By Mallory Andrews | Serial | December 22, 2014 |
By Mallory Andrews | Serial | December 22, 2014 |
After 12 absorbing (and frequently frustrating) episodes, Sarah Koenig’s inquiry into the 1999 Baltimore murder of Hae Min Lee has come to a close. But how to fill your days until the “next time on Serial”? We’ve got you covered with 8 things to watch and read that combine true (or true-ish) crime, investigative reporting, and compelling storytelling, which question the foundations of justice and the institutions that claim to uphold it. Guaranteed, everything on this list does what Serial did best—and maybe even does them better.
Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
There are any number of post-modern TV procedurals that will scratch your Serial itch: The HBO anthology series True Detective, Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, or the Gillian Anderson-starrer The Fall. But none of these have anything on David Lynch and Mark Frost’s crime series Twin Peaks, which did it first and best. Perhaps unfairly overshadowed by its quirkier elements (they make some damn good coffee there in Twin Peaks), the heart of Lynch and Frost’s look into this small-town murder mystery was always Laura Palmer—considering that the show is full of indelible Lynchian imagery, it’s remarkable that the one that sticks with you is that of a photograph of Laura’s inscrutable face. How do we remember people after they die? Can it ever possible match up with the person we knew? What darkness could be lurking under the surface of someone’s seemingly charmed life? Whether anyone really knew her or not, one thing is certain: Laura was never reduced to merely “the victim’s body.”
The Wire (2002-2008)
In the early days of HBO’s prestige-TV renaissance when The Sopranos was making waves on the award circuit, The Wire was the cable channel’s other critically-acclaimed (but at the time, little watched) darling. After years of being available on DVD (with an impeding Blu-ray release on the horizon, aspect ratio drama notwithstanding) the Baltimore-set procedural has garnered a significant following as one of the greatest television dramas ever made. And with good reason. For five seasons, former crime journalist-turned-showrunner David Simon turned a critical eye to the institutions and class struggles that contain and constrain the citizens of Baltimore—the police department, the courthouses, the local government, the media, the school system, unions, etc. For Simon, evil is not a personal failing but a result of the impossible situations in which ordinary people find themselves, and how they shape the choices that they make.
While we’re currently in the throes of the Oscar-buzz surrounding David Fincher’s Gone Girl, it’s worth remembering that his true masterpiece came nearly seven years earlier with his based-on-a-true-crime-story Zodiac. Adapted from Robert Graysmith’s book of the same name, Fincher’s film follows San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Graysmith (here played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and his growing obsession with the hunt for the Zodiac Killer, who terrorized the city from the late-1960s and into the ’70s. As Graysmith doggedly follows clues and cyphers left for the Chronicle by a man claiming to be the killer, Fincher restages each of Zodiac’s most famous crimes. Don’t let the two-and-a-half hour runtime scare you off—the plot is gripping, the images are unforgettable (that lakeside murder chills to the bone), and the unfolding mystery never disappoints. A truly satisfying moviegoing experience all around, and one that doesn’t get nearly enough love when stacked up against Fincher’s other, more popular, work.
Fritz Lang’s early-sound classic about the vigilante manhunt of child murderer Hans Beckert (a career-making performance by Peter Lorre) in a close-knit German community is a potent look at the nature of justice when dealing with such heinous crimes. Disturbed by the actions of Beckert, and perturbed by the ongoing police crackdown, local gangs of petty criminals conspire to bring the serial killer in themselves, and mete out the punishment he deserves. But what does Beckert deserve? Due process in the judicial system before a jury of his peers? Or a lynching at the hands of a kangaroo court? And when innocent lives have already been taken, do any of these questions really matter?
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
Journalist-turned-documentarian Errol Morris’ unforgettable look at the 1976 murder of a police officer in rural Texas is a tour-de-force piece of investigative filmmaking. Pieced together from ancillary evidence, witness testimony, interviews with the police, lawyers, and key players in the case, Morris meticulously picks apart the state’s prosecution against the accused cop-killer Randall Adams. Returning time and time again to the scene of the crime via staged reenactments, Morris builds up a visual playbook of images and symbols to undercut statements entered into evidence: a spilled milkshake as a reminder of a policewoman’s failure to adhere to protocol, red tail lights from cars of various makes and models peeling away from the crime scene, or a silhouette of the shooter in the driver’s seat. Reasonable doubt seems self-evident, but Morris meticulously digs deeper into why this can be an often slippery concept.
The Imposter (2012)
Another true crime doc that uses dramatic reenactments to incredible effect is Bart Layton’s look into the missing persons case of 13-year-old Nicolas Barclay, who disappeared from this Texas hometown in 1993, only to apparently turn up in Spain three years later—with a completely different face and accent. Yet in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Barclay family welcome their “new” son home with open arms. But why? The Imposter asks more questions than it answers, but in a way that accurately reflects the complexities of memory and the powerful need for closure for those who have been through unimaginable emotional trauma.
Invisible Darkness: The Horrifying Case of Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo by Stephen Williams (1998)
The Homolka/Bernardo murders are a dark and disturbing chapter in recent Canadian history—but Stephen Williams illustrates just how dark. Using Homolka’s journal entries and letters as the backbone of his investigation, Williams focuses on her culpability as Bernardo’s partner-in-crime, who helped lure unsuspecting women into their small-town Ontario home. The legal loopholes that have allowed Homolka to be bestowed a lesser sentence are jaw-dropping, and Williams’ cracking prose makes for a stunning true-crime read.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH
If the thrill of an ongoing investigation floats your boat, you may want to tune into Toronto homicide Detective Tam Bui’s Twitter feed. Inspired by Serial (and with permission from the victim’s family) each week Det. Bui will tweet evidence from the 2011 stabbing of Mark Pimentel in the hopes that his followers will be able to help crack the cold case. The ethics of crowdsourcing an investigation via social media are fuzzy at best, but Bui’s endeavour may yet prove to be an interesting experiment.
Mallory Andrews is a feminist and culture writer living in Toronto. You can find her on Twitter.