I’ve spent a lot of my life being fascinated by true crime. From an early age, my sister and I would get our parents to record episodes of Forensic Files (known as Murder Detectives in the UK) on one blank VHS tape we would then feverishly rewatch before bed. I’ve read a lot of tawdry paperbacks full of lurid color photographs in the center pages. I’ve watched probably hundreds of hours of documentaries on everything from murders to cults to scammers. For most of this time, I’ve been able to reason with my self-doubt over my hobby. It’s a common one, after all, so why find shame in it? Indeed, it could be argued that there’s something empowering about a woman confronting societal taboos and deep-seated fears in a way that makes them palatable, more digestible. Like what you like, after all, right? Nothing has more thoroughly dented that delusion in recent years than the modern-day Netflix true-crime assembly line.
The dominant streaming service of the current pop culture market has made a strong name for itself with gripping, slickly produced true crime films and series that have enraptured audiences far and wide. Season one of Making a Murderer cemented Netflix’s status as a serious platform for the medium, regardless of the many holes in the filmmakers’ case. There have been many highs, such as the truly exemplary The Keepers, but more and more, I find myself discomfited with their plethora of murder-tainment. Often, it feels like these disparate offerings are being churned out from an assembly line, thanks to their near-identical aesthetic choices and unchanging approaches to prickly material. Every month, there’s a new true crime to consume, with glossy cinematography, expensive-looking re-enactments, lots of stock footage stutteringly edited together, and that undeniable sense that all of this is supposed to be kind of cool. The prestige evolution of true crime has seen this sheen of legitimacy veil the concept in a way that all too frequently feels like a pretty distraction. If it looks nice then it must be less exploitative, surely? It’s not as gauche as reading a battered Ann Rule book or browsing the darker corners of the internet, not when the score is this good.
This mindset preoccupied me for most of the extensive running time of Netflix’s newest true crime flavor of the month, Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness. Following on from their Night Stalker documentary released in January, another misfire that seemed more interested in neon cool than dissecting the horrific truth, it seems that the platform is keen to tick off the major murderers of the century. Here, however, the focus isn’t so much on David Berkowitz, the man who pleaded guilty to eight separate shooting attacks that terrorized New York City for an entire year. Rather, the filmmakers center their lens on Maury Terry, a journalist who spent decades trying to convince the world that Berkowitz was part of a satanic cult. Terry continued to work on the Berkowitz case long after the NYPD closed it, writing a book and touring the tawdry talk-show circuit to push his assertions.
A lot of the series feels like that scene in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Charlie ‘exposes’ the mail conspiracy. It’s hard not to imagine a man looping pieces of wool around drawing pins as we hear Terry’s case not so much laid out as tossed across the table. It’s a theory that encompasses everything: Scientology! Orgies! Satanic worship! Charles Manson! The series combs through Terry’s evidence in exhaustive detail, even as his case clearly becomes more conspiratorial and dubious, although those aspects are given far more airtime than the bits where the directors clearly think he’s onto something. Moments of legitimate concern are quickly overwhelmed by the feverish intensity of the filmmaking approach as well as their inability to know when to stop.
The Son of Sam case was clearly one of police ineptitude. The NYPD broke into Berkowitz’s car without a warrant before arresting him, and even before that, they seemed pathetically unable to do their job. Terry seemed right on this matter, but the mundane cruelty of institutional damages proves less exciting to Sons of Sam than the lure of satanic worship. For the series, it’s all shocking but terribly alluring, as proven by the bone-headed decision to set the opening credits to Joan Jett’s coverage of ‘Season of the Witch.’
Netflix true crime loves to say it’s more cautionary than it is, a trait most recently revealed in the really uncomfortable conspiratorial exploitation of the Elisa Lam case in their recent series Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. It bellows its moral complexities while pandering to base desires, like the repugnant Don’t F**k With Cats. Often, it doesn’t even bother to pretend to care, as with Tiger King, a trash-fest that Netflix giddily exploited despite the obvious moral murkiness surrounding its approach. Sons of Sam doesn’t sink to those depths but it still trips on a lot of the same potholes.
We are fortunately spared crime scene photos but still shown images of mutilated dogs and bloody hospital beds. Every episode ends with some sort of meme-worthy cliff-hanger. The show happily invites its audience to play along with the conspiracy rigmarole. It pretends its narrative drive is more ambiguous than it really is, which is what hurts it the most. By the ’90s, Terry was reduced to propping up his increasingly shambolic theories on salacious series like Geraldo Rivera’s talk show and Bill O’Reilly-era Inside Edition, all of which is portrayed far more sympathetically than it deserves.
In an interview with the Guardian, director Joshua Zeman said that the series is a ‘cautionary tale of a guy who was right and wrong’ and that his intent was to lay everything out for the viewer to understand this story as a ‘cautionary tale […] for all these people who go down these rabbit holes and they can’t pull themselves back out.’ That’s all well and good in the current age of Pizzagate, QAnon, and anti-vaxxer hysteria, but those claims don’t reflect what’s on-screen. The closing five minutes make it clear that Zeman and company are Team Terry all the way. There’s no real pushback to his more outlandish claims. We get little context for the growing fears of the Satanic Panic that polluted the ’80s and made Terry’s claims so palatable to the masses. It’s not enough to tell the story without some sort of guiding hand. We’ve seen that in the ways that QAnon became mainstream and in how lies become the norm when conveyed by supposedly neutral parties as ‘the other side of the story.’ Maury Terry was clearly a man of deep obsessions who fell into some dark places, but Sons of Sam is too enamored with his conspiracies to bring the truth into the light.
Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness is available to watch now on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Netflix