The 9 Best True-Crime Series on Netflix

By
Photo: Netflix

If you type “true crime” into the Netflix search field, you’ll be presented with an astonishing collection of shows, many of them indistinguishable from one another. The offerings include Occult Crimes, Corrupt Crimes, Stalkers Who Kill, Nurses Who Kill, Killer Couples, Killer Kids, Killer in the Family, Inside the Mind of a Serial Killer, and Killer Women with Piers Morgan. How do you even begin to sort them apart? Are they all the same? And are any of them actually good?

We’re here to help. Hidden among the genre’s vast selection of bad reenactments, gleeful-sounding narrators, and disgusting, exploitative dreck, you’ll find quite a few worthwhile productions. Here are the best true-crime series currently available to watch on Netflix.

The Detectives

Not to be mistaken for the comedy series of the same name, this three-part BBC production explores the investigation of several sexual assaults in and around Manchester, including a case related to the Jimmy Savile scandal. The Detectives combines immediacy and intimacy with a helpful analytic distance, and it focuses on the emotional impact on the detectives (many of them female) as well as the sensitivity and trust required when trying to help rape victims find justice.

Making a Murderer

Netflix’s first breakout true-crime hit, Making a Murderer subsequently came under scrutiny for its filmmakers’ possible bias in creating the series, as well as for an unnecessarily generous edit that occasionally turns “unhurried” into “seriously, this is too slow.” It’s still a worthwhile story, though, especially in a moment when true-crime series look more and more like long-form serialized stories, and less like Cops. Its successes and its mistakes will be benchmarks for the genre for a long time.

Partners in Crime

Maybe you don’t want something in the vein of the newer style of long-form true crime. Maybe you’re looking for one of the classic series. If these are the sorts of shows you want to watch, I’m going to assume you already know about Forensic Files, a granddaddy of the genre. But did you know about Partners in Crime, a series that explores “Hong Kong’s most bizarre murder cases”? One of the show’s main investigators is Dr. Carl Leung, a man described as “a forensic dentist, sexologist, and funeral parlor director.” And the first episode is about a head found inside a Hello Kitty doll.

Killer in the Family

If you’re not looking for the sensational “killers!!!” type of true-crime series and you’ve already finished off Partners in Crime, Killer in the Family is one of the better options. Its lead investigator is Laura Richards, a criminal psychologist with significant experience at Scotland Yard, and her aim is not only to tell these stories, but to point to what she calls “early warning” signs for domestic crimes.

Cold Justice

Many of the true-crime offerings on Netflix are British productions, and many of the available American series are not great. There’s something appealing about Cold Justice, though. It’s a Dick Wolf production that follows a former prosecutor named Kelly Siegler and a team of co-investigators as they look into unsolved murders, often throughout the American South. As with most true-crime series, the underlying premise — that it takes a TV show to find some kind of justice — is deeply upsetting. And the crimes themselves are often scarily mundane. But Siegler brings compassion to her meetings with victims’ families, which keeps the show from haring off into pure luridness.

The Investigator: A British Crime Story

From the get-go, this four-episode limited series feels like a familiar entry in the new guard of true-crime productions. A single crime (a missing and presumed dead woman, inevitably), a focused investigator, new findings that only compound the old questions, twists and turns. Neither the style nor the filmmaking breaks new ground, but it also doesn’t swerve into the seedier corners of the genre. What distinguishes The Investigator is something you might consider a spoiler, so heads up: The end is a disaster, in a way that’s deeply frustrating. But it raises all kinds of questions about how much audience “satisfaction” papers over the deeper, inerasable issues of the genre: Why do we accept sensationalism and exploitation as the inevitable corollaries to our entertainment?

The Confession Tapes

The most recent entry in Netflix’s original true-crime productions, The Confession Tapes has a noteworthy new angle on a hoary subject: It focuses on the way detectives use manipulative, coercive strategies to induce confessions out of suspects, even when those confessions are likely false. It’s an answer of sorts to many of the questions raised in Making a Murderer, which explores the dubious confession of Brendan Dassey. The Confession Tapes isn’t a long-form series: Although one case takes up multiple episodes, there are multiple discrete stories, which is an important feature of the show. The resulting implication is that false confessions happen a lot. It’s the sort of true-crime series I suspect we’ll start to see more and more of, with less attention paid to the unknowable mind of the rare monster among us, and more awareness of the regular, unfair, and unjust imbalance inherent in some policing strategies.

Time: The Kalief Browder Story

Originally a debut on SpikeTV and produced by Jay-Z, Time is a different flavor of true crime than most other series on this list. There is no murder, no hidden paper trail, and no suddenly discovered witness. It is the rare true-crime series where the victim was able to explain exactly what happened to him, and to call for justice; the interviews with Browder are devastatingly raw. (Even more so because Browder committed suicide in 2015.) The series itself doesn’t expand much beyond earlier investigations about Browder’s life, but as yet another piece of culture that indicts the cruelty of a criminal system that could let this happen, Time is an invaluable production.

The Keepers

Far and away the strongest true-crime series on Netflix, and one of the best long-form true crime TV productions of recent years, this Netflix original combines several themes and ideas that are essential to the genre. There are sensational, horrific crimes. There are cover-ups. There is widespread corruption, police mismanagement, and deep, painful injustice. But The Keepers approaches its subjects with sensitivity and care, and is especially painstaking in its depiction of the many women who suffered abuse and dedicated their lives to finding truth. It hits a rare and unusual note between condemnation of the system for failing to support victims, and celebration of the people who stepped into investigative roles, while also wrestling with the huge network of people involved. It is the uncommon true-crime series that tries desperately to give voice to the victims, and it mostly succeeds.

And a few to avoid …

Many true-crime series fall into a category of pretty gross and otherwise unremarkable storytelling. (Think cheesy clips of reenacted knife-wielding hands and gleeful narrators who just cannot wait to tell you about the next gruesome twist.) To enumerate them all would be a nearly impossible task, but there are a few worth noting to make sure you avoid them.

Definitely steer clear of Killer Women With Piers Morgan. There are only two episodes, but they’re unusual in how little their host brings to the topic and how superficially they examine the crimes. I don’t know much about horrific murderers, Morgan tells the subject of his first episode, but you’re not what I was expecting. There’s no further explanation of what he means, and for an hour-long look at terrible crimes, you come away with little insight and not much more than a blanket shock of, “Well, this was bad.”

Likewise, avoid Under Arrest, a condensed version of the Canadian Cops rip-off series To Serve and Protect. Despite the Canadian accents, it’s still just police manhandling people in some of the lower moments of their lives, often with little compassion or care.

The 9 Best True-Crime Series on Netflix