Best Of 2022: Top true-crime documentaries and docuserieseses
Plus podcast justice, and stupid DHS tricks
Welcome back to our “best of 2022”/“state of the genre” coverage! We asked an esteemed panel of colleagues and contributors for the best (and…the rest) in true-crime properties for 2022; the true crime they look forward to in 2023; vintage gems and underrated treasures they discovered; and their big-picture takes on the genre.
Yesterday, we talked about 2022’s best genre longreads. Now it’s on to the year’s most memorable documentaries and docuseries.
Dan Cassino, professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University: “For me, the high-water mark of recent true crime documentary is OJ: Made in America. I love The Staircase as much as the next guy who spent weeks talking about the owl theory with his wife and child who was really too young for that kind of thing, but the best true crime uses a case to interrogate something deeper, and that’s exactly what We Need to Talk About Cosby does. You can’t talk about Bill Cosby without interrogating what he means to the culture, why people — especially people in the African-American community — may be so invested in him not being guilty, about whether there’s a gap between the man and the image, and W. Kamau Bell does all of that. It is hard to watch, as Bell centers the victims and lets them talk, and holds on them until it’s past uncomfortable, and then some more. It’s a remarkable document, and the highlight of Showtime’s true crime efforts in recent years. Honorable mention for me would be Untold, about Manti T’eo and internet culture, but Bell was more willing to sit in a liminal space.”
Susan Howard, Best Evidence contributor: “The Big Conn was propulsive, entertaining, resonant, and far exceeded my expectations.”
Mark Blankenship, author of The Lost Songs Project and Reviews Editor at Primetimer: “(1) Hulu's Captive Audience was my favorite ‘straightforward’ true crime docuseries this year. It pretty much told the story of Steven Stayner's kidnapping in chronological order, and it pretty much told it with your typical collection of talking heads and old news footage. But damn, the result was so engrossing that it never felt stale. That's partly because the story is startling — Steven returns to his family, Steven's brother grows up to be a murderer, etc. — and partly because the interviewees have such sharp things to say. This includes Corin Nemec, who played Steven in a TV movie that I remember watching as a kid.
(2) HBO's Mind Over Murder is one of the most formally daring shows of the year, regardless of genre. Nanfu Wang commissioned a play about the Beatrice Six murder case, then presented that play to the people of Beatrice, Nebraska. Then she used their responses as a way to explore the notion of implanted memory, which was the dark pole around which this entire case turned. And to deepen things yet again, the doc includes footage of people arguing with Wang about the validity of her methods. It's a thrilling piece of work that forced me to examine my own susceptibility to narratives that come from ‘trusted’ sources, including artists and filmmakers.”
Sarah Weinman, author of Scoundrel and New York Times crime-fiction columnist: “We Need to Talk About Cosby, which was harrowing as hell, tough to watch, and worth every minute.”
Toby Ball, host of Strange Arrivals and co-host of Crime Writers On…: “We Need to Talk About Cosby was great in explaining the place that Bill Cosby held in American and Black American culture and also how central and consistent his sexual abuse of women was to his life.”
Margaret Howie, the co-founder of Space Fruit Press and editor of the Three Weeks newsletter: “We Need to Talk About Cosby, with an honourable shout-out to the Untold series for good, solid, competent storytelling. And let’s give Skye Borgman a nod for producing true crime documentaries about the most bananapants subjects going at such a rapid clip; if she keeps up this pace she’ll be hitting Alex Gibney numbers soon.”
Andy Dehnart, reality TV critic and the editor of reality blurred: “Pepsi, Where's My Jet, which I just loved. I'm sure there's recency bias here, and it's probably also a reaction to how tired I am of exploitative unscripted projects and scripted shit like Dahmer. But PWMJ was near-perfect, both in terms of its immersion in 1990s pop culture and the quick, efficient telling of its story. Best of all, the villain was a corporation and capitalism itself.”
Sarah Carradine, co-host of Crime Seen:
- Low Country: The Murdaugh Dynasty
- I Am Vanessa Guillen
- My Daughter's Killer
- Trainwreck: Woodstock 99
- Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall
- Claremont: A Killer Among Us (Australia)
My own short list is very similar — Cosby, Captive Audience, the third go-round of Unsolved Mysteries, Low Country just on sheer watchability — but I’ll also pipe up for Killer Sally, a propulsive and disquieting three-parter from Nanette Burstein. I’ll agree with Margaret, too: Borgman maybe isn’t putting out the best of the year, but she’s putting out the most of the year, and most of it’s solid.
What made your doc lists in 2022? — SDB
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Hat tip to Craig Calcaterra for today’s “ffs, feds!” longread on how the Department of Homeland Security bungled 1/6. Gotta love an agency everyone suspected from the jump would overreach — and Minority Report, well, probably mostly minorities — just…not reaching at all. DHS has one job, and per this Yahoo! News story, a department analyst who found scads of online evidence of a coordinated attack planned for January 6, 2021 just could not get anyone to give a shit:
Every day, multiple times a day between Dec. 29 and Jan. 4, the analyst sounded the alarm on the urgent need for reporting that could be used to warn other agencies.
Among the online posts, which were included in the inspector general report, were calls for people to bring weapons to D.C. on Jan. 6. “Bring your gun,” one post from Jan. 4, 2021, said. “It’s just gonna be another protest if you don’t, and you’ll watch Biden slide into the white house.” The report also included Jan. 2 posts from about 12 people who said they had told their families goodbye because they were willing to “die for the cause.”
By Jan. 5, the open source collection office still had not produced any reports or issued any warning on anything it had found, preventing the counterterrorism analyst and the entire mission center from warning agencies in D.C. of the threats they were seeing online.
I don’t know whether it’s a good thing that I haven’t lost the capacity for shock, but this is beyond. NYT heds and subheds from like five years ago themselves miss the problem, to wit: where is the will to stop it? This isn’t a “can’t crack the code” problem. It’s a “can’t be bothered” problem. (…At best.)
Oh, and here’s an email from the Southern Poverty Law Center letting me know that the FBI’s annual report on hate-crime stats “fail[s] to capture the scope of the problem even more miserably than in previous years.” Kee-rist. — SDB
Okay, let’s try to end on a higher note with the exoneration of two Georgia men thanks to a podcast. From CNN’s write-up:
Darrell Lee Clark and his co-defendant Cain Joshua Storey were 17 years old when they were arrested for their alleged involvement in the death of 15-year-old Brian Bowling.
Clark’s exoneration came a year and a half after investigative podcasters Susan Simpson and Jacinda Davis began scrutinizing his case in their Proof true-crime podcast in 2021, and interviewed two of the state’s key witnesses.
Through their investigation, new evidence emerged which “shattered the state’s theory of Clark’s involvement” in Bowling’s death and the podcasters flagged his case to the Georgia Innocence Project, according to its news release.
And if you’ve been looking forward to Hulu’s take on the Larry Ray cult story, Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence dropped a trailer yesterday, and that’s below. — SDB
Friday on Best Evidence: The best of scripted true-crime docudramae and adaptations. Will one property dominate the discussion?
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I nearly put Killer Sally on my ballot, too.
I 100% believe that Pepsi owed that kid a jet (or at least a job) based on cleverness and creativity alone. And the documentary was so well done in that it was mesmerizing without a dead body in sight. I really liked Inventing Anna (was that this year) and Killer Sally. I haven't watched the Cosby one but am putting it on my list.