True-crime stories never really go out of style, and the genre has been especially booming as of late. The O. J. Simpson trial spawned not one but two massively acclaimed TV series; Serial got America into podcasts; HBO made mincemeat of Robert Durst with The Jinx; and Netflix gave the Amanda Knox murder the glossy doc treatment, then found even more success with the highly addictive Making a Murderer. Whatever the video equivalent of a page-turner might be, filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi found it in the sad tale of Steven Avery, wrongfully imprisoned for a good chunk of his life due to police coercion. (Or was he?!)
As the title suggests, “Making Dennis Reynolds a Murderer” focuses its parody on the Netflix series, and a passing familiarity with the cast of characters greatly enhances a viewer’s appreciation of the half-hour. Those who aren’t amused solely by the Sunny-fication of the true-crime format, however, will find a lackluster episode light on jokes that leans a little too hard on familiar beats. It seems like forever ago that Dennis’s willingness to reveal his cold-blooded, calculating seduction technique felt shocking; we’ve sunk so far that the suggestion that he may have taken another human life now feels like beating a dead horse. Or, in this case, beating a dead cat-woman.
Dennis’ ex-wife and series regular Maureen Ponderosa — a.k.a. Bastet, feline Egyptian god-queen — has been found mangled and dead. Dennis instantly emerges as the primary suspect, and not just because he’s got a lot of money tied up in Maureen’s alimony and her stomach-churning “reverse-nipplectomy” surgical procedure. Most of the episode’s gags come from the fact that Sunny has gradually exaggerated Dennis’s mannerisms to the point where his behavioral profile pretty much fits that of a remorseless, sociopathic killer. He’s a cool customer before the confessional interview camera, maintaining an off-putting facade of affable normalcy, and readily offering extraneous details to help the police along with their investigation. But beneath his polite veneer beats the heart … dramatic pause … of a serial crow murderer.
The revelation that Dennis tortured and murdered an innocent crow as a young boy alerts the presumed “documentarians” that there’s a story here, just as little breakthroughs in true-crime accounts yank on one thread to unravel an entire plot. Acting-wise, Glenn Howerton has done most of the heavy lifting this season, and “Making Dennis Reynolds a Murderer” is no different. He fully leans into the archetype of the collected psycho, pushing the stock character to delirious extremes by engaging in a two-hour staring contest with himself. Cracks start to form in his exterior, as they must, and he very nearly outs himself. “I killed them all, of course,” would be a punchline if it came out of his mouth.
Everyone and everything else revolves around him. Dee, Frank, Mac, and Charlie all appear as character witnesses to corroborate or disprove Dennis’s narrative, and each is less helpful than the last. As ever, Dee’s got her sights set on stardom, appearing as Maureen in the dramatized reenactment sequences until a flea collar sears her skin like a lightsaber. Apart from discrediting Dee’s testimony, Frank spends most of his time incriminating himself with unsavory talk about the various soups he’d make from cats, children, hands, feet, whatever. Charlie and Mac each get one real scene apiece, and though Mac gets the money line about not understanding how Mystery Science Theater 3000 works, their reduced presence makes the episode feel thinner overall. At the cost of hewing faithful to the source of their parody, the script sequesters the characters in their own spaces and robs them of the group dynamic — the show’s foundation and most appealing aspect.
The writers’ choice to spoof the true-crime genre and Making a Murderer would seem to imply some affection for those things, but as the final scenes of the episode make clear, this is not so. As the scope pulls back to reveal that the episode has been “directed” by Mac and Dennis as the first part of a protracted documentary series, they conclude with some pointed potshots at the genre itself. Mac explains, “It’s like eating a bag of chips: It’s never gonna make you full, and at the end it makes you sick, but you’re gonna come back for more.” They fleetingly knock the willful concealment of information for the sake of drama, and the use of resolution-free endings to keep audiences on the hook. Of course, both are perfectly valid criticisms of documentary ethics, a debate that rages in some of the tighter circles of cinephiles. If only the episode had offered more of that deconstruction as it went through its sordid paces, there’d be more to appreciate than Dennis’s descent into broad madness. It’s easy enough to ape the look of Making a Murderer, but a good parody should crack it open and poke at the mechanisms that make it work, too.
• One of the clips of interstitial pseudo-news footage features actor Jay Jackson, who uses an awfully familiar cadence while delivering his strangely phrased report.
• Best line of the episode is a real barn burner this week. Maureen’s death elicits the twin gems of “I guess … she wanted more nipples?” and “You ever seen a grown woman take a dump in a sandbox?” Mac’s utter disbelief that Mike Myers could have portrayed both Austin Powers and Fat Bastard is so perfectly expressed with, “Multiple characters in the same movie? What is he, a wizard?” But of course, the title remains with Frank yet again, always so cavalier about what a morally bankrupt person he is. As he hustles out of the building to flee a tense interview in a cab, he informs his driver, “I’m running away from an interview because I just got busted saying a lot of illegal stuff I definitely did.”
• Mac and Dennis say they enjoy tooling on the film Operation: Dumbo Drop, a 1995 comedy in which Ray Liotta and Danny Glover attempt to smuggle an elephant through an active combat zone during the American occupation of Vietnam. It is, to put it charitably, not great.