It’s no secret that people are fascinated by crime. Nor is this a new phenomenon: writing in 1946, Orwell noted that murder gave a ‘great amount of pleasure to the public’, and proceeded to identify the common features of the gruesome and grisly crimes that gave the British most satisfaction. Psychologists, meanwhile, say that murder in particular is not only ‘a most fundamental taboo’ but ‘also, perhaps, a most fundamental human impulse’. This seems plausible. We all know those people who, stuck in a queue or sat in an interminable meeting, seem moments away from indulging that impulse.
At any rate, lovers of the lurid and the macabre are spoiled for choice in the streaming age. Of course there are many shows not worth bothering with, and such extravagant publicity surrounding each release that it’s hard to know where to start. But Netflix alone furnishes us with a number of shows sure to entertain. And here are some of them.
The premise of Criminal, made by Killing Eve’s George Kay The Wrong Mans’ Jim Field Smith, is a simple one, and it’s the same for every episode in each of the four countries which have their own version: a suspect endures an hour-long interrogation in a room with a one-way mirror. The person or people asking the questions tends to change, often within the episode itself, and each questioner has his or her own style of interrogation. Invariably the accused is caught out—which is not, of course, to say that they’ve always committed the crime in question.
Across the four versions of Criminal, an impressive array of actors play the part of suspect. The British series begins with a masterful performance by David Tennant, but there’s also a memorable episode in the French version in which inconsistencies start to emerge in the story of a Bataclan survivor played by Sara Giraudeau.
The Assassination of Gianni Versace
The Assassination of Gianni Versace is the second instalment in the true-crime anthology that began with The People v. O. J. Simpson. This dramatisation of Maureen Orth’s book tells the story of spree killer Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss), whose three-month rampage in 1997 ended with the murder of Versace of his suicide. The show starts with the titular killing and then unwinds over the course of the subsequent eight episodes. More laudable than the direction is the performance of Darren Criss, though there’s a lot to admire in Penélope Cruz’s rendering of Versace’s peroxide sister, Donatella.
Ryan White’s seven-part documentary, The Keepers, starts with the unsolved disappearance of a young nun and grows progressively darker and more complex. Sister Cathy Cesnik was a teacher of English and drama at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School who went missing in 1969. She had also been valedictorian of her high school, as well as the May Queen and the president of the senior class and student council. What’s made clear from the very start of the show is that this was a person of high moral character who would not stand back and be a witness to wrongdoing. If she disappeared, or was disappeared, in other words, what was it that she found out?
The case of the Ted Kaczynski continues to capture the public fascination—sometimes in a slightly extreme way. Last year New York Magazine wrote about a new generation of young people who saw the Unabomber as a prophet, and had swallowed his ramblings on the Industrial Revolution with enthusiasm. The miniseries Manhunt: Unabomber, made by Andrew Sodroski, Jim Clemente and Tony Gittelson, is a fictionalised account of the FBI’s hunt for Kaczynski, and thanks in large part to a show-stealing performance by Paul Bettany, it’s a good one. But the show is less about the steps taken by the authorities to find their suspect than it is about the way in which a brilliant, if damaged, mathematician became the architect of a 17-year bombing campaign.
Did he do it? adorns the promotional images for Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase. Here is the true story of novelist Michael Peterson, who was hauled before court to explain the death of his wife, Kathleen. So the story went, Kathleen had fallen while drunk down the stairs of the couple’s mansion in North Carolina and died. And yet the sheer volume of blood on the walls and at the bottom of the staircase, as well as the violent nature of Kathleen’s injuries, suggests something more sinister. What makes matters more striking as this thirteen-part show rumbles on is what was going on behind the scenes in the private lives of Michael and Kathleen. You’re hard-pressed to find more gripping TV than the final episode of The Staircase, in which a verdict is finally reached.