True Crime TV Shows Force Us To Face Society’s Misdeeds — But Who Are They Really Helping?

It seems like every time you turn on the TV, there’s another fictionalisation of real-life events. This year alone, we’ve been privy to WeCrashed, The Girl from Plainville, Joe Vs. Carole, The Staircase and Gaslit, to name just a few.
Some of these shows are done well, particularly the ones that depict older events where the survivors — if they’re still around — have had time to grieve and heal before their stories became entertainment fodder for the masses. 
However, that’s not always the case. Speaking anonymously to Buzzfeed, a family member of Betty Gore — portrayed by Melanie Lynksey in the Hulu/Disney+ miniseries Candy that amplifies her acquitted murderer, Candy Montgomery (Jessica Biel) — says they weren’t consulted in the adaptation. (HBO Max also has its own miniseries in the works.)
And much has been made about Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s lack of involvement in the series Pam & Tommy, touted as "the greatest love story ever told"— a weak glamourisation of an abusive relationship that completely removed the agency of the aforementioned Anderson. She took to Instagram in the wake of the series to announce her own Netflix documentary, telling “the real story.” 
However even the critically acclaimed ones have drawn ire from the people and communities they depict.
"What stood out most to me… was not [Under the Banner of Heaven’s] aggressively negative portrayal of Mormonism," wrote journalist McKay Coppins in The Atlantic. "It was the fact that no one involved in the show felt compelled to check the customary boxes Hollywood creators have been trained to check in this era of inclusiveness and representation. [They] did not hire any practicing Mormons to write or consult on the show. Executives at FX did not put out a statement affirming that Mormons are a peaceful people. When Brenda Lafferty’s sister suggested in an interview that the show’s creators had exploited her story, there was no flood of outrage on social media or rush by the network to control the damage."
Others are still unfolding yet, seemingly in the time it takes for whichever streaming service has snapped up the rights to the next sensation du jour, there’s been a miniseries made out of them. For example, two of the buzzier shows this year depict the crimes of scammers who are still undergoing criminal proceedings: Inventing Anna, starring Julia Garner as German-Russian fraudster Anna Delvey/Sorokin, who is currently in ICE detention awaiting deportation, and The Dropout, about Theranos blood testing con artist Elizabeth Holmes (portrayed by Amanda Seyfriend in an Emmy-nominated role) who was found guilty on four counts of fraud and will be sentenced in October. 
Underbelly: Vanishing Act, depicts the life of con artist Melissa Caddick prior to her disappearance in late 2020 amidst an investigation by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.
Author and podcaster Sarah Steel is a survivor of Caddick’s crimes. She tells Refinery29 that Caddick is her partner’s cousin and therefore they believed they could trust Caddick with their modest investments.
"[We] are not nearly as impacted as so many of the other investors," says Steel. "I can't even imagine what it would be like to be someone depicted as a TV character, so I'm relieved our parts in this mess are too small for that."
Steel hasn’t been able to bring herself to watch Underbelly: Vanishing Act, but believes that there should be an ethical responsibility on the part of the creators of these shows, which she aims to combat in her own work.
“I have worked quite hard to make sure my own reporting is trauma-informed. I think that might be getting missed in some of this kind of coverage,” she says.
Similarly, writer Zoe Simmons lived through the horrific 2019-2020 Australian Black Summer bushfires and balks at the recent ABC anthology series Fires that dramatised her experience.
"I haven’t watched [Fires]," Simmons says. "[It’s] just too traumatic to watch. I watched my hometown burn and people I knew are dead, so it feels like a slap in the face when our stories haven’t been told, but fictional ones are."
Simmons says she "poured [her] heart out" in an interview for a fundraising concert that was cut from the final proceedings. 
"It was very hurtful to my community," she says. "It’s trauma porn that doesn’t help the people impacted by it."
Simmons is in the process of writing a narrative non-fiction book that will include these experiences, on the back of being commissioned by editors to produce op-eds about the bushfires at the time but says she hasn’t gained much traction with the topic in the years following. So it would appear that it’s not just the screen industry that is thirsty for trauma, but also print and online media.
This is nothing new: the true crime genre has been a sensation for decades (some would say centuries), but really picked up steam in the past ten years or so with society’s obsession with the “dead white girl” phenomenon seen everywhere from True Detective to the viral disappearance of white American teen Gabby Petito last year. Meanwhile, the deaths of Indigenous people in custody and intimate partner violence against non-white women barely rate a news story.
People have begun to sour to the girlbossification of true crime, paving the way for the influx of scammer series this year. 
“For many it became far more palatable to see people conned out of their money than mutilated,” writes Leila Latif about The Resort, a new Stan comedy that doesn’t fictionalise true crime but rather seeks to unpack our obsession with it, along with shows like Only Murders in the Building.
So, are there any benefits to the true story boom?
While Steel and Simmons couldn’t bring themselves to watch their trauma being rehashed on the screen, Joan (name changed to protect her privacy) says that watching last year’s underrated Netflix adaptation of Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid, in which she detailed her abuse and poverty as she struggled to provide a stable home for her young daughter, made her realise she was in an abusive relationship herself.
"It took ten years and only in the last year [since watching Maid] did I realise my relationship was an abusive one," Joan tells Refinery29
"It took me some time to go through the series — this is definitely not binge-type viewing," she says. "The first episode I bawled; my heart was completely raw and open. I needed to sit in it for a couple of days before I could watch the next one. [Watching my experience reflected in Maid was] terrifying, but it also gave me hope. There was a shift within me and if those types of series can help one person, then I think it helps… even if it is triggering to watch."
Psychologist Dr. Marny Lishman tends to agree, telling Refinery29 that "if a person has had to experience something similar in their past, and is reasonably comfortable to watch the show, having a shared experience with others and listening to other peoples’ stories and journeys of healing can be helpful."
"For other people, this might not be the case," Dr. Lishman continues, expressing concern for the condensed and rushed nature of some of these series.
"We need to proceed with caution when watching them if we know we might be affected."
Scarlett Harris is an author and culture critic. You can follow her on Twitter @ScarlettEHarris and read her work at her website The Scarlett Woman.  

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