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Andrew Jarecki’s ‘The Jinx’ Is the New ‘Serial’

Andrew Jarecki's 'The Jinx' Is the New 'Serial'

Over the past five weeks, Andrew Jarecki’s “The Jinx” — a six-part series whose final episode airs on HBO Sunday night — has grown into a true-crime obsession of the kind not seen since NPR’s “Serial.” Stylistically echoing (and sometimes straight copying) Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line,” Jarecki dives into the curious case of Robert Durst, an eccentric Manhattan real-estate heir whom death seems to follow wherever he goes. First, as depicted in Jarecki’s fiction feature, “All Good Things,” there was the still-unsolved disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen, who vanished in 1982; the gangland-style execution of his friend, Susan Berman, in 2000; and the dismembered corpse of his neighbor, Morris Black, which washes up on the shores of Galveston, Texas in “The Jinx’s” first episode.

In Rolling Stone, Noel Murray runs down “Everything You Need to Know About ‘The Jinx,'” from the grisly details of the various murders to the cast of recurring characters and the issues that the series has explored thus far, including this observation on the confluence of its glossy style and its interrogation of class privilege:

Between the reenactments, the archival footage, and the insinuating, minimalist music score, the duo have created something with the look and feel of a snazzy procedural, but with all the actors playing themselves. In HBO terms, “The Jinx” is like a documentary version of “True Detective.”

Underneath that slickness and sophistication, however, lies a nuanced depiction of the protective bubble around the super-wealthy. The show suggests that Durst is out of jail today mostly due to lucky breaks and lack of evidence — but a big reason for the latter is that he’s been given the benefit of the doubt largely due to his social status. Not until Robert masqueraded as a nobody in Texas did he really get his comeuppance.

In The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum wrestles with the ethics of an investigation into real-life murders being packaged as twist-heavy entertainment, and then admits to falling under “The Jinx’s” spell: “It’s primarily a noir striptease, flashing revelations one by one—a method with proven appeal to viewers who like to feel both smart and titillated. Guilty as charged.”

Nussbaum also delves into the idea of documentaries as a “secondary appeals system”: “The Thin Blue Line” and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost” trilogy helped get (presumably) wrongfully convicted people out of jail; Amy Berg’s “Deliver Us From Evil” helped put a pedophile priest back behind bars. But when a documentary is driven by characters, it’s easy to be seduced by a figure as fascinating as Durst, even if that means potentially giving a platform to a triple murderer. 

Jarecki, who wears a goatee so sketchy that it might as well be another suspect, could easily seem like a questionable figure, given his slick ability to plug his films as studies in ambiguity (his others include “Capturing the Friedmans” and “Catfish,” which he produced). He’s a showman, for sure, but he wins our trust with a few wise choices, among them folding in enough material about two victims — Kathie and Susan Berman, an old friend of Durst’s, who was shot execution style in Los Angeles — that they become more than chalk outlines. Yet, perhaps inevitably, the most watchable participants are the bad apples.

At Grantland, Mark Harris sees “The Jinx,” like “Serial,” working against the idea of closure, although not in the same way. It’s not that Jarecki seems uncertain of Durst’s guilt, but he is pessimistic about the likelihood of facing justice for his (alleged) crimes. 

“The Jinx” and “Serial” are exciting because they are, for all the viewer-friendly filmmaking techniques of the first and the inquisitive public-radio affability of the second, fiercely committed to unease…. The tension, and frustration, of “Serial” is that we can’t know the answer. With “The Jinx,” it’s different. I suspect that on Sunday, we’re going to hear a lot of Durst’s voice — which we now know is one part bland New York nasal honk and one part Something Is Really Wrong With This Person. He will talk, as he has so far, in tones of mild affability, mild irritation, or mild confusion, but everything he says will have that chillingly disembodied quality that has now become familiar. And although we may not get closer to the answers, we will probably be pressed right up against the questions: Is there anybody in there? What makes someone like this? Why would you do that? What were you thinking?

I’m holding back on judging “The Jinx” until Sunday’s finale, but thus far I’ve found Jarecki and HBO’s tactics deeply troubling. A murder investigation should not be treated as a PR stunt, with news articles about the case timed for maximum promotional impact. As with “Capturing the Friedmans,” Jarecki seems willfully blind to the ethical implications of his stylistic choices: He’s a showman first, a documentarian second. We’ll see how it plays out on Sunday, but it’s doubtful there’s anything Jarecki can do to wash away the sour aftertaste.

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