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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Scotch & Cigarettes (The Time I Met Ronald D. Moore)

The Fall of 2006 was probably the height of my obsession with Ronald D. Moore’s “re-imagining” of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. The third season had just premiered and somehow surpassed, at least for me, the high expectations set by the second season cliffhanger.

I was near the end of my time at Binghamton University when my friend Russ noticed a flyer posted outside of the Cinema Department lounge: Ronald D. Moore was going to be giving a talk at Cornell.

Cornell is an hour away from Binghamton.

Do the math. We were going.

Some set-up: When the first season of BSG first aired on SciFi (still SciFi then, not Syfy), Ron Moore (RDM as he’s referred to online) started doing podcast commentaries for each episode. What was great was that he took the opportunity to give a frank, unvarnished look at the process behind each episode, freely admitting when he didn’t like something and why he thought it didn’t work, and always making clear that, ultimately, the buck always stopped with him. It was an amazingly insightful and, at that time, unique peek behind-the-curtain of a television series. (The only other example I can think of is jms’s Usenet posts chronicling the making of BABYLON 5.)

As both a fan of the show and someone with aspirations of making television, you can imagine how much I enjoyed these podcasts. By the third season, I sometimes looked forward more to the podcast than the episode it was commenting on. RDM had also settled into a ritual of using the podcast to “put each episode to bed,” as it were, over a few glasses of scotch and some cigarettes. (The varieties of which he’d announce at the beginning of every podcast. He smoked my brand, at the time.)

ronald-moore-cci-hdrimg

Ronald D. Moore, Cornell almost-graduate

Knowing there was a Q&A period after his presentation, I had an idea. Instead of asking a question, I would present Mr. Moore with a bottle of scotch and a pack of cigarettes, so the next podcast would me “on me.” I went to my local Binghamton liquor store, asked what a nice bottle of scotch was, and walked out with a bottle of Macallan 12. (Not cheap for a college student.) The cigarettes were no issue because at the time I was a smoker and was buying American Spirit Lights by the carton.

I threw the contraband in a backpack and off we went. There were a fair amount of people in the theater, but no one in the front row. I looked at Russ and Mickey and we sat slightly off-center at the very front. There remained a buffer of two or three empty rows behind us (why, I do not know). Mr. Moore came out and started his presentation, remarking that this was his first time back to his alma-mater since dropping out during his senior year twenty years prior. Hard to argue with his decision on that one.

The presentation was mainly about how he went about adapting the original series, how it was both a reaction to 9/11 and to his time as a writer/producer on Star Trek, etcetera. Mostly stuff that I had heard in other places. I really just wanted to get to the Q&A.

“Any questions?”

I raised my hand. Glancing behind me, I saw I was the only one with my hand up. After what seemed like a very long silence, he pointed at me.

“Yes?”

What happened next is a blur. I had just been spoken to by someone who, at the time, was the man on the earth I most wanted to emulate. Someone who I was used to listening to only from afar. So, adrenaline happened. Forgive me.

I know I said something similar to what I described above and gave him the bottle and the smokes, leaving him kind of dumbfounded. I don’t think he was expecting anything like that at all, but at the urging of his wife who was sitting off to the right front, he invited me up to join him on stage and shook my hand. And then something unexpected happened. while sharing the stage with one of my idols, the audience erupted with applause. Honest-to-god applause. A lot of it. It went on, at least in my memory, for quite a while.

I remember none of the questions after that. I’d done what I went there to do, and it was awesome. Better than I expected, even.

After the last question and people were getting up to leave, I was stopped by Mr. Moore’s wife, who had been sitting off to the side. She had popped on the podcast before and from time to time would drop in on the Sci-Fi Channel message boards to answer questions under the handle “Mrs. Ron.” After introducing herself to me, she said

“I just want you to know, we’ve done a million appearances and conventions. But no one has ever done that before.”

“I was happy to,” I hope I said.

“What’s your name?”

“Josh. Bernhard.”

“Thank you, Josh. I’ll make sure he remembers to mention you on the next podcast.”

Awesome.

Russ, Mickey and myself strolled outside, past the crowd surrounding RDM for autographs, and coolly smoked a round of victory cigarettes on the sidewalk. As Mickey remembers it, “You could tell he was standing there surrounded by Trekkies just wanting to come smoke with us.” (No knock on those Trekkies, by the way; I can talk Trek with the best of ’em.)

This went on for quite a while. He signed autographs, took pictures, and spoke to everyone in the crowd. I figured I’d had my time, and it was a better move to stay above the fray. I think I was right. As he was being escorted to a waiting SUV, he stopped to say goodbye to us before being whisked away by mrs. ron.

And we headed back to Binghamton, riding high.

I couldn’t wait for the podcast the following week. Was he going to mention me? Did he forget? I eagerly downloaded the podcast commentary to “Torn,” the sixth episode of season three.

And my heart sank. Well, maybe it didn’t sink, but I was disappointed. Cause RDM was a guest lecturer in a film class at Cornell, had shown the class the new episode a couple days early, and did the podcast while they got to ask questions. An interactive podcast. My dream. If I’d only known, I would have gone back and snuck in!

Whatever. I’d get mine.

Hello and welcome to the podcast. I’m Ronald D. Moore, executive producer and developer of the new Battlestar Galactica and I would like to welcome you to the podcast for episode six, “A Measure of Salvation.” I’m at home, for those of you who monitor such things. I’ve returned from my sojourn to Cornell. The Scotch is Macallan 12 and the smokes are American Spirit Lights, both of which were provided to me. A very generous gift from a student at Cornell named Josh, who came up and gave me both after the end of the lecture that I gave at the Willard Straight Hall at Cornell last week. Which is very kind. I like to see that people are still supporting vice in all forms, evil and bad for you, in the Ivy League.

I was never a student at Cornell, but hey.

Some time later, I came across a posting Mrs. Ron made on the SciFi boards announcing an upcoming appearance RDM was making. She ended the post with

“…and please, no more scotch and cigarettes.”

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