I’m into true crime. I always have been, since I was a kid buying paperbacks about serial killers. My novels in the New Royal Mysteries series are set in a crime writing program, and the central concern of the books is about so-called truths and hidden realities, and many of my characters are nonfiction writers who set out to create truth rather than discover it. Created truth is a concept I’ve always played with. And even though a lot of people have read The Mean Bone in Her Body, no one has yet to point out that the opening scene directly contradicts the conclusion.
So, when a friend made a comment about the veracity of the series The Staircase, I started thinking about the particular power of the long form documentary, which is akin to the power of a book length narrative, isn’t it? I watched The Making of a Murderer and The Staircase with the same sort of binge-urge that I bring to a show like Shetland or The Night Of, and I think I see a problem. With an hour-long documentary, like an episode of Dateline, I come away with my critical skills intact, no matter how engrossing the tale. However, with a series I’m asked to invest my time and commit to the layered proposition of the filmmaker; in short, I’m asked to suspend my disbelief as if I’m watching a fictional drama. Perhaps I’m not being asked directly, but the sad romance of the camera eye, supported by a haunting musical score . . . you get what I mean.
The premise of these series is the “in depth, detailed examination of the evidence,” that a shorter presentation can’t provide, but the reality is that a lot of these shows are padded with sadness and bullshit that is irrelevant and even boring sometimes. Seriously, there is no excuse for the slowness of either Staircase or Making, if we are talking about information. And we’re not. Pardon my crude comparison, but we’re getting an artistic form of the Brendon Dassey interrogation—repetitions and time, repetitions and time. Until we believe.
Though I hungrily watched both series, I distinctly recall a feeling of confusion followed by light betrayal after they were over, as if I’d been asked to confirm someone’s identity by looking at their nose, only. So, does this even matter? Well, if television tells us anything, it’s that trials are all about storytelling. As a fiction writer, I promise that the success of any story is as dependent on what you leave out as what you leave in. If stories didn’t exclude information for dramatic effect, the form would be impossible. Reality abhors beginnings, middles, and ends. Even death is a state of transition. Which is fun when you’re fantasizing, but fantasy shouldn’t be part of criminal justice. (I know, I’m naive. But this is my blog and my coffee.)
Watch Episode One of Staircase again, only this time watch it like a fiction writer. Watch it like a fiction writer in a workshop who is asked to provide feedback to another fiction writer—let’s say novelist Michael Peterson—and you may see something interesting in the way he takes us through the events of the terrible night his wife died.
He becomes a narrator. That may be his nature, but I still find it chilling. You'll think it’s strange for me to say this, but beware the storyteller. In a time when information has become opt out rather than opt in, we’ve never been more powerful. We live in the misty gaps between facts, where it is easiest to grab your attention and hold it.