As writers, we spend a lot of time thinking great thoughts, perusing intellectual tomes and having deep insightful conversation with like-minded artists.
Let’s face it, this time of year, with the sleet hitting the windows and another work week rearing it’s ugly and unrelenting head, there’s nothing like lying in a stupor on the sofa at night with a gallon of Gifford’s chocolate ice cream and firing up Netflix.
Actually, that’s a lot of nights for me. I’m not going to lie. But in the spirit of the Oscars, which seemed too much work to watch, since I don’t have cable — yes, I know I could’ve streamed them! Aren’t you listening? Too much work! — I’m gleaning some gems for my own little celebration of good films.
These days, I pretty much only watch true crime (and when I can get the energy to read, read true crime). If I can get the energy, I may post a blog some time about why, but that doesn’t matter for this post.
A lot of the true crime on TV is crap. Total drek.
But some of it isn’t.
Here, in no particular order, are the best true crime shows I’ve watched on Netflix in the past couple months. In a shocking twist! (that’s a line from most drekkier true crime shows), all of them are ones I resisted watching, but was glad I did.
THE TED BUNDY TAPES
I didn’t want to watch this four-episode series because, first of all, I didn’t expect to learn anything new. I was in my late teens when Bundy was arrested and convicted, and I read everything available at the time. Since then, I’ve read Ann Rule’s “The Stranger Beside Me,” at least three times, as well as several other books about Bundy, including the one by the two journalists at the center of this documentary. The two guys taped him for hours and hours and hours, and I also thought if it was just him going on in his manipulative and lying way about what he did, well… not interested.
But I ended up watching it anyway. While the center of the series is the recordings that the two journalists made in the years before Bundy was executed (spoiler!), the real story is the scope of his crimes and how it all unfolded. There is tons or archival footage and a solid lineup of cops and lawyers, for both sides, stretching across the country who, all these years later, reflect on what happened at the time.
It’s stunning when laid out across the four episodes and, even if you know all there is to know about Bundy, you won’t be able to look away or turn it off.
THE INNOCENT MAN
I resisted this six-part Netflix series because, first of all, the title is actually “John Grisham’s The Innocent Man,” and I’m not a fan. Or wasn’t. More on that later. I also had overdone it on docs about people who were convicted of crimes they didn’t commit and didn’t think I could take any more.
But I checked it out anyway, and glad I did. It’s not about one innocent man, but at least four across two murders in a small town in Oklahoma. As stunning as the Bundy doc is when you see the scope of his crimes laid out diagonally across America, this is equally stunning on the small scale of one town. The story that unfolds is mind-blowing malfeasance on the part of those entrusted to catch and prosecute the bad guys, and the too-frequent practice of building a case around the poor and mentally ill, while giving well-connected, more polished people a break. It may be the story of this town, but it can and does happen anywhere.
It’s all brought to life through gripping interview video of the four men who ended up being convicted for two separate murders.
The storytelling is great — don’t spend a lot of time wondering how it’s all going to come together. It does and it’s fantastic.
The show gets its name from the title of one of John Grisham’s books — the only one of the forty or so he’s written that’s nonfiction. (Forty! Rub it in, John). But the story is about much more, and he’s not an intrusion, just one of the many good sources who have something to say.
I wasn’t interested in watching this because it was about something I have little interest in — very expensive wine and the people who pay big money for it. Give me a $6.99 bottle of that vino verde in the blue bottle with the twist-off cap from Hannaford and I’m happy.
But what it’s actually about is a young man who conned people with way too much money and too much time on their hands.
The thing I like about this — aside from the fact hoax stories always interest me — is the variety of characters, like the vineyard owner from Burgundy who crosses the globe to find out who’s faking his wine. The only-in-California bros who are so desperate to be big wine players that they still can’t admit they’ve been conned are great. And I hate to admit it, but I actually almost like Bill Koch a little bit in this, though nothing says a guy’s got too much money more than a bathroom ceiling made of wine corks and a wine cellar that’s bigger and more energy efficient than my house.
This is a multi-layered documentary that hits the finish line at about 90 minutes, but makes every minute count.
I’ve watched a lot of docs in the past year. These three are among the best, though there are others as good or close. This is just a sampling of what’s there if you find yourself taking a break from all the intellectual pursuits.
You never know, they just might spur you to think some great thoughts in spite of yourself.