Death Becomes Us: How True-Crime Became Our Favorite Genre

FX Networks; Mark Smerling/Courtesy HBO

What does our sudden addiction to true-crime series say about us? 

When former newspaper reporter Sarah Koenig launched the Serial podcast with National Public Radio in late 2014, a new era of whodunit was born. Over 12 episodes, Koenig revisited the 2000 conviction of Baltimore teen Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Listeners swiped in each week on their smartphones, following along as Koenig reexamined the particulars of the case. 

Serial’s first season was downloaded more than 80 million times and ended with a national movement to secure a new trial for Syed. In its wake, a torrent of true-crime TV projects sprang forth. The next must-follow investigation was HBO’s The Jinx, which last year looked into the case of accused murderer Robert Durst. The series ended with a chilling twist when the 73-year-old real estate heir, not realizing he was still miked, seemingly admitted to killing three people, including his wife. “What the hell did I do?” Durst is heard saying in a bathroom. “Killed them all, of course.” It was one of the most tweeted moments on television that night.

In December, Netflix’s Making a Murderer—which told the infuriating story of an exonerated ex-con who was arrested shortly after his release, this time for murder—became a surprise hit. By January, we were addicted to the genre. Witness the success of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, an FX miniseries that dramatized the game-changing, seemingly made-for-TV 1995 trial that arguably gave birth to reality television. 

The new miniseries doesn’t come close to the real trial in total viewership, but People v. O.J. is the second-highest-rated scripted show on television so far in 2016, averaging 7.21 million viewers. Perhaps more important, the critical and commercial success of the show further represents a tonal shift in the television landscape. With ratings for Caitlyn Jenner’s E! show I Am Cait plummeting more than 50 percent after its premiere, American Idol off the air, and the latest season of Real Housewives of Atlanta experiencing a drop for the second year in a row, reality TV may not be long for this world. 

What’s behind our collective bloodlust for true-crime TV? “The shows resonate with our own natural human impulses for aggression,” says Dr. Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College and a fan of the genre. “Sometimes they’re murderous impulses.” 

Television is giving in further to our demons. Coming soon: an A&E anthology series about the 1978 Jonestown massacre, with Jake Gyllenhaal. Then HBO will take a look at the recent “Slender Man” stabbing in Wisconsin, committed by two 12-year-old girls who said they were trying to kill their classmate to please a horror creature born out of Internet fiction.

Maybe the new reality is actual reality. “The level of excitement is heightened on true-crime shows,” says Friedman. “Because it’s plausible. It’s the real thing.”