Americans become judge and jury in true crime TV obsession

Tue Jan 12, 2016 6:17pm EST
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By Jill Serjeant

NEW YORK (Reuters) - True crime has never felt quite so gripping.

The popularity of long, complex documentaries like "Making a Murderer" and "The Jinx," and the radio podcast "Serial" are putting an immersive and realistic twist on TV crime staples and spurring heated debate about the shortcomings of the U.S. judicial system.

And there is much more to come.

A much-anticipated, 10-episode TV series on the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which still fascinates and polarizes Americans 20 years on, will start on the FX channel in February. Discovery Channel last week began its six-episode "Killing Fields" series that takes viewers inside an active cold case murder investigation in Louisiana as it unfolds in real time.

"What we're seeing in this batch of shows is the idea that true crime can have some kind of social utility," said David Schmid, an English professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and editor of the 2015 book "Violence in American Popular Culture."

"I think these shows are tapping into our culture's widespread sense that our justice system, if not broken, is definitely in trouble," Schmid added.

To be sure, police, crime and lawyers have been pop culture favorites for decades. But while TV franchises like "CSI" and "Law & Order" dramatize stories ripped from the headlines and package them into neat one-hour shows with star casts, what is grabbing American viewers now are six-to-10-hour series portraying ordinary, imperfect people caught up in legal troubles that might never be fixed.

"These shows let you go on a journey. It feels like audiences are solving it in real time, side by side with that hotshot investigator. You can be sitting on your couch in Oklahoma and you feel like you have solved a murder," said Mark McBride, a Beverly Hills criminal defense attorney.   Continued...

O.J. Simpson holds up his hands to the jury in this June 15, 1995 file photo. The case is all set to get a TV adaptation.