All week long, Vulture is exploring the many ways true crime has become one of the most dominant genres in popular culture. This piece, originally published on October 6, 2017, has been updated and expanded for our weeklong series.
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 and movies currently available to watch on Netflix.
The original, genre-defining true-crime series The Staircase is now on Netflix, including several new episodes that follow up on the case after the show’s initial run. It’s genre-defining for a reason: Michael Peterson is a magnetic personality at the center of the series, alternately exasperated and believable and off-puttingly cold. The Staircase also takes advantage of being early to the televised boom of true crime. Its subjects don’t yet have much sense of how being on camera will change their lives, and they’re unguarded and unselfconscious in a way few true-crime subjects could be now. And like the best true crime, it also begins to fold in on itself as coverage of the case on cable news leaks into the events of the trial. Come for the vérité approach to trial filming, stay for the owl theory of the crime.
Wild, Wild Country
One of the best, most captivating true-crime productions to date, Wild, Wild Country is a welcome departure from the familiar “a white woman is dead” premise taken by so many murder mysteries. It’s a cult story, following the Rajneeshee community that arrived in Oregon in the late ’80s and proceeded to wrest political control from the local residents. Eventually the story escalates into extremely bizarre, legitimately harmful events (including a mass food poisoning), but for most of the series, Wild, Wild Country’s appeal lies in how even-handed it is, and how equally sympathetic and condemnatory it is to all sides of its story.
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. The series is about a missing young woman, who was pretty obviously killed to cover up rampant sexual abuse at her Catholic school. But the figures who drive its investigation are unusual. They’re older retired women, who’ve dedicated their lives to trying to piece together a story the Catholic church has sought to cover up, and police have abandoned. 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.
Made by the grandfather of the true-crime genre, Errol Morris, Wormwood is a docuseries that explores the possibility that the CIA tested psychotropic drugs on its own employees, and then covered it up when the testing went bad. What sets Wormwood apart is its unusual narrative design and its singular focus on the memories of one man who believes his father was murdered. The way Wormwood goes about unspooling and piecing together its facts is a mirror of its subject’s own obsession with therapy, memory, and collage, and it weaves together one-on-one interviews with dreamlike crime re-creations (starring Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker).
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.
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist
Evil Genius doesn’t have quite the same filmmaking flair or narrative depth as something like The Staircase’s fly-on-the-wall access or Making a Murderer’s hypnotic rhythms. What it does have is a truly bizarre story about one of the strangest crimes I’ve ever seen explored in a true-crime framework. Many of the best examples of the genre are about widespread institutional failure, or the way social pressures have meant some stories get forgotten, or how some victims are ignored. Evil Genius is not about that; it’s a series about a truly unusual personality who may have orchestrated an unbelievably weird crime.
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.
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
Especially for fans of Making a Murderer, or for those whose interest in true crime is strongly rooted in a desire to watch how institutional forces and police tactics are used to exert unjust influence on citizens, The Confession Tapes is for you. Unlike the other docuseries on this list, The Confession Tapes tells multiple separate stories about the way interrogation strategies coerce people into saying things they otherwise wouldn’t. And it’s a good thing that its stories are short, because it’s not the juicy, exploitative, personality-driven true-crime narrative that gets an audience all hopped up on specific details of a crime. It’s grinding and slow and patient, and also quite illuminating.
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-justice system that could let this happen, Time is an invaluable production.
If those series aren’t enough to scratch your true-crime itch, Netflix is also full of one-off or fully feature-length true-crime documentaries. Here are a few of the best:
Knox’s story is well-covered territory, but the documentary’s big get is Knox’s own participation in describing her experiences and explaining her actions.
A fantastic Errol Morris feature-length documentary about a former beauty-pageant winner who’s accused of kidnapping and raping a Mormon missionary. The key, as per his typical style, is Morris’s extensive interviews with the film’s subjects.
A documentary about the Kitty Genovese murder, The Witness deals with the events of the murder, but is mostly focused on the New York Times’ coverage of the crime after the fact, and the long-lasting effects for the Genovese family.
This is a very short and well-made film (40 minutes!), and it’s also a fantastically weird story. A man accused of murder realizes there’s a way to prove he couldn’t have done it, and it hinges on the fact that he was at a baseball game at the same time Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm was taping there.
The Thin Blue Line
If you haven’t seen the Ur-text for true crime as a genre, make sure to watch The Thin Blue Line, which is streaming on Netflix. If you’re worried that it’s going to feel out of date, the American Vandal team promised that Thin Blue Line is one of their biggest influences for both the first and second season.
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.