Does Success Of HBO's 'The Jinx' Herald New Form Of True-Crime TV? - Eric Deggans
1. It was the kind of moment true-crime TV fans live for but almost never
2. get to see: a suspected murderer seeming to confess his guilt while the
3. audience listens in.
4. That bombshell admission aired Sunday at the end of HBO's docu-series
5. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, capping a six-part series. It
6. unfolded as something of a cat-and-mouse game between Durst, the
7. scion of a wealthy New York family who is suspected of killing his wife,
8. a best friend and a neighbor in separate crimes reaching back to 1982,
9. and filmmaker Andrew Jarecki.
10. It also felt like the birth of a new TV genre: the multi-episode, true-crime
12. Lots of TV shows have made an industry of recreating and dissecting known
13. crimes, from CBS' 48 hours to NBC's Dateline and beyond. But those shows
14. usually take on one case per episode, recreating stories that are already
15. resolved but may be unknown to a national audience.
16. HBO's The Jinx offered something new, tackling a single, famously unsolved
17. case, stretched out over six hourlong episodes. The show unearthed
18. previously unknown evidence and featured an interview with a prime
19. suspect who hadn't spoken much to the media before.
20. And it all came wrapped with a promise from the filmmaker that the crimes
21. —one of which has been unsolved for 30 years — would be resolved by the
22. series' end. (The promise seemed even more likely to be fulfilled when
23. Durst was arrested Saturday in New Orleans on a murder charge.)
24. "That was the biggest surprise of all, that during the course of this, we were
25. able to solve the case, and that was extraordinary," said Andrew Jarecki, an
26. Oscar-nominated documentary director (Capturing the Friedmans, Catfish)
27. who spoke to me in January in Pasadena, Calif.
28. Jarecki and his production team spent four to five years developing the
29. documentary. Durst had called to speak with Jarecki after hearing of his film
30. All Good Things, a 2010 movie loosely dramatizing Durst's life and starring
31. Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst.
32. Halfway through developing the The Jinx as a two-hour film, Jarecki said he
33. and his team realized the format would leave too many details unexplored
34. in Durst's quirky, expansive story.
35. "We had access to evidence nobody had ever seen before. We discovered
36. things nobody ever knew before," Jarecki said.
37. "We realized it was going to feel like a tremendous ripoff for people to not
38. have the experience that we were having. And so we said, 'We're living in a
39. HBO Go [video streaming] kind of binge-able world. ... Let's start by putting
40. in all the fascinating plot, and then let's see how long it is at the end.' This is
41. kind of a first, the idea of letting the content dictate its own length is
42. something you wouldn't get before 2015."
43. The Jinx explores how Durst, the eccentric, unpredictable, eldest son in a
44. family that runs one of the most powerful real estate dynasties in New York
45. City, had his wife disappear mysteriously in 1982. Years later, in 2000, his best
46. friend was shot to death in her Los Angeles home, and in 2001, a neighbor
47. near an apartment Durst rented in Galveston, Texas, was found
49. Those facts would be fodder enough for a compelling true-crime story. But
50. The Jinx dives into the sordid circumstances behind the tale.
51. Ousted from the family business in the mid-'90s, Durst reportedly posed as
52. a mute woman to rent an apartment in Galveston when police began asking
53. new questions about his wife's disappearance. When his neighbor's remains
54. were found, police issued a warrant for Durst's arrest and he went on the run
55. — apprehended after shoplifting at a supermarket despite having access to
56. thousands of dollars.
57. Durst admitted dismembering his neighbor, but claimed self-defense and
58. was acquitted of murder. The Jinx showed how that verdict sparked a routine
59. on The Daily Show and a sketch on Saturday Night Live.
60. Like the popular public radio podcast Serial — which focused on a man
61. convicted of murdering his high school girlfriend after they broke up — The
62. Jinx features a case that is not fully resolved, centered on a compelling suspect
63. whose guilt is not yet settled for the reporter. Both programs feel like part of a
64. new genre with its own set of rules, capturing an audience jaded by many years
65. of true-crime broadcast stories.
66. These programs focus on an ongoing case that can be substantially affected by
67. new reporting — "a live ball," as Jarecki has called it. The narrator/investigator
68. becomes a character in the story, serving as a surrogate for the viewer or
69. listener and taking them through the process of looking into the subject and
70. finding new information.
71. Both shows also depend on extensive interviews with a suspect who keeps
72. the audience engaged even as the narrator struggles to learn if that person
73. is a killer. In The Jinx, Durst was detached, perceptive and oddly forthcoming,
74. especially for a guy still suspected of killing three people.
75. But unlike Serial, which ended ambiguously, The Jinx seemed to resolve its
76. story with Sunday's episode, which may have been the most compelling
77. moment of television aired this year.
78. Jarecki's team discovered handwriting samples that seemed to indicate
79. Durst may have written an anonymous note tipping police to the murder of
80. his best friend. The final episode showed the torturous process Jarecki's
81. team endured getting a final interview with Durst, knowing they had key
82. information in hand.
83. After showing Durst a sample of his writing and a sample of the anonymous
84. note without indicating which was which, Jarecki asked if Durst could
85. distinguish one from the other — and he said he couldn't. Once the
86. interview ended, Durst went into a bathroom with his microphone still on.
87. There it is ... you're caught, Durst says to himself in an exchange aired
88. in the final moments of Sunday's episode. "What the hell did I do? Killed
89. them all, of course."
90. One of Durst's lawyers, Chip Lewis, told CBS This Morning that the clip was
91. the "mutterings of this elderly gentleman as he's in the restroom."
92. The way this has unfolded does raise ethical questions.
93. Police arrested Durst in New Orleans the night before The Jinx's final
94. episode aired. The Associated Press reports he was charged with the
95. murder of his friend Susan Berman. The arrest also proved to be the
96. highest-profile advertisement for the finale that HBO could have
97. anticipated, sparking news stories across the country.
98. Did the filmmakers, who eventually cooperated with police, arrange for
99. the arrest to come at the best possible time for their project? Jarecki told
100. CBS This Morning his team had hoped Durst would be arrested sooner and
101. that their communication with authorities was "cordial."
102. Did he betray a confidence with Durst? (Jarecki told The New York Times
103. they discovered the bathroom audio in June 2014; he told CBS that law
104. enforcement had the audio for "many months.")
105. Speaking to TV critics during a news conference in January, Jarecki indicated
106. he had a more pressing priority.
107. "You certainly have a sense that you have a responsibility to [Durst], and
108. yet my bigger responsibility is to the audience," Jarecki said. "The audience
109. is going to have to count on me and our team of people in the edit room to
110. convey his story in a way that is going to be fair, that's gonna be dramatic,
111. that's going to share this very complicated story with all the twists and turns.
112. ... At the end of the day, I want the audience to feel the discoveries that I
113. had. I'm certainly not going to limit their discoveries because I think made
114. Bob look good or bad or anybody."
115. That sounds a bit like a manifesto; new rules for a new form of storytelling
116. sure to grow across TV and radio as more filmmakers get in the game.
117. It's a open question what kind of true-crime television we'll be inundated
118. with in the process.
Deggans, Eric. "Does Success Of HBO's 'The Jinx' Herald New Form Of True-Crime TV?" NPR Arts & Life. NPR.org, 16 Mar. 2015. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.
The purpose of mentioning The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live in paragraph 14 ("Durst admitted dismembering…") is