riches dry up decades ago and doesn't even have one movie theater, it's easier to understand his slide into meth.
A major part of what makes "City Confidential" so engrossing is the narration, which as in many true-crime shows, drives the action. The original narrator, the legendary Paul Winfield, almost had a gleeful schadenfreude as he described haughty towns suddenly forced to face ugly facts. Now Winfield has died, and actor Keith David, who replaced him, is a bit more restrained, but still keeps the suspense going.
Crime among the powerfulIf you're in the least bit familiar with the O.J. Simpson or Martha Moxley trials, you know who Dominick Dunne is. The author and one-time producer writes a monthly column for Vanity Fair that often focuses on celebrity crimes.
And no one can call him just a voyeur. Crime has touched Dunne intimately. His daughter Dominique, who played the eldest daughter in 1982's "Poltergeist," was murdered by her boyfriend when she was just 22. Her killer spent less than 3 years in prison and is a free man today.
With that heartwrenching experience in his background, Dunne is the perfect person to host his own true-crime show, albeit one stuck with the clunky title of "Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice" (Court TV, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET). The cases he covers are those that touch the wealthy and powerful. They include the very well-known celeb cases, such as those of Erik and Lyle Menendez and Martha Stewart, as well as lesser-known murders among the Hamptons and horsey set.
Dunne's narration is sometimes awkward, but I find him charming. Some may turn up their noses at his devotion to the rich, but if you follow true crime for the shameful joy of seeing the mighty laid low, this is the show for you. Even among the Park Avenue zillionaires, we learn, there is infidelity and anger and insanity. Perhaps money really can't buy happiness after all.
Fighting ‘The System’"The System" (Court TV, Mondays through Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET) is one of the good ol' standbys on TV's true-crime schedule. With its generic name, the hour-long Court TV show can, and does, cover everything justice-related — from murder to drug stings to sex, sports and the Mob. The anonymous-sounding, confidence-inducing narrator doesn't appear to take sides as the "City Confidential" narrators do.
"The System" is a well-done, smart show, but I find my interest in it varies by episode. Episodes can be slow to get started, and not having a hook like the scientific work seen on "Forensic Files" is both freeing and kind of confusing. Sometimes the show appears to repackage an episode of "48 Hours" or a similar show. That's fine — those shows are high-quality, but it does give the brand name "The System" a bit of a split personality.
That said, watching it never makes me feel cheap or as if I'm indulging in a true guilty pleasure as some of the other shows do. (Dominick Dunne, I'm looking at you.) Wherever its cases come from, "The System" always offers a thoughtful hour of television.
The clock is ticking"The First 48," (A&E, Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET) a new hour-long show covering two cases per episode, mixes the you-are-there feel of "48 Hours" with the lower-echelon crimes of "COPS."
Reporting that the first 48 hours are the most vital in solving any crime, the show follows real homicide detectives as they try to gather the vital early information to help them solve the crime. A little countdown clock occasionally shows up in the lower left-hand corner of the screen to show how much of that time remains; however, it's kind of a red herring — if the time expires, the show may be ending, but it doesn't mean the case is solved, or that if it isn't, it will never be. It's an interesting device, but a device all the same.
The cinema-verite aspect is both fascinating and frustrating. It's tough to care about the case when, as in one episode, the detectives didn't even know who the victim is for half the show.
That said, the show never talks down to its viewers and it definitely gives a sense that police work is not all dramatic DNA test results and confessions. There's a lot of office time, a lot of bad coffee, and a lot of walking the streets interviewing neighbors who never saw anything and relatives who have no idea where the accused could be hiding. To watch a case develop from nothing to even a suspect or theory in just two days comes off as nothing short of amazing.
Criminal profiler with a French manicure
Court TV probably thought they had a real winner with "Body of Evidence: From the Case Files of Dayle Hinman" (Court TV, Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. ET). Hinman is a criminal profiler in Florida, one of only a few women in the profession. She's also a lovely middle-aged blonde with a penchant for smart matching suits with knee-length skirts, and always, always sports a perfect French manicure. (How does she do this kind of a job without breaking those nails?) As a profiler, Hinman is invited onto a case and examines the interaction between killer and victim, hoping to provide the detectives working the case with clues that will help them find their criminal.
Unfortunately, Hinman’s show is one of the weaker ones on Court TV’s true-crime lineup. Perhaps it’s that her cases seem all the same — they’re mostly in Florida, often murders in big, new suburban homes.
And the clues Hinman garners from her profiling often just don’t seem that helpful. In one case where an estranged husband was suspected of murdering his wife and daughter, Hinman says that analyzing the blood-spatter patterns tells her the victim met her attacker at the door, implying it was someone she knew. Which turned out to be true, but the murderer was another man the victim knew, not the suspected husband. (And don’t we open the door for plenty of others we don’t know, such as a delivery person or Girl Scout selling Thin Mints?) In that same episode, a great deal is made of the decision to wire the funeral home where the husband pays his respects, hoping he’ll confess. Not being guilty, he doesn’t. Time and time again, it feels like the crimes on this show are solved not because of Hinman, but in spite of her.
"Silence of the Lambs" created a great deal of interest in criminal profiling, especially of murderers. But maybe profiling just doesn't translate as well when there's no script to follow.
Science of crime-solvingOne of the best-known true-crime shows is "Forensic Files" (Court TV, Mondays through Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET), and deservedly so. The show is well-done and has an irresistible hook — the science of solving crimes. Watching this show, you'll see everything from DNA to teeth impressions to pet hair used to put criminals behind bars.
If anything, “Forensic Files” almost leads us to expect too much from police. So many cases are solved by bizarre evidence that we forget that not every case has such clues. Even DNA, those magical three initials that come into play in so many modern murder cases, isn’t found at every crime scene. You wish the forensic experts on this show could solve cases like the Peterson case or the Jon Benet Ramsey case, but the fact remains, the cops on every episode of this show had some form of solid evidence and a little bit of luck.
Narrator Peter Thomas’ voice is just creepy enough to fit the material, which almost always involves someone spraying a room with Luminol, the chemical that makes blood glow in the dark. And the language used is chilling in its own way, as in a recent episode when Thomas ominously intoned “The house was telling its story, one of an apparently gruesome attack.” If the combination of his voice, words and the disturbing evidence doesn’t raise goosebumps on your arm, you need to apply for “Fear Factor” because apparently nothing can scare you.
The doctor is inForensic scientist Dr. Henry Lee has made a name for himself testifying in various high-profile trials, including and perhaps most infamously the O.J. Simpson trial. Now he has his own new show, “Trace Evidence: The Case Files of Dr. Henry Lee” (Court TV, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET).
Lee’s hour-long show, to me, gets a lot of the things right that I was looking for in “Body of Evidence,” profiler Dayle Hinman’s show. The cases Lee is called in to consult upon are fascinating and far-flung. Sometimes the show can be a little slow getting up to speed and explaining a case, but so far, the denouements have been worth it. The cases covered on the show haven’t been Lee’s big-name cases, which means they’re entirely new cases to most of us, and thus the conclusions and evidence come as surprises, keeping viewers’ interest.
Lee himself is an interesting and engaging character. His English is often somewhat broken (“when I look at those picture, I inform them they have some problem.”), but that doesn’t stop him from diving right into a case and often coming up with the clue that has eluded the other experts. Blood spatter is a specialty of his, and when he gets talking about it, it seems that no one knows more. But he also catches more obscure clues, such as that of a window facing a sunny exposure yet missing a shade, eventually leading to the discovery that the victim was likely dropped out of that window (and, presumably, the now bloody shade disposed of).
Whatever you think of Lee’s celebrity persona, on “Trace Evidence,” he also comes across as a man who wants nothing more than to solve the puzzle, which, on TV, he always does.
‘Justice’ is served"American Justice" (A&E, Mondays through Fridays at 7 p.m. ET, also Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET) is a true-crime powerhouse, thanks in part to narrator and executive producer Bill Kurtis, who is to many viewers the Voice of True Crime.
With no actors to rely on, the narrator is a vital role to these nonfiction shows, and no one spins a spooky tale like Kurtis. He's such a legend that he was even spoofed on an episode of "South Park," which features the four boys playing the "Bill Kurtis Investigative Reports" game.
Like "Forensic Files," "American Justice" is one of the heavy hitters among true-crime programs. It's on about a dozen times a week, it seems. Sometimes the cases covered are infamous, such as the John List murders or the Matthew Shepard case. Sometimes the topic is not just one case, but a general element of justice, focusing on things like confessions or Mafia informants. And in some of the most fascinating episodes, "American Justice" focuses on a case that may not have gained national headlines, but should have.
Solid organization, good interviews, fascinating cases, and the ominous, ringing tones of Kurtis tying it all together: Watching "American Justice" after watching a batch of other true-crime shows is like turning on the radio after sitting through a grade-schooler's piano recital. Ah, so this is how they're supposed to do it.
You solve the case
If you've ever aspired to be Nancy Drew or Sherlock Holmes, you might want to tune in to "I, Detective" (Court TV, Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET). This half-hour show presents a case, and as it does so, stops every so often to ask the audience a multiple-choice question.
It’s a neat little concept to try and get the audience actively involved. Too bad the questions are so often stupid, or simply unanswerable from the information viewers are given. Example: We’re told a small vase of flowers was out of place. Did this reveal where the attack began, or was it a weapon, or an excuse used to get in? The omniscient and somewhat smug questioner tells us it was an excuse, but only then reveals that cops don’t believe the attack started near the vase because of no other evidence there.
In another example, we’re asked what evidence to test first — fingerprints, rip marks on duct tape, or bloodstains. Duh. Anyone who can spell DNA knows blood is the most vital item to check. Plus, they’re likely to test them all anyway.
"I, Detective" is a little like a mystery-themed computer game, offering up simple answers to questions that are only sometimes vital. Still, the half-hour show moves quickly, and perhaps younger wannabe detectives wouldn’t find the questions as simplistic.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor