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True Crime’s TV Takeover: Critics Pick the Genre’s Most Killer Moments

From "American Crime Story" and "The Jinx," to the spoofy goodness of "American Vandal," these moments were true standouts.

"The Jinx," "American Crime Story," "American Vandal"

“The Jinx,” “American Crime Story: The People vs OJ,” “American Vandal”

HBO, FX, Netflix

IWCriticsPick

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday or Wednesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What is your favorite moment from a true crime series? This is the whole true crime genre that includes docuseries, scripted reenactments (a la “American Crime Story”), and even spoofs (“American Vandal,” “Trial & Error”).

Soraya Nadia McDonald (@SorayaMcDonald), The Undefeated

I’m not sure if I can pinpoint one particular favorite moment from “American Vandal,” but I do so appreciate its dedication to sending up contemporary conventions of true crime, especially the way it pokes at the method of storytelling that “Serial” and “This American Life” rely on so heavily. I’m especially tickled by the voiceover narration, the spot-on rhythm of the delivery. I say this as someone who greatly enjoyed the first season of “Serial” and who has been a devoted “This American Life” listener for decades. Sometimes it’s just fun to see your faves get read, especially if it’s done in a way that’s smart and full of winking humor.

Eric Deggans (@deggans), NPR

Prashant Gupta/FX

I have to reach back to the fifth episode of “People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” called “The Race Card.” This was the episode that pitted Sterling K. Brown’s deeply insecure prosecutor Christopher Darden against Courtney B. Vance’s experienced and brash defense attorney Johnnie Cochran; these are the only two actors who won Emmys for the show (actress Sarah Paulson was also honored) and these were the men who represented the push and pull of black attitudes in America toward Simpson and the trial. I only found out later that this episode was scripted by Joe Robert Cole (who told me during a backstage conversation two years ago he was co-writing this movie “Black Panther” with Ryan Coogler) and directed by “Boyz n the Hood” mastermind John Singleton. One of the highlights of my job that year was sitting at a table with Singleton and Cole and cackling about how much cultural authenticity and attitude they were able to squeeze into this episode.

At any rate, the moment that transfixed me came after Brown’s Darden tries to keep the defense from questioning LAPD officer Mark Fuhrman on his previous uses of the n-word. He delivers a passionate speech that essentially argues that the black jurors — and presumably, by extension, black people across America — cannot remain objective after hearing that an officer used the epithet. Vance’s Cochran stands up and eviscerates Darden for his condescension, exposing how he was echoing the paternalistic and patronizing tone of white authority figures in a misguided argument. But the electric moment came after Cochran finished his speech while standing over Darden; he bent over to say in a soft voice, that only the prosecutor could hear, the phrase that some black people may have had in their heads after hearing Darden’s argument: “Nigger, please.” That was a streetwise way of telling Darden he crossed a line that, as a black man who also navigates such issues in my work, felt real as a heart attack — a striking surprise from such a mainstream cable TV show.

Steve Greene (@stevebruin), IndieWire

American Vandal Season 1 Ending

“American Vandal”

Tyler Golden/Netflix

May we always be so lucky to have an opportunity to talk about the embarrassment of riches that is “American Vandal.” Picking just one moment from an impeccable first season is difficult — not only are there so many to choose from, to get into what makes them significant would spoil some carefully crafted surprises. (There are a handful just from Peter and Sam parsing out the house party alone.) The fate of Mr. Kraz makes a masterful point about how a willingness to participate in true crime documentaries can effectively put blinders on subjects. Sam’s doc-within-a-doc, the 3D recreations, the online petitions, even putting “Mr. Baxter” in the opening credits all help weave a complex, delicate tone that elevated this from a simple spoof to something of real substance.

But, above all, “American Vandal” is designed to make people laugh. And through the web of intrigue, the subtle character work and sly commentary, one moment stands above all:

“I’m Dylan Maxwell, and this is Breadfacing.”

Tim Surette (@timsurette), TV.com

It has to be Robert Durst taking a leak while confessing to murder when he thought no one was listening, right? It doesn’t get more amazing than that.

Daniel Fienberg (@TheFienPrint), The Hollywood Reporter

Sarah Paulson

Sarah Paulson in “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson”

FX

Man, “true crime” can pretty much be anything, can’t it? Well, not “anything,” but it can include Marcia Clark first taking her new haircut into public and then into the courtroom on “People v. O.J. Simpson,” or Peter Hyams discussing O.J. Simpson’s acting in “O.J.: Made in America” or even things that have nothing to do with O.J. Simpson! I think the category gets confusing when you start being able to include the Berlinger & Sinofsky “Paradise Lost” films and “Mindhunter” and “American Vandal” in the same category, so I’m just gonna keep this simple: My favorite moment from a true crime series is the hot mic conclusion of “The Jinx.” It’s one of the great, “Wait. Holy s***. Did that actually happen?!?” moments in TV history. Killed them all, of course.

Kaitlin Thomas (@thekaitling), TVGuide.com

I don’t watch much in the way of true crime, but the Netflix spoof “American Vandal” had me at “Who drew the dicks?” Yes, I admit I was initially interested because of the show’s sophomoric humor, but when watching the series in action, it became clear “American Vandal” was also more than just spectacularly executed dick jokes. It was incredibly funny and clever, offering up a perfectly timed satirical take on the drama and stakes of the true crime genre in ways I never could have anticipated. It did this while also revealing itself to be one of the best shows about high school in years. For this reason, it’s hard to pick a single moment as my favorite, but the fifth episode, titled “Premature Theories,” covered the rise of the documentary in the media and captured the now familiar fervor that happens any time something becomes wildly popular among the masses. That self-aware episode was the moment I realized “American Vandal” might have just been an excuse to draw a lot of dicks and/or tell dick jokes, but it was one of the smartest examples of its kind I’d ever come across.

Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti), Vox

Alias Grace

“Alias Grace”

CBC/Netflix

I’m limiting myself to true crime series based on crimes that really happened, and I briefly thought about limiting myself to documentaries, so hard-core am I. And I thought long and hard about many moments from “O.J.: Made in America,” before I felt unable to narrow it down to just one, short of just saying “the entire final installment,” which sort of defeats the purposes of what you’re going for. And much as I love “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” that felt like something everybody else will have already picked. That’s how I landed on Netflix’s flawed but beautiful “Alias Grace,” which is true crime in the sense that the crime in it really happened and… not a lot else. (It’s based on a novel by Margaret Atwood, who had to do a fair share of extrapolating from the historical record.) But I love the way the series loops and swirls around its central crime from essentially minute one, so that by the time it finally arrives late in the series, you’re well and truly prepared for what’s about to happen. There’s something haunting and beautiful about the way the miniseries (and novel) use the crime as a kind of microcosm of an unjust society, and at a certain point, it feels like the only honest response to the world the characters inhabit.

Allison Keene (@KeeneTV), Collider

For me it may always be that final episode of “The Jinx,” watching Robert Durst seemingly admit to the murders he was suspected of with his hot mic “killed ’em all, of course” quote. I found Andrew Jarecki’s docuseries riveting throughout, but that moment made me actually leap up out of my chair and point at the TV. “What did he just say?! Rewind it!” I was watching it with friends, and felt like we had all just gone through something significant together. We were watching television that was billed as entertainment but had real-world implications, as Durst was later charged thanks to new evidence uncovered by the filmmakers to whom he had granted unprecedented access. It was chilling and unforgettable.

April Neale (@aprilmac), Monsters & Critics

Robert Durst in The Jinx

The HBO docuseries “The Jinx.” The cat and mouse docuseries where director Andrew Jarecki was actually aiding law enforcement in building a case against heir Robert Durst, long suspected of murder. It was his final interview with Durst where Jarecki’s intentions were suddenly crystal clear to Durst, and this made for an electric TV moment.

The reenactments, the courting of Durst to be interviewed, the withholding information to create even more suspenseful gotcha moments with Durst, and the hot mic gaffe in the last episode were stitched together with brilliant editing and the laconic spare narration that Jarecki provided was like watching a slow-moving Amtrak wreck. It sucked you in.

Jarecki leads Durst in a discussion of the murder of Morris Black, it goes nowhere, then Jarecki and Durst break while the cameras and microphones continue to record the panic attack of Durst while in the bathroom.

That pesky handwritten note about Susan Berman’s “ cadaver” that Durst himself noted could have only been sent by a killer that was sent to the Beverly Hills Police compared and contrasted to the handwriting match and key “Beverley” typos in a letter he had sent to Berman’s address elicits a bizarre burp from Durst. Then the interview wrapped, as Durst headed to the bathroom with a hot mic still on. In there he talked out loud to himself saying things one would not expect an innocent person would say to themselves.

“There it is. You’re caught. You’re right, of course. But you can’t imagine. Arrest him. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

Regardless of Jarecki’s ethics or the methodology of how he got access to Durst and how he got him to open up and incriminate himself, this was intense True Crime TV.

Ben Travers (@BenTTravers), IndieWire

If I’m being honest, my favorite moment — not the best moment — from a true crime series isn’t Robert Durst whispering to himself in the bathroom or David Schwimmer saying “juice” in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” (or just, you know, his entire performance). It’s pretty much everything to do with Bunchy Carter (Gaius Charles) and Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) in “Aquarius,” starting with Carter’s arrest and running through every wisecrack Hodiak ever tossed his way.

“Aquarius” may not be as indisputably affecting as the aforementioned programs, which are indisputable landmarks of the genre, if not television overall, but the short-lived NBC drama provided a lot of fond memories. Duchovny was perfectly cast, the period details apropos but not overwhelming, and the story juicy enough to hold your interest and grounded enough to make you believe (most of) it actually happened. Carter, a Black Panther, brought up a lot of good points, too.

Really, though, to cut to the chase, my fondest part didn’t even make it into the show. It was a proposal that never came to be, perhaps because “Aquarius” didn’t live to see a Season 3. But the below photo — of a fake character in a story inspired by true events (namely, the Manson murders) — is my favorite moment from a true crime series, even if it happened off the air. Hodiak, keep punching those hippies.

Aquarius David Duchovny Porn Stache

Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*

A: “Counterpart” (three votes)

Other contenders: “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” (two votes); “The Alienist,” “Blue Planet II,” “The Magicians,” the Olympics, “One Day at a Time” (one vote each)

*In the case of streaming services that release full seasons at once, only include shows that have premiered in the last month.

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