From 'The Ripper' to 'Night Stalker': True-crime docs that have caused controversy

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Night Stalker, The Tiger King, The Ripper have all faced criticism. (Netflix)
Night Stalker, The Tiger King, The Ripper have all faced criticism. (Netflix)

From Serial to The Keepers and Making a Murderer, the True Crime continues to captivate millions of viewers (and podcast listeners) worldwide.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when our interest in true crime began transforming into obsession but as streaming services have taken over, the genre has exploded. Netflix now churns out documentaries at a seriously impressive pace leaving other creators and broadcasters racing to keep up.

The resulting docs explore everything from the lives of the world’s most infamous killers to lesser-known yet intriguing small town stories. But while many true crime offerings have proved riveting and eye-opening (ESPN’s 2016 doc series OJ: Made In America even won an Oscar), numerous recent series have missed the mark and caused controversy for various reasons.

Watch: 'Tiger King' star Joe Exotic says he was 'too gay' to get a pardon from Trump

Read more: Making A Murderer Detective Sues Netflix for Defamation

Here are five recent releases that have been hotly debated among fans and critics alike…

Night Stalker

One of Netflix’s most recent releases, Night Stalker retells the terrifying crimes committed by murderer and rapist Richard Ramirez in Los Angeles and San Francisco the 1980s.

Across its four episodes, the series goes into an incredible amount of detail – which is where the controversy stems from. In its no-holds barred exploration, Night Stalker features actual crime scene photos and blood splatters, many of which are played in slow motion.

Its director Tiller Russell has remained insistent that glamourising Ramirez – who doesn’t appear on camera until the final episode – was something he worked hard to avoid, but his aesthetic approach has led to criticism.

“The first three episodes conclude with '80s-style synthwave music and a neon purple title card that essentially hypes up the serial killer's persona,” notes ScreenRant.

The Ripper

Released in November last year, The Ripper is one of many true crime documentaries which reveals its failings in its title. The series focuses on Peter Sutcliffe who murdered at least 13 women and attacked a further 10 between 1969 and 1980.

The press dubbed Sutcliffe “the Yorkshire ripper” but the families of his victims have frequently shared their dislike of the phrase and Netflix’s decision to use it as the title soon sparked an outcry from many of them.

In a joint statement, nine of the families said: “The moniker ‘the Yorkshire Ripper’ has traumatised us and our families for the past four decades.

"It glorifies the brutal violence of Peter Sutcliffe, and grants him a celebrity status that he does not deserve."

In response, Netflix insisted that the series "has at its heart the stories of the women who died" and critics agreed that it attempted to do this, though argued it didn’t succeed. “Beyond pandering to a ghoulish fascination with Sutcliffe, there really is little reason for it to exist,” read the Telegraph’s scathing review.

Tiger King

Tiger King has to be seen to be believed. (Netflix)
Tiger King has to be seen to be believed. (Netflix)

If Lockdown 1.0 was defined by any TV show then it’s this. Netflix’s eight-part exploration of the truly bonkers world of private zoos – which are still legal in the States – offered no shortage of twists, turn and outlandish characters.

Often funny, bizarre and incredibly quotable, Tiger King is frequently the subject of light-hearted discussion and jokes, but critics (and fans) have often tried to highlight that plenty of its content is seriously sinister. Exotic’s behaviour has numerous alarming consequences, there are scenes featuring abused animals and

Joe Exotic, who casts himself as the lead star, is often portrayed as a lovable eccentric while the fact (spoiler alert) he is now in jail after being convicted on charges including killing five tigers is glossed over.

Meanwhile, Exotic’s nemesis Carole Baskin has stated that she’s unhappy with Netflix’s portrayal of her story. The series acknowledges the targeted hate campaign Exotic launched against her but also hones in on an unfounded theory claiming she’s responsible for the disappearance of her former husband.

The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius

Paralympian athlete Oscar Pistorius, accused of the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp three years ago, arrives at the High Court in Pretoria, on July 6, 2016 for a hearing in his murder trail. Paralympian Oscar Pistorius will learn on July 6 how long he will spend in jail when a judge sentences him for murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp three years ago. Pistorius was freed from prison in the South African capital Pretoria last October after serving one year of a five-year term for culpable homicide -- the equivalent of manslaughter.  / AFP PHOTO / POOL / MARCO LONGARI (Photo by Xinhua/Sipa USA)
Paralympian athlete Oscar Pistorius in court in South Africa in July 2016 (Xinhua/Sipa USA)

The Trials Of Oscar Pistorius first drew criticism a month before its release, when a trailer for the four-part BBC series was debuted in October 2020. As the title suggests, the programme charts the story of former Paralympic champion Pistorious, who was convicted of murder after shooting his girlfriend Reeva Stenkamp four times in February 2013.

In the wake of Steenkamp’s murder, numerous media outlets were criticised for focusing on the sports star instead of his partner, whose life had been cruelly cut short. Unfortunately, the trailer made the same mistake and Steenkamp’s name was not said once in the clip.

The series itself, which was released in November, did little to repair the damage. “It was a meretricious trailer for a meretricious film,” wrote the Guardian’s Lucy Mangan, while the Independent labelled it “a jarring homage to the athlete”.

The Disappearance Of Madeleine McCann

Netflix’s decision to reexamine an open case which still looms large in the British consciousness naturally sparked both interest and outcry.

Madeleine’s parents, Gerry and Kate McCann, refused to take part and instead issued a statement denouncing the series.

“We did not see - and still do not see - how this programme will help the search for Madeleine and, particularly given there is an active police investigation, it could potentially hinder it,” they said. "Consequently, our views and preferences are not reflected in the programme.”

Nevertheless, Netflix persisted and released the four-parter in March 2019, on the 12th anniversary of the three-year-old’s disappearance. Upon it’s release though, the highly-anticipated doc proved to be something a damp squib as it simply recapped well-documented details and conspiracy theories that had already been debunked.

Watch: Netflix subscribers in focus ahead of earnings as platform plans to release new movie every week

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