“9 weeks ago, no one in this room had heard of Den Strang. Now, I am figuratively, and literally, in Hollywood!” Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a special panel led by Dean Strang, the lead defense attorney for the infamous Steven Avery case depicted in the viral Netflix series, Making a Murderer. Dean had many wonderful sound bites during this panel, but this quote in particular sums up why the interest in true crime stories has recently exploded in our country. I don’t need to explain why MaM is trendy. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve seen how the case has been prominently displayed across a variety of media channels, online and offline, from billboards to social media campaigns. During its debut month of December, stories about Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey dominated Google Trends. This case has grabbed America by the heartstrings and people are fired up! More than that, in relation to Dean’s quote, shows like MaM have turned real life attorneys and their clients into larger than life celebrities. This transformation, and elevation of real life people into the Hollywood spotlight, is a big reason why true crime stories have taken off in the last decade.
It goes without saying: crime has always been around. It has been a source of public interest for generations, dating way back to Jack the Ripper. There has always been interest in murderous people and why they do the things they do. Recently, the FX show “American Horror Story Hotel” capitalized on this interest by making all of its characters develop a taste for killing. In particular, the central character, the Countess, is a vampiric murderess who has made a name for herself by profiting off of the collection of unfortunate souls she’s killed over the centuries. Expertly played by Lady Gaga, the Countess was often applauded for her over the top nature, routinely killing when and who she wanted without many consequences. Watching her character unravel on the show, she was almost lauded for her criminal tendencies, because they made her more alluring and powerful. Within our society, I disagree with glamorizing criminals who have committed crimes with no remorse. I’ve heard it said before and I agree with the statement that the focus should be on the victims, not on the corrupt killers who ended their lives. That being said, I think it is important to tell the story behind high profile crimes. There is value in discussing these cases and exposing the flaws in our legal system and human behavior. But, I don’t necessarily believe that the criminals themselves should be catapulted to celebrity status.
In America, we are obsessed with celebrities. Working at E, I have newfound understanding of just how consumed we are by celebrity culture. If you can turn someone into a celebrity, there is incredible potential for profit, publicity, and business, in general. For this reason, it’s not surprising that celebrity driven magazines like People constantly report on true crime cases. In an effort to monetize these cases, magazines like People write stories that give readers a reason to care, and therefore a reason to get invested in their business. Stories like these propel the news industry and I’m within the target audience. Being a lifelong true crime story fan, these stories are like candy to me; I can’t get enough.
There is a proud legion of true crime fans in America; I’m not alone. When MaM came out, I finally felt like I could come out from under the curtain, and shout “See guys! I’m not that weird! You’re into it too, right?” So, what made this case different? Coming from an online marketing background, I truly believe that the magic of Steven Avery’s case, and its grip on America, is due to the content platform on which it was shared. Similar to the way that the OJ Simpson trial revolutionized how we view crime scenes in real time in the 90s (giving birth to reality TV, essentially), MaM revolutionized the platform by providing an immersive experience for the country to get hooked to, all in one sitting. As a country, we are lazy. With the rise of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, binge watching an entire TV show in one sitting is practically a badge of honor. The makers of MaM capitalized on this, to make the biggest impact possible. It’s been incredibly interesting to watch it all unfold. I’m proud to say that I was ahead of the curve!
Apart from MaM, the Investigation Discovery channel is my go to source for all things crime. Cops debuted in 1989, breaking the true crime genre right open. The OJ Simpson trial completely redefined the way news outlets cover crime stories. Shortly thereafter, ID premiered in 1989, providing a 24 hour network for the crime stories that America now craved. A built in fan base for MaM has been around for a long time. ID fans are passionately committed to its content. As ID so sweetly puts it within their marketing campaigns, we are “ID Addicts.” Checking out a nationwide graph of viewers recently, I can confirm that ID fans are present in every segment of the country, a feat that not all networks can attest to. If you became addicted to MaM, I highly suggest that you check out the programming on ID. Covering a wide variety of topics and cases, ID shows range from straight forward news reporting (Dateline) to highly dramatized borderline soap opera storytelling (Deadly Women). Whether campy or reserved, all of ID’s shows ground themselves in something that really happened; there are no fictional tales. With a journalism background and a big interest in the headlines of today and yesterday, ID is perfect for me. On a more lighthearted note, sometimes the dramatic reenactments on ID are so over the top, they illicit laughter. Though they’re a crime channel, they don’t take themselves too seriously. And I like that.
There is an ID show for every mood. When you want tongue in cheek, you should check out Deadly Women, which showcases famous murderesses throughout history. With horrible acting and overly dramatic narration, it sucks you in real quick. In a similar format, if you like your crime show in a sassy package, check out “Snapped” on Oxygen, which also covers famous female murderesses. If you want to get a less feminine view on things, check out Homicide Hunter on ID. Lieutenant Joe Kenda, with far less dramatic reenactments, guides you through the most memorable cases that he covered with the Colorado Springs PD. With a manly disposition and husky voice, Kenda has a way of making you believe every word he says, making his show mesmerizing. If you want straight forward reporting in a buttoned up fashion, check out Dateline. Dateline is widely known for being THE source for true crime reporting, and with good reason. Though they can sometimes sensationalize their stories, the reporting at the center of each episode is done with great emotional consideration to the subjects involved, earning them a lot of respect in my book.
I love all of the shows on ID. Depending on my mood, I can always find something that will tweak my interest. Much like fans of MaM have professed their views online, while watching ID, I often shout my opinions at the TV, like when I’m angry that a family didn’t receive the verdict they deserved. In contrast, when I’ve invested an hour of my life in a program and the victim receives proper justice, I sometimes cry as I watch the family members embrace in the courtroom. These shows get you emotionally invested and make you look at the world in a different way. They make you check your privilege, count your blessings, and realize that no matter how bad your day was, there is someone out there who just lost a daughter, a husband, a father. These shows provide important life perspective.
Apart from ID, if you are looking for Netflix material that is similar to MaM, I highly recommend Dear Zachary. This Netflix documentary will punch you in the feels and make you want to scream. It will bring you to your knees and make you want to stop believing in the criminal justice system, on a greater level than you experienced with MaM. I guarantee it. I highly encourage you to take an afternoon to learn about the unbelievable and heartbreaking story of the Bagby family. You won’t regret it. Additionally, though I’m far from the only one obsessed with this, my current crime tv favorite is American Crime Story: People v. OJ Simpson on FX. There are countless articles out there that detail the significance of this show, and the incredible talent of the cast. At its helm, Ryan Murphy has created a remarkable retelling of the crime story that changed the way news works, period. I was only 4 at the time the OJ trial happened, but I’ve researched it plenty since. If you’re like me, and you didn’t truly experience the madness in real time, I highly suggest that you let Ryan Murphy take you through the motions. Even if you did experience OJ fever in all of its glory in the 90s, Murphy’s visually stunning retelling of the story is worth your attention. You really feel like you are there, in real time, experiencing everything that the news outlets covered. Though some parts of the show have been sensationalized (all of the bits with the Kardashian kids seem overdone), the show is still very much grounded in the truth. Once you’re hooked, check out E!Online’s regular reporting on the show to properly gauge fact v. fiction!
In the panel last night, Dean Strang addressed the reality perspective directly, urging the audience to never forget the connection between reality TV crime and real life crime. It is important to remember that though you can enjoy the action from the comfort of your couch, there is a real victim that lost his or her life, and there is a real family out there who is still suffering. It’s not fake. When I’m watching these shows, I always try to keep that in mind, so I don’t get too carried away with the drama. Recently, I came home and checked the guide on ID, to see what was on. I remember thinking “Oh that Dateline, I’ve seen that one. But, it’s a really good one, so I guess I’ll watch it again!” Afterwards, I felt kind of awful, in thinking that someone’s murder trial could be “good” or “juicy.” I suppose it’s the car crash mentality, where something is so bad, but so intriguing; you can’t help but get transfixed on the scene. This is where I sometimes feel guilt in my addiction to these shows. But, at the end of the day, it’s not my fault. These shows are hardwired to capture the attention of people like me. The people behind ID and other true crime shows know what emotional buttons to push to hook an audience. Though I enjoy true crime stories, I don’t want to be looked down upon for my interest. I am drawn to these shows for more personal reasons, beyond the superficial shock value.
Talking to my friends who are also into true crime stories, everyone has a different reason why they are drawn to the drama. Many people want to escape away from the drama of their own lives. Watching someone else go through something worse, one’s situation doesn’t seem as bad. This same ideology can be applied to tabloid magazines, which display over the top celebrity drama. Some people believe that enjoying true crime stories and tabloids is kind of selfish; you’re experiencing a positive boost at someone else’s expense. But, I beg to differ. I think it’s acceptable to find joy in escapism. In a world where people often talk shit about other people to make themselves feel better, I would rather take the passive approach, by reading tabloids and watching these shows. It’s as simple as that. There are other people who watch true crime shows because they are fascinated by the psychology behind it all. We want to know why criminals make the decisions that land them behind bars. Watching these shows, you can’t help but be astounded by the psychological backgrounds of criminals, and why they decided to make the choices they did. Did a rough childhood lead them down the wrong path? Or was it a bad boyfriend/girlfriend? Did they join a cult? All of the background circumstances and events that can lead to crime are incredibly fascinating.
As you can probably tell, I am a member of both of these camps. I am drawn to true crime stories because I want to escape from the drama of my own life. But, I also like to think that this escapism, at least on my part, comes from a more respectable place. Throughout the course of my life, my family and I have been put through the wringer. We have experienced things that I wouldn’t wish on anyone else. Not appropriate to go into detail here, but my experiences with my family define the phrase “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” I have experienced up close and personal how much people can change and go down the wrong path. I know what it means to be truly “wronged.” With that, I find myself drawn to the people on these true crime shows. A common joke that I get from people is that they should be worried about their safety with me, since I watch these shows. As my boyfriend so lovingly puts it, my “murder porn” obsession gives him ample reason not to piss me off. But, (surprise!) I’m not watching these shows to pick up tips. I watch these shows because I feel a strong connection to the characters, due to my own experiences in life. I don’t just sympathize with the people on these shows; I often empathize with them too. Betrayal, a common precursor to crime, is a common theme on many of these shows. Unfortunately, it’s been a common theme in my life too. Because of that, I feel almost an obligation to hear these people’s stories and show the characters my support, even if they’ll never know that I care.
Often times, when I’m watching ID, I wish I could do more to help the families who have lost a loved one. I wish I could have a greater impact, beyond just watching the show. In the panel last night, Dean Strang addressed this when asked “Do you think that this show will change the way the criminal justice system works?” Earlier in the night, Dean had praised the MaM filmmakers and proclaimed that “a thoughtful true crime series is absolutely worth doing.” In regards to the the MaM case, people have taken their passion so far as to create a petition to get Steven Avery released, which the President of the United States had to address personally. Dean referenced all of this and urged the room, largely lawyers, to apply the things that they learned from the Avery case in their own work and help other people in need.
For the general public, we often feel that we can only do so much. But Dean insisted that getting viewers to question and critique the legal system after watching MaM was a tremendous accomplishment by the filmmakers. Though the public outcry surrounding Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey will most likely not get them out of prison, it does start a significant conversation about the legal system and the manner in which cases like these are handled. As stated previously, Dean encouraged all of the lawyers in that room last night to take what they had learned from the Avery case and apply it in their work with their own clients. Though we as a general public can only do so much, MaM and other crime shows are benefiting the world by exposing important facts about the criminal justice system and inspiring lawyers to do their jobs that much better. There is increased awareness and I truly believe that the right people will run with that knowledge and do something positive with it. Since I started watching more of these crime shows, I have become more in tune with injustice in our society. Now, I speak up more often when I see injustice at play. On a practical note, thanks to these shows, I also know warning signs for when things could go awry in my relationships. For these reasons, I believe that my enhanced perspective from crime shows has been very beneficial.
One of the last statements that Dean made last night implied an important message that can be beneficial for everyone, not just lawyers. Speaking to the crowd, Dean proclaimed that if you ever wake up in the morning a cynic, with no faith in the work you’re doing, you need to stop. You’re done. Someone else deserves the chance to be in your shoes with the opportunity at your feet. Though Dean was directly addressing a group of lawyers with that statement, I believe that this message can apply to everyone in all walks of life. If you ever wake up in the morning and you have no faith in what you’re doing, there really isn’t a reason to work. You MUST believe in the work that you’re doing to do your job well, no matter what your profession is.
Dean Strang is many things. He is incredibly intelligent, witty, sarcastic, and in the eyes of many women after MaM, a “total dreamboat.” When asked about that final characteristic during the panel, Dean wittily replied “If I am your definition of a sex symbol, you need to get out more.” My favorite Dean Strang attribute is his humble attitude. Even with his immense success, Strang carries himself with a quiet confidence, when it would be so easy to be arrogant. I find that incredibly appealing. I’m not going to try to proclaim that you should watch crime shows to watch lawyers be humble, because I know, in large part, they are not known for that quality. But, I would say that you should watch these crime shows to pay respect to the people that defend the underdogs and comfort families who have been through unspeakable tragedy. There are people out there who wake up every day with faith in their client and an honorable belief that though a horrible crime has occurred, justice can be served. Lieutenant Joe Kenda from the ID channel prides himself on giving “a voice to the victim.” Since victims of crime are too often undeserving of their deaths, that is a voice that I am willing to invest my time in.