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What’s the strange fascination we have with true crime on TV? It usually has the satisfying components of a good story – a hero, a victim, a villain and (sometimes) a resolution. For those many unsolved mysteries, there’s the ego massage that comes with trying to figure out the problem ourselves.
Whether we stay glued to the screen for the storytelling or for the drama, the genre has only grown in popularity in recent years, fed perhaps by the explosion in true crime podcasts that followed the launch of its first real blockbuster, Serial, in 2014. The real crime, then, would be missing the countless carefully curated specials and docuseries that now take on the endless well of weird and warped crime from every angle imaginable.
Here’s our pick of the year’s true crime documentaries.
Anni: The Honeymoon Murder
Duration: 3h 15m
The story of Bristol millionaire Shrien Dewani and his wife Anni Dewani, 28, who found themselves slightly out of Cape Town on their honeymoon in 2010, just weeks after their wedding. That night Anni was murdered in a taxi and her husband accused of orchestrating the crime – but found not guilty. Although Shrien, now 41, has been cleared of all charges, years later Anni’s family is left with questions as to what really happened that night. This rehashing of events explores not just the unsolved crime but unresolved feelings of bereavement and doubt. This isn’t the first series to tackle this story, but Discovery+ shows one of the offender’s accounts of Anni’s death and his apparent regret.
Memories of a Murderer – The Nilsen Tapes
Duration: 1h 25m
From the makers of the wildly popular Don’t F**k With Cats, this true crime story is narrated by the real voice of one of Britain’s most notorious murderers, Dennis Nilsen. Audio clips have been extracted from more than 250 hours of recordings Nilsen made, presumably in the hope of shaping his own story: “I was an inwardly troubled boy and nobody seemed to notice.”
At times chillingly poetic and at others clearly delusional, Nilsen recalls how he hunted his targets – mostly young, gay men like himself – whose names he didn’t even remember. Whatever you think about the moral choice of the filmmakers to broadcast a set of tapes clearly made for precisely that purpose by a manipulative and narcissistic murderer, this is a fascinating look at the former civil servant and the justice sought for his victims. If you find it queasy though, David Tennant’s 2020 portrayal of Nilsen in the drama Des may be more up your street.
Duration: 2h 25m
This four-episode series follows detectives in three different murder cases across the US and their relentless work to catch killers years after the fact. It focuses on the police staff who investigated each case and their commitment to justice for the victims. You can practically smell the coffee and cigarettes in original footage from the precincts showing the officers assigned to each case, as the nostalgic clips take you back to the scene of the crime. It’s a small but effective portrayal of police work at its best. The satisfaction of a clear-cut conclusion alone is enough to binge this in a day.
Social Media Murders
This up to the minute series comprises individual films all linked by the role of social media in the real-life murders of three young people. “The Murder of Grace Millane”, “The Murder of Molly McLaren” and “The Murder of Alex Rodda” are not intended for a sensitive audience due to the violent nature of these detailed attacks. Terrifying as it is, this series highlights the risky reality of online relationships and trust across the internet.
Duration: 3h 5m
A dramatisation of the ‘honeytrap’ operation to catch the murderer of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common in 1992. Niamh Algar plays undercover officer “Lizzie James”, who takes the role of the bait. This short drama takes a frank look at female sexuality and exploitation at the heart of a national institution. Not to be judged by the stagnant opening of the pilot, Algar straddles victim and hero convincingly over four episodes and her performance makes this one of the unmissable shows of the year.
The Boneyard: The Horrible Story of Leonard Lake
Real Stories (YouTube)
Duration: 1h 32m
Leonard Lake and his accomplice Charles Ng raped, tortured and murdered up to an estimated 25 victims in their killing spree in the 1980s California. This old-school style documentary covers the story from start to finish and is free to watch on the Real Stories YouTube channel, providing an informative look into the American justice system. The comments from novice sleuths below the documentary also have a fascination all their own.
Sophie: A Murder in West Cork
Duration: 1h 5m
French socialite Sophie Toscan du Plantier was killed just a few days before Christmas 1996 in West Cork, Ireland – the first recorded murder to occur there. This documentary, made with the help of Sophie’s family, dedicates itself to accurately painting the picture of grief experienced by those who suffered her loss. With only one suspect, investigative journalist Ian Bailey, who was never prosecuted, the three-episode docuseries narrows the narrative to a single telling of events. Love and loss summarise this artful recounting.
Murder Among the Mormons
Duration: 2h 40m
“The only way to keep a secret between two people is to kill one of them” – the trailer for this three-episode series opens with this old adage that I don’t remember reading in any religious text. This exposé of church scandal, forged documents, lots of money and, of course, murder, shows the lengths to which some will go to convince you of their version of events. A truly unpredictable series of transgressions – even for the more experienced true crime addicts.
Operation Varsity Blues
Duration: 1h 40m
What better way to wind down than filling yourself with justified outrage? The largest college admissions scandal in history doesn’t need any more drama, but this dramatisation brings the right level of intrigue to an already bold crime. This film shows how wealthy parents including Lori Laughlin (“Full House”) and Felicity Huffman (“Desperate Housewives”) bribed their children’s way into American universities and faced the consequences.
William Singer, the former basketball coach who jumped through existing loopholes for the ultra-rich to help their children get into some of America’s top colleges is the focus here, played by Matthew Modine in re-enactments of FBI wire-tapped audio.
Duration: 3h 5m
Think less murder, more faux-feminist empowerment and million-dollar fraud. Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason’s true crime documentary LuLaRich follows Mark and DeAnne Stidham and the rise of their Mormon Multi-Level Marketing clothing business (cough, pyramid scheme) LuLaRoe, built off the backs of lonely mothers and women who are now suing the company to claim back their time, money and friendships - LuLaRich shares their stories. A refreshing break from the typical true crime subject of narcissistic serial killers, this documentary exposes the corruption of the worst type of girlboss, affecting those women who need the most uplifting.
Why Did You Kill Me?
Duration: 1h 23m
Another online fiasco – Why Did You Kill Me follows Belinda Lane’s amateur undercover investigation through MySpace to discover her 24-year-old daughter Crystal Theobald’s murderer. Due to her mistrust of law enforcement and the family’s previous criminal involvement it becomes clear that Belinda may actually stand in the way of the truth. The result is a complicated turn of events that, although at times confusing, shows the human side of people who make mistakes. The nostalgic graphics of dated social media immerse the viewer in the virtual world Lane joins to find her own version of justice.
Finding Kendrick Johnson
Duration: 1h 42m
The 2013 death of Georgia teen Kendrick Johnson, who was found dead and rolled up in a mat in his high school gym, remains unsolved to this day. Looking into the gross injustice of his death, ruled first as an accident, Kendrick’s family hired their own medical examiner who found evidence of much worse.
Unfortunately there is no originality to this heart-breaking tale of a black child’s death that was not duly investigated, as it’s one we have heard many times before - but this is what makes it all the more important for it to be called to our attention.
Duration: 3 parts
This series, although set to start in January 2022, is a must-have on your to-watch list for the new year. Covering the story of the four men killed by Stephen Port - Anthony Walgate, Gabriel Kovari, Daniel Whitworth and Jack Taylor - this drama follows the victims’ families and friends who worked tirelessly to find the killer themselves. With the recent inquest into the murders the story is still raw. It’s got big names too, including Stephen Merchant, Sheridan Smith, Jaime Winstone and Stephanie Hyam.