Jinx, Serial, and the Truer Than True Crime Drama

Mild spoilers for both Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and the Serial podcast.

Earlier this week I sat down to watch the first episode of HBO’s Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Instead, I ended up binging through all six episodes. It was riveting television. As a Facebook friend described it, “Jinx is Serial with results.”

Serial, the This American Life-produced “true crime” series that investigated the case of Adnan Syed, jailed since 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Serial was immediately embraced by pop culture, spawning columns and subreddits that traded theories and anticipated each new installment like it was a new episode of True Detective. I enjoyed it but it fell far short of revelatory. I found it a bit difficult to keep all the threads straight despite producer/host Sarah Koenig’s best efforts to contextualize each new bit of information.

And there was, of course, the resolution. Which was really anything but. There was no big revelation that cracked the cold case wide open, and by episode ten, the climax we got was Koenig revealing her own personal conclusions regarding Syed’s guilt. While interesting to be sure, it was an ending I was just as happy to read about in Salon’s episode recap than sit through myself.

Whereas Serial’s ending was ambiguous, Jinx’s showed us the discovery of a new piece of startling evidence and a damn-near confession from the subject himself. It had all the parts of a satisfying fiction narrative, including a grand finale that made Serial’s look like a damp squib in comparison. (Granted, this is due in no small part to incredible luck, and both productions did result in the re-opening of their respective cases.)

Where things get dicey, I think, is when the film and the filmmakers become a part of the story. By episode five of Jinx, the director, editor, and producer take an active role in the narrative. Episode six is almost entirely built upon the tense lead-up to their final interview with Durst. Though the filmmakers are careful to walk us through their thought processes and maintain their impartiality as much as humanly possible, it becomes their story as much as the subject’s.

And man, the ending is so perfect, the revelations so seismic, it’s amazing that it wasn’t staged.

What we end up with is a series that entertains just as well as any Sunday night drama and inspires the same passion and devotion as its fictional counterparts. The opening credit sequence for Jinx is as oddly hypnotic and as beautifully realized as that of HBO’s megahit True Detective, making it difficult not to draw some comparisons. Except in Jinx’s case, the tales of murder are actually true.

I imagine a lot of true crime projects are going to be fast tracked after the phenomenal success of Jinx and Serial. But not all of them are going to be as perfect as Jinx. Kudos to the filmmakers for drawing out new evidence. But the new evidence existed to be found in the first place.

At the end of the day, I guess I’m wondering whether this is entertainment or journalism or some weird hybrid of both, and what that means. Are these real life events elevated or trivialized when packaged as Sunday night drama? Or does it matter at all?

I could be overthinking it. All I know is there are two things from last weekend’s television offerings that have stuck with me a week later: “motherdick” as an amazing example of network censor contortionism, and anyone who spells Beverley with an extra ‘E’ is probably a murderer.

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