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What the new wave of true-crime TV could teach us — if we let it

Ellen Gray, Philadelphia Daily News on

Published in Entertainment News

True-crime stories used to keep me awake nights.

Truman Capote's classic "In Cold Blood"; Ann Rule, writing about her old friend, serial killer Ted Bundy, in "The Stranger Beside Me": These were the gateways to an addiction that left me more nervous about violent crime -- not to mention the possibility that casual acquaintances might be homicidal psychopaths -- than I had any right to be statistically.

When I eventually kicked the habit and returned to novels, I breathed easier. Turns out I'm fine with murder mysteries as long as they're fictional.

On television, I learned to avoid those "48 Hours" episodes that might trigger a relapse, and if I was watching the Investigation Discovery channel, you can bet it was work-related. Because I don't think it's an accident that the network of "Evil Twins" and "Deadly Women" offers a prize for the "ID Addict of the Month."

But then true-crime TV went upscale, and I was forced to pay attention.

A millionaire murder suspect became an unlikely HBO star in Andrew Jarecki's "The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst" (and ended up under arrest). The success -- and quality -- of the Peabody Award-winning first season of the podcast "Serial," and of shows like Netflix's "Making a Murderer" and FX's "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" inspired new long-form projects, including NBC's "Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders," an eight-part series.

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The best of these shows can make us question our assumptions about a justice system that doesn't work the way the rest of TV might lead us to believe it does. Even the so-so ones, like A&E's recent six-parter, "The Murder of Laci Peterson" -- which I'll confess to having binge-watched -- can show how relentless coverage, much of it on cable news, may shape a narrative long before all the facts are in. No one needs more stories that make us question our safety with strangers (or loved ones), but we might need the kind that make us question our certainty as armchair jurors.

At the moment, I'm watching NBC's so-far underwhelming "Menendez Murders" to see Edie Falco ("The Sopranos," "Nurse Jackie"), who plays defense attorney Leslie Abramson. I'm intrigued, though, by the involvement of "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf, who's not exactly known for being soft on crime, in a project that's not necessarily pro-prosecution. (He once said, "I don't hold criminal defense attorneys in very high regard, based on what they do for a living, which is basically getting guilty people off.")

Wolf has talked about this "L&O" being unique for the franchise in having an "agenda," and his take on Erik and Lyle Menendez, sentenced to life without parole in the 1989 murders of their parents, is that they got a raw deal.

"It's absolutely horrible, but when you see the information, I think people are going to realize, well, yeah, they did it, but it wasn't first-degree murder with no possibility of parole," Wolf told reporters last month. "They probably should have been out eight or 10 years ago, because they should have been convicted of first-degree manslaughter."

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