What 'The Jinx' and 'Serial' Say About How We Process True Crime Stories
Sunday night's finale of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, HBO's documentary series about multimillionaire and alleged murderer Robert Durst, had a shocking ending. That's never a guarantee when dealing with true crime, particularly when news of your subject's arrest for murder threatens to spoil your ending. But director Andrew Jarecki had a far bigger twist in store for the show's final moments, making it the kind of true crime series most producers wish theirs could be — and one far more palatable to audiences.
"There it is, you're caught," Durst said to himself in the bathroom, unaware his microphone was still on at the end of Sunday's finale episode. "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."
Durst was seemingly referring to the possible murders he's been linked to throughout his life: the deaths of his friend Susan Berman and neighbor Morris Black and the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen McCormack. Though he was prosecuted for Black's murder, he was acquitted; he's never faced trial for Berman's or McCormack's fates.
According to prosecutors, Durst's arrest in New Orleans on Saturday was possible thanks to The Jinx and the accused's participation; the Berman investigation, long gone cold, was only reopened after Durst first agreed to meet with Jarecki and his team.
"What the hell did I do?" Durst said. "Killed them all, of course."
The Jinx is a distinct kind of true crime series. Not only did it wrap up with a definitive conclusion, it also affected the world outside of it. Without The Jinx, Durst likely would have gotten away with murder. Compare that to the 2014 true crime sensation Serial, the weekly podcast that told the story of Adnan Syed, a Baltimore man convicted for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Similarly to The Jinx, Serial was an investigation of a long-concluded case by a third party — in this case, NPR's Sarah Koenig — with the participation of the accused. Unlike The Jinx, Serial had no definitive ending, and the effects of its production remain to be seen.
However Serial's first season winds up influencing Syed's appeal and further legal action, the actual product will remain an unresolved story (unless Koenig and team go back to record another episode, though they've stated season two will follow a different event). That's not inherently bad, but it is unsatisfying for many. A definitive ending was so expected, despite Koenig's repeated claims that there would be no such ending, that parodies even mocked the state of distress the host was likely in.
A "truer" true crime? In many ways, Serial and The Jinx illuminate how consumers process true crime series. Justice and a clear-cut ending are satisfying. Ambiguity and accepting that there may not be a simple answer are not. Lack of clarity is for fiction, like the blockbuster novel Gone Girl and its film adaptation. In such a format, moral complexity is celebrated. We want our characters drawn in shades of grey, not pure black and white.
Yet when dealing with nonfiction, we want to know that villains are punished and innocent people are provided justice. That makes something like The Jinx exciting: The alleged murderer will be tried for his crimes, and it is — at least in part — thanks to the work of the series you've been watching. That's a lot more comforting than hearing the podcast you're listening to might be negatively affecting the lives of the victim's family.
Do we need a sense of direction? There's another key difference between Serial and The Jinx: plotting. Koenig rather publicly admitted she didn't know where the series was going, even after a year of investigating prior to the podcast's first episode. This gave the series a feel of spinning its wheels, especially in the last of its 12 episodes. Listeners who wanted a speedy and clear investigation were to be disappointed; this was a meditation on a case, a not means of solving it or even suggesting a solution.
The Jinx, in contrast, had clear purpose for each of its six episodes — half the number Serial had. A more streamlined pace and fewer expectations likely helped it feel complete and confident in the story it was telling. In truth, however, extra time plotting or fewer episodes of Serial was never going to make it the perfect true crime series. It needed a clear ending, and that wasn't in the cards for Koenig and company.
That said, Serial is still truer to life in its ambiguity. This is a country where one in every 25 sentenced to death is likely innocent, according to one study. Very little in our legal system is clear or definitive. That's not to diminish the efforts of The Jinx, which was a testament to the crew's investigative prowess. But even in that case, they still needed the luck of a hot mic on a loose-lipped likely murderer. It's okay to want more true crime series like The Jinx — but it's sadly honest to expect more like Serial.