Killing Fields and the Discomfit of True-Crime TV

Photo: Discover Channel

Discovery Channel's new true-crime series Killing Fields follows an actual ongoing criminal investigation. The network is calling this "real time," which is not quite accurate, but let's grant that the turnaround is brief and the case itself is still unfolding. That's a genuinely unusual format — outside of, you know, the news — and in such crowded TV times as these, who could begrudge a gimmick? Except Killing Fields is doing what so many other shows in the last ten years seem to be doing, and to its severe detriment: taking a compelling idea and turning it into another damn cop show.

Of all the stories out there, all the investigators, all the unsolved crimes, executive producers Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson have brought us the one that is maybe the most trope-filled of them all:

A retired detective who wants one last shot to close a cold case that's haunted him for the last 20 years teams up with a muscular but perhaps hotheaded young partner whose own painful past motivates but also tortures him; our retiree is old-fashioned, perturbed by the younger generation's affection for time-wasting technologies, but even he has to admit that advances in forensic science could be the key to solving the case this time around. And, hey, remember that serial killer who was around back then? He's in prison now, but maybe he was involved somehow? Maybe not. But you know what was involved for sure? The ominous, evidence-destroying swamps here outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Just ask any of these interesting witnesses, informants, and various locals, like the woman who'll artfully describe the differences between the scents of decaying human bodies and decaying animals. It's hard for our graying detective, you see — because of how much he relates to this victim. He, too, has been lonely. He just wants to give her mother closure. Ponder that as you watch B-roll of the fecund but spooky swamplands. People are innocent until proven guilty, says the text on the screen.

The show indulges in the worst vices of a variety of genres, from the bizarre proclamations we'd generally expect from, oh, True Detective's true detectives, and the cheesy dun-dun-duuuun music you get from crapola newsmagazine murder shows. There's the strained "dialogue" we see on the first seasons of situational reality shows, where people aren't comfortable yet repeating things for the camera.

Our main detective is Rodie Sanchez, who decides to come out of retirement because of the murder of Eugenie Boisfontaine, who was killed in 1997. In the first two episodes of the show, it's not clear why the case went cold or what investigative strategies were previously exhausted. Sanchez, in one of his many talking-head soliloquies, tells us that Boisfontaine was divorced, and that he has been married six times, so he gets it. She was probably lonely, he says, though it's not clear what he's basing that on. "The only person that showed her sympathy or kindness ... I think was the one that killed her." If he has a reason for thinking that, it's never disclosed. In the immediate next scene, he says he has no idea if Boisfontaine was dating anyone at the time of her death — which seems like awfully significant information. Why wasn't that part of the investigation 20 years ago? No one explains this lapse. Sanchez is certainly larger than life, and one can understand the desire to make a show with him at the center, with his frost-white eyes and overintensity. But why this show?

There's plenty of true-crime television out there — most recently Making a Murderer, though the shows have very little in common — and the genre contains both high art and nasty garbage. We have entire cable networks dedicated to tabloid-oriented crime shows, network newsmagazine hours focused exclusively on tawdry, horrifying tales of murder and violence. Pretending murder doesn't exist is silly and prudish, and there's no point in denying that we all have a sense of human curiosity about depravity. But there's a strange thing happening with nonfiction programming right now. It has to contend with not just its own content but its competing format — reality TV — and with that comes a packagedness, a confounding irony that reality is synonymous with contrivance.

That's tolerable most of the time. This isn't TV court; people don't care that the Real Housewives wouldn't actually be putting on a charity fashion show without Bravo producing one, or that the people on Duck Dynasty are monstrously homophobic. They know the people on Top Model don't become top models. Even blogs, which once upon a time were this authentic-seeming antidote to the artificiality of other mass media, have trended toward staginess; life is not made of poised Instagram latte-scapes, but oh, that it were. If we all just wanted to watch actual, real life, we could just pull up a chair and stare out the window, or, I don't know, volunteer somewhere?

Killing Fields certainly didn't create this environment, but it does exist in it, albeit clumsily. Yes, these are real people, but so much of it feels phony. It adapts its moves from scripted dramas, reality television, and tabloid newsmagazine shows — genres that distance us from the immediacy of being a human being. Sometimes, in scripted dramas, this is in the pursuit of a grander truth; it's not inherently a bad thing to use context or framing or devices. But Killing Fields also is based on — is advertised on, sold on, the whole point of it is that it's a real-deal case that's legitimately currently being investigated, and it's still being filmed, and no one knows what the outcome will be. Someone real has actually been murdered, and that part isn't staged, and she had a real life, with real joys and real sorrows, and she has a real mother and a real brother, and she really did die. It's an uncomfortable tension, and on a show that has so much else to solve, it's one issue too many.