Catch & Kill · Cults · Citizen P.I.

Plus casting news, the Wild West, and MTV

I’m baaaa-aaaaaack…just in time for the Midsummer Cluster. For those of you who’ve just arrived, 1) welcome, and 2) the Midsummer Cluster is my theory that a disproportionate amount of badness goes down in the ten-day stretch of July we’ve just entered. Today, for instance, marks the beginning of the Moors murderers’ killing spree, as well as Wild Bill Hickok’s first gunfight, often framed as frontier justice/Hickok standing up to a bully but probably decidedly less heroic on the merits.

Big thanks to Eve for covering for me last week; let’s get into some longreads, shall we? — SDB


Yet another iteration of Catch & Kill hits the HBO-verse tonight. I wrote about the diminishing returns of the project for Primetimer; the short version is, with a whole bunch of other high-profile true crime hitting screens this week, you can skip it if you’ve consumed either book or podcast. But it’s not without merit, obviously:

The Podcast Tapes is very good at illustrating the particulars of predatory grooming, the rationalizations of trauma, and how bullies like Weinstein normalize their sexual misconduct. It's also very good at using the agonizing process Farrow's report went through before finally finding a home at The New Yorker to highlight the importance of thorough, ethical journalism, and the many ways that powerful people and corporations have of controlling or burying stories like Farrow's. (Ordinarily this where where I would object yet again to the use of Matt Lauer in a contemporary-footage montage, but given the timing of NBC News' killing of Farrow's reporting and Lauer's subsequent ouster for sexual misconduct of his own... for once he's being used to make a larger point.)

Farrow’s production deal with HBO is now three years old; I hope we see a bigger swing, at a different story, in their next project. — SDB


A quick casting-news round-up (which, miraculously for these updates of late, does NOT contain any for The Staircase, possibly because they’ve cast everyone but the owl and the blowpoke)…

  • Kyle MacLachlan has joined Peacock’s Tiger King adaptation as Howard Baskin, Carole’s husband (not the one she allegedly fed to a lion; the other one). [ET Online]

  • The great Lily Rabe has joined HBO Max’s Candy Montgomery project, Love And Death, as Betty Gore. [Deadline]

  • Netflix docudrama Painkiller, on the origins of the opioid crisis, has tapped Uzo Aduba and Matthew Broderick for lead roles. Aduba will star as an investigator “leading the case against Purdue [Pharma],” and Broderick has the thankless role of a key Sackler. [Variety] — SDB


I knew MTV’s True Life: Crime had gotten picked up for a second season; I DIDN’T know the network planned to make a True Crime Week out of the Season 2 premiere(s), but that’s what’s happening starting tomorrow. TL:C host Dometi Pongo made the rounds last week to promote the show’s return, but it’s not entirely clear to me based on Googling around whether the “Week” the show is headlining has anything other than the one show airing new episodes on three consecutive nights. I couldn’t find more information on the show’s dedicated page on MTV’s site, either, but I did turn up an old listicle on the “Top 10 Most Wanted True-Crime Movies,” and it’s actually pretty solid. (The fact that it dates from 2007, when this kind of clickbait wasn’t 80 percent the same selections over and over again, helps a lot.)

Anyway, back to True Life: Crime. I confess that the first season is still sitting on my office DVR almost in its entirety, but I promise I will get to it soon! Maybe this week! IIRC, the show, while certainly not perfect, leveraged its placement on MTV to tell crime/young people’s stories that older-school newsmags and series don’t always put first, so I may have gotten behind on viewing but I’m glad it’s still going…and I respect the nads on the network stepping to the Dr. Death premiere later this week with a miniseries-hype approach to the new season. Anyone else keeping up with TL:C? — SDB

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Citizen P.I., a six-episode series from discovery+ on “Amateur Sleuths Who Play Major Roles in Solving Inexplicable Crimes,” hits the streamer July 27. According to Discovery’s press release, the show “showcases the colorful personalities of people who dive headfirst into the rabbit hole to solve violent crimes. While some people may view this simply as a hobby, these digital detectives can play a significant role in the apprehension of real criminals.” Well, starting with the fact that “colorful personalities” is a VERY gentle term for what crawls out from under some of the heavier rocks of Reddit, I’m of two minds about this, the first being that, for every Michelle McNamara, who actually understood what the word “proof” meant, you’ve got a few dozen crackpots with poor boundaries who think facility with Google Street View is as good as a badge. You’ve also got the fact, not unrelated by any means, that McNamara’s citizen sleuthing, while extremely effective in the end, may have overtaken her physically.

And you’ve got nimrods like Lydia Dupra — and, really, most of the online community around the Cecil Hotel and its various infamous denizens — buying bottles of water from key hotel rooms for hundreds of dollars, and basically ruining it for more conscientious researchers.

On the other hand, 1) the termite-esque properties of citizen sleuths/true-crime fanatics are not a recent evolutionary development, op. cit. the Hall-Mills case; 2) McNamara and other civilian investigators like her can move the ball on cold cases; and 3) perhaps I should encourage that sort of “meddling” instead of making fun of it given how cluelessly “official” investigators often behave, particularly in cases involving a) serial rapists and/or b) victims of color. Like, can Jane Q. Public fuck it up for the cops and DAs? Maybe. Can Jane fuck it up worse than the cops and DAs do themselves? Even odds.

And then there’s the actual content of Citizen P.I., which I wasn’t inclined to make time for until I read the linked listing of episode topics — and the series is leading with an ep called “Malibu Sniper”:

When a young father of two is found shot in in his tent on a camping trip in idyllic Malibu State Creek Park, resident citizen journalist Cece Woods uncovers a string of unreported shootings in the area leading up to the murder.

“Wait, don’t I know that case?” You might, and it might be because I talked about Dana Goodyear’s top-notch New Yorker piece on the case back in March (or you read it independently of me; y’all are smart like that). Granted, putting these two particular crime-content producers head to head is not going to benefit either of them, probably. But my bottom line with the discovery+ property is that, though I doubt the streamer has lofty meta “let’s examine the worth we as a society and as true-crime consumers put on ‘official’ narratives and evidence-collection techniques” aims, that doesn’t mean we can’t use the show to continue that discussion. — SDB


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Speaking of The New Yorker and y’all being smart, a couple of readers made sure I knew about this Zoë Heller piece, “What Makes A Cult A Cult?” — as I was dog-earing my hard copy to make sure I remembered to note it here. Heller talks about the line between cult “beliefs” and mainstream religious ones, in the framework of various books about cults and cult activity, including Sarah Berman’s Don’t Call It A Cult (which I stock at Exhibit B., and literally every time I see the cover, I mutter, “…I’ve been here for years” — don’t get up, I’ll fire myself), Murakami’s Underground, and others.

Heller’s not necessarily breaking new ground in her observations about the different ways we talk about Peoples Temple versus, say, Presbyterians, but even if the piece is mostly an excuse to snark on Keith Raniere, it certainly delivers on THAT promise:

In fact, Berman and others, in framing the NXIVM story as a #MeToo morality tale about coerced consent, are prone to exaggerate Raniere’s mind-controlling powers. The fact that Raniere collected kompromat from DOS members strongly suggests that his psychological coercion techniques were not, by themselves, sufficient to keep women acquiescent. A great many people were, after all, able to resist his spiral-eyed ministrations: they met him, saw a sinister little twerp with a center part who insisted on being addressed as “Vanguard,” and, sooner or later, walked away.

Heller goes on to talk about how “the degree of agency attributed to NXIVM members seems to differ depending on how reprehensible their behavior in the cult was,” and which of Raniere’s lieutenants were excused based on “brainwashing” and which were deemed wicked enablers…and whether those classifications depended on former NXIVMites performing regret in a docuseries, although Heller doesn’t put it that bitchily. Overall, it’s a good read and a solid recommended-reading list.


This week on Best Evidence: Heist, Kelly Siegler, Dr. Death, and a forgotten whistleblower.


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