True-Crime Title Bingo · Live PD, COVID-style · Smerling vs. McGinniss

Plus a book poll -- and actors, amirite?

Welcome to Week…7? Right? Some of you may live in states that have decided to re-open. Eve and I can probably schedule “glare dully at inside of front door” in our Filofaxes well into June. But at least we’re all “here” together. Take care of yourselves, and thanks for reading. — SDB

Margaret’s True-Crime Property Title Bingo Card would make the perfect companion at a bookstore, in my opinion. When I’m allowed out again, and on the off chance bookstores still exist, I’m-a pull this up in that dank corner of the local book shoppe where the unseemly true crime is shelved and go for a win. In the meantime, scrolling through your cable guide to ID or Oxygen will make for equally satisfying play. That bingo card is below! — SDB

Speaking of books, it’s time to order me to read something for May’s bonus book review! Every night, after I pray for the safety of those I love, I pray that Substack will come up with an inline poll option. …jk, I don’t do that, but I really wish they would. Until they do, click here to vote on what I read for y’all next, or click the button below!

Vote now!

I’ve cheated somewhat and listed stuff that’s already in my library app/Audible account, but there’s a decent range: R. Kelly, arson, spies played by Sean Penn…you know, the usz. Poll’s open until Friday!

And in case you missed it, my review of one of the books you picked for me for April, Rap On Trial, is right here. It’s a wonderful read, but if you’re feeling tight-fisted at the moment, the review contains links to excerpts. Should have American Sherlock for you in a day or two, but spoiler: I’m not loving it so far. The, like, second-page use of “snuggly” when “snugly” was intended was a portent I should have taken more seriously? — SDB

Emmy-winning The Jinx producer Marc Smerling has formed a production company, Truth Media. Per Deadline, the “Brooklyn based television and podcast production company … aims is to continue to expand [sic] how people think of true crime and will partner with writers, journalists, and audio storytellers to create true crime podcasts to develop into TV series.” Smerling also produced Catfish and All Good Things, the latter of which he co-wrote (and which Kevin Smokler and I talked about in Episode 136 of The Blotter Presents).

Smerling definitely has the bona fides — he also created Crimetown with Zac Stuart-Pontier — but I’m put off by two things, the first of which is the pod-to-series dev pipeline stated as an overt aspiration. It’s not that that’s not a thing, it’s not that I haven’t enjoyed TV takes on podcasts/pod subjects…there’s just something a little oily about making that subtext text, particularly in a world where television is now a lot harder to make.

Mostly, though, I’m theoretically irritated by the projects Truth Media (eye-roll on the name also, sorry) is rolling out first. Deadline notes that “The inaugural project is A Wilderness of Error, a five-part non-fiction series produced by Blumhouse Television for FX Networks,” and we’ve known about this one for a while; I’ve had it on my upcoming-coverage list for Best Evidence and TBP for ages. But to say I’m looking forward to it is…not accurate, because it’s based on Errol Morris’s book of the same name, and while I think that book might have something to offer here if it’s restructured to focus less on the literal facts of the MacDonald case and more on the shifting nature of narrative allegiance, I…still hated the thing.

But where Smerling et al. really lose me is with this: “The series will be accompanied by Morally Indefensible, a podcast series based on writer Joe McGinniss’s journey in telling the story almost thirty years before Errol Morris told the story. It will be released in the months prior to the airing of the FX TV series.” Look, I’m not the McGinniss estate’s lawyer over here, but if your argument for MacDonald’s innocence consists in the main of maligning Fatal Vision and/or acting like Janet Malcolm’s response isn’t an un-researched mugging? Like, call McGinniss a turd all you want, but at least he interacted with the facts of the case.

I really hope someone speaks truth to power about that crappy pod name, but let’s not kid ourselves: I’ll be hate-watching and -listening for sure. — SDB

How did I end up watching Live PD again, when criminals are supposed to be socially distancing like the rest of us? In the Before Time, Dan and I had a standing-ish “date” every Friday night at a Czech restaurant in our old neighborhood, and we’d usually see our friends L. and C. there. Their household has a similar crappy-true-crime tolerance to our own, and often we’d trade recommendations (or warnings) over comically large cocktails. Although we’re now obliged to drink our filthy marts in parallel from different zip codes, L. noted recently that I should check out “Live PD in the age of coronavirus,” and I was surprised to learn the show was even still active. It’s not like Dan Abrams et al. can gather in a studio anymore…and what police activity would we even see? Watching a ticket get written for speeding or illegal assembly isn’t my idea of a rollicking sit…and the alternative, an unbroken string of “domestics” from around the nation, was even worse.

But then I remembered two things: 1) the rest of the country is not as committed as we are in The Commonwealth Of Epicenter to staying inside of a weekend evening; and 2) the average Live PD “subject” doesn’t tend to have great common sense. So, I settled in with a comically large homemade gin rickey the other night and flipped over to A&E, and with the exception of Dan Abrams’s crappy WiFi connection, it was kind of a run-of-the-mill ep. The domestic call we saw was of the “we decided to split up, quarantine descended, and now X isn’t staying on their side of the house when I went to the trouble of making an actual line with painter’s tape” variety; primarily, it was traffic stops, because 19-year-olds won’t stop thinking getting stoned and going for a (poorly executed; one carload of skids almost hit a West Baton Rouge cop car) drive is a fun time, because it…is. (But designate a driver, please!) Another dude got pulled over for I guess looking methy? And he was methy, and tried to stash a bunch of rocks in a rip in the driver’s seat — and another part of his stash went into the Fleshlight he had in the car. Watching WBRPD attempt to explain what a Fleshlight is without using any of the words that would actually convey its purpose was fairly entertaining.

Less entertaining than sobering (as it were) was the guy who got pulled over for annoying the neighbors with a loud dirtbike he didn’t own — and had the stash he’d paid for with his stimulus check confiscated. I really felt for that gentleman, and spent the commercial break talking with Dan about what the shutdown has meant for people struggling with addiction; what it means for the country that a liquor store is an essential business but said business probably had its SBA loan heisted by, like, United Airlines; and how the community aspects of recovery have suffered in the last couple of months, whether it’s NA meetings having to go online or in-patient rehabs closing their doors.

I can’t exactly “recommend” checking out Live PD, any more than Eve or I would have before All Of This. But as usual, the show ends up catalyzing thoughts about law enforcement, addiction models, institutional bias in quotas, and the opportunities the pandemic may have created to change our thinking around systems we’ve taken for granted (albeit as dysfunctional) for decades. — SDB

Let’s wrap up today’s coverage with a book review from the archives, on the theatrical career of “assassin; ‘great tragedian’; excitable pain in the ass” John Wilkes Booth.


The curtain fell on Romeo with a sprained thumb, a good deal of hair on his sleeve, Juliet in rags and two white shoes lying in the corner of the stage! -- Kate Reignolds, Booth's co-star, on her experience as Juliet (91)

Lust for Fame: The Stage Career of John Wilkes Booth sets itself the task of disproving the commonly held idea that Lincoln's assassin was a crappy actor who merely aspired to his father Junius's and brother Edwin's fame and talent. Gordon Samples supplies a large quantity of evidence in support of Booth's abilities, buuuut sometimes what Samples may think is proof that Booth was innovative, too brilliant to constrain himself with "typical" interpretations of roles, actually seems more like symptoms of bipolar disorder -- or, well, actor bullshit:

He was such a perfectionist and a thorough artist that he could not tolerate an inadequate or sloppy performance in his company. To say that Booth intended to kill the prompter [who missed cueing Booth] as some have claimed would be a gross misunderstanding indeed. (108)

Welllll, but you wouldn't necessarily think a drama queen prone to dark moods was really going to kill the president, either. You definitely wouldn't think a rigid "perfectionist" would get so ripshit before performing that he'd pass out onstage and have co-stars bellowing cues directly into his face.

Mostly, though, Booth sounds to the modern ear like an annoyance, the friend of a friend you check the Evite attendees list for before RSVPing yes. "A compulsive actor, Booth would draw his own audience wherever he found it that summer. He was always ready with a poem or a characterization" (158)? He sounds reeeeally fun, you guys! …Not, he sounds like a twerp.

Samples is an academic (…I assume; the book is from McFarland), and in addition to undertaking a defense (of sorts) of an uninviting subject, Lust For Fame suffers from various academic-writing maladies: repetition; inconvenient end-noting; garbage-y prose that didn't have the benefit of a commercial copy editor: "As to girl friends, we get an idea of one girl whom Booth indicated as the 'serious one.' This might mean one would could do him the most good politically, since he had had numerous advantages to choose from all areas of society" (166). Wh…at? And this isn't getting into the sheer volume of references, 95 percent of them contemporary (all of them sweaty to the point of making the reader kind of uncomfortable), to Booth's unbelievable handsomeness. Samples cites one guy who's like, maybe you had to be there because it doesn't translate to photographs, and it really doesn't.

It's a fine idea for an academic paper, and nobody ever went broke printing books related to Lincoln's murder -- but between the writing that yaws between dry and overtired and a subject who's an overwrought douche, it's impatience-making, and at the end of the slog, you're still looking at the man through frosted glass. — SDB, 2/8/14

Tuesday on Best Evidence: Upcoming true-crime joints on Netflix, those pesky Giannullis, and a Spotify job?

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