On Sunday night, while the makers of The People v. O.J. Simpson were collecting multiple Emmys for their thoughtful reexamination of one of the most famous murder cases in American history, CBS was airing the first installment in its two-part series about another killing that caused a 1990s media circus: the death of 6-year-old Colorado beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey.
If you tuned in to that CBS “investigation” — and there’s a good chance you may have since roughly 10.4 million Americans watched — then you followed along as a select team of former FBI agents, forensic pathologists, behavioral analysts, and other criminal experts hashed over evidence from the famously unsolved post-Christmas-morning murder. You also presumably witnessed one of the more ghoulish, disgusting things to recently happen on television.
As part of their attempt to determine whether Ramsey’s head trauma may have been caused by the impact of a flashlight, possibly wielded by her then-10-year-old brother Burke, investigators decided to re-create that hypothetical blow, using a skull covered with pigskin and a blonde wig as the target. Then Jim Clemente, a retired FBI profiler and one of the two lead investigators, announced: “We thought it would be good if we brought in a child who was about 10 years old, to do the demonstration with him.” Astonishingly, a young boy entered the room and hit that fake JonBenét head hard, with a flashlight like the one found in the Ramseys’ kitchen. The moment was flabbergastingly tasteless, disrespectful to both the dead and the living, and, like so much of this miniseries, which concluded Monday night, ultimately pointless. The fact that the pseudo-attack left an indentation similar to the one on Ramsey’s actual skull proves next to nothing about the crime. The real purpose of that “demonstration” was pure shock value.
There’s certainly an element of the lurid in any crime series, even the very best ones. But in its attempt to ride the wave of buzz and awards generated by The Jinx, Making a Murderer, and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey sunk to a new low for this genre and flat-out ignored the qualities that made those aforementioned shows so excellent. With more of these kinds of true-crime sagas coming to television, I worry that this signals a tipping point for the genre that, if left unchecked, could send it careening toward the totally grotesque.
The current chapter in our country’s long obsession with true crime began in late 2014 with the popularity of Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast. But on TV it was kickstarted, with a bang and several burps, by The Jinx, the 2015 docuseries that focused on alleged killer Robert Durst. That HBO six-parter captured national attention because it actually resulted in Durst’s arrest the night before the final episode, a bit of suspect-apprehension synchronicity that, along with the central subject’s chilling, mumbled confession in the finale, made the show a talker. But The Jinx only became a talker because director Andrew Jarecki and his team managed to gain direct access to the accused, spoke to numerous people who knew him or had investigated him, and did extensive research. Even under those circumstances, though, some still rightly questioned how ethical and transparent Jarecki had been about the backstory behind the series.
Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos spent years working on Making a Murderer, the binge-watchable docuseries about Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man exonerated of murder charges only to face a new set of them in the death of photographer Teresa Halbach, before it arrived on Netflix. Just as Jarecki had done on The Jinx and Koenig had done on Serial, Ricciardi and Demos also moved the case forward; in part because of Making a Murderer, Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was also charged in Halbach’s murder, recently had his conviction overturned by a judge, though that decision has since been appealed. Both The Jinx and Making a Murderer also used the TV murder-mystery construct as a means to explore broader social issues, most notably the flaws in our legal system and the impact that wealth and status have on one’s ability to work that system. Ricciardi and Demos dealt with charges that their final analysis was biased, but there was no question they made an effort to do their homework.
Unlike the Avery-Dassey story, which many may not have been familiar with before watching Making a Murderer, everybody knows about O.J. Simpson. When two TV events promised this year to reinvigorate the nation’s fixation on the former football star and the trial that found him not guilty of killing Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, most were prepared for true crime to ooze back into the exploitative, tabloid TV sewer where many pre-Jinx true crime shows had often dwelled.
But using different storytelling approaches, both FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson — unlike these other shows, a scripted series based on a real crime as opposed to a documentary — and ESPN’s subsequent, sweeping O.J.: Made in America allowed us to see the O.J. case with entirely fresh eyes and to more fully grasp its connection to our nation’s complicated history regarding racism, police brutality, sexism, and celebrity worship. Did both shows force us to revisit some of the uglier, more brutal details related to Brown’s and Goldman’s killings? Yes. But the creators behind The People v. O.J. and Ezra Edelman, director of O.J.: Made in America, approached their subject matter with an integrity that made it clear there were substantive reasons for once again digging out that ill-fitting glove.
It’s not surprising that the successes of all these shows prompted major networks — who have been cranking out episodes of Dateline, 48 Hours, and Law & Order for decades — to mark their territory by planning ripped-from-retro-headlines fare of their own. The day after The People v. O.J. ended, NBC announced its plans to make a Dick Wolf–produced scripted anthology series that would initially focus on the Menendez brothers trial; the day after that, CBS said it would proceed with a docu-look at the JonBenét Ramsey case. This summer, TNT green-lit a miniseries about the 2001 death of Chandra Levy, while Netflix has given the go-ahead to a second season of Making a Murderer (launch date TBD) and later this month will start streaming the original documentary film Amanda Knox, a project in the works before the current true-crime-TV boom began.
The CBS JonBenét series is the first of these to make it to air, and did so amid a flurry of other Ramsey-related shows clamoring to capitalize on the upcoming 20th anniversary of the tiara-wearing child’s murder. Even though it’s clearly trying to jump on the true-crime bandwagon, The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey fails to grasp what distinguished the shows that put that bandwagon in drive. As produced by Tom Forman (48 Hours), its two parts, mercifully cut down from an originally planned three, focus on a case that has already been dissected to the extreme. It also fails to put Ramsey’s murder and the subsequent media coverage of it into any kind of cultural context that speaks to its relevancy. Why does her death still matter? Why do we still care about it? The show doesn’t even bother to ask.
With the promise that its new, from-scratch investigation will finally determine who killed JonBenét Ramsey, this miniest of miniseries aims to do what The Jinx did: catch the “real” killer and, like The Jinx and Making a Murderer, open a new chapter in a long-standing mystery. But what the investigators mostly do during the course of The Case is pore over old evidence in ways that make them look like grave robbers exhuming the corpse of a long-dead kindergartner.
During the course of The Case Of, the Ramseys’ house is rebuilt on a soundstage, complete with a white blanket to signify exactly where, in this fake set of a basement, the child’s body would have been found. The 911 calls made by mother Patsy Ramsey, who died in 2006, are enhanced and slowed down, enabling the documentary's investigators to say they can hear Patsy, father John, and son Burke making statements after they believe the line has been disconnected, even though it is truly impossible to determine what’s been said or who is saying it.
To disprove the theory that an intruder broke into the house and killed Ramsey after using a stun gun on her, a poor cop is tased, twice, as part of another “scientifically necessary” demonstration. Old footage of young Burke speaking with detectives in the aftermath of the crime is interpreted as evidence that he’s hiding something and not appropriately grieving. That footage, as well as other giant leaps of logic, are ultimately used to support the show’s conclusion: that Burke Ramsey killed his sister, even though that is clearly just another theory and not a proven fact. If The Jinx blurred some ethical lines, this series erases them completely. (The investigators do spend a lot of justified time on the lengthy ransom note left at the crime scene, which still serves as the most damning evidence that the Ramseys were engaged in some sort of cover-up. But no truly fresh conclusions about that note are drawn.)
In its eagerness to get on the air and capitalize on a trend, The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey ignores most of the things that made true crime a trend in the first place: rigorous reporting, clear, journalistic storytelling, and an appreciation for placing a subject in deeper cultural context. If the folks at NBC, TNT, Netflix, and other networks continue with their plans for more shows of this type, let’s hope they see this JonBenét Ramsey disgrace as an example of what not to do instead of a template for repeated ratings success.
Actually, that’s the one bit of good news: While more than 10 million people reportedly tuned in to night one of The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey, the audience for Monday’s night’s finale dropped to an estimated 8.2 million. That means that roughly 2 million Americans watched those tawdry first couple of hours and reached the conclusion that true crime needs to maintain, at long last, some sense of decency.