'The Jinx', 'The Vow' and More of the Best True-Crime Documentaries to Watch Now
By Stacy Lambe
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Today, there’s no shortage of true-crime documentaries re-examining present or past cases as well as media sensations that have previously captivated the nation. The latest wave of America’s insatiable appetite for the genre was first sparked by the first season of the true-crime podcast Serial, which aired in 2014, and was quickly succeeded by director Andrew Jarecki’s HBO documentary, The Jinx about suspected serial killer and convicted murderer Robert Durst, and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. In years that have followed, cults (NXIVM), fraud (Fyre Festival, Elizabeth Holmes), murder and tigers (Joe Exotic) have all been the subject of various, wildly unbelievable tales that became ratings hits.
With so many options to choose from, ET has narrowed down the wide array of options to these expertly executed, addictive documentaries now streaming on Amazon, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix and more.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
Director Andrew Jarecki’s hit docuseries details three murders that Robert Durst is suspected of committing, including the disappearance of Kathleen McCormack, the execution of friend Susan Berman, and the dismemberment of Morris Black. The series allowed Durst to tell his story, as well as refute claims that he was guilty of any of the crimes he’s been long suspected of committing.
Over the course of 25 hours during two separate interviews, Durst admitted to lying to the police about the night McCormack disappeared and was discovered to have penned a letter with handwriting that matched a note to police alerting them of Berman’s murder. But what made the series a sensation was the highly publicized finale, which was spoiled at the time thanks to a New York Times app push notification, as well as the New Orleans arrest of Durst less than a day before it aired.
Abducted in Plain Sight is among the recent Netflix true-crime documentaries that has everybody talking -- in part because nothing can prepare you for all the twists and turns involved in this unbelievable true story. The film recounts the lives of the Broberg family, who fall prey to the manipulative charms of their neighbor, Robert “B” Berchtold, who abducted their adolescent daughter. Twice. But that’s just where the story begins, with the rest of the film pulling back so many more, unexpected layers about what happened between the family and Berchtold.
The story of Amanda Knox, a then 20-year-old American girl in Italy found guilty and later exonerated of murdering roommate Meredith Kercher, is among the true-crime sensations to get a second look as directors Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn let the key players involved -- Knox, co-defendant and ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini and Daily Mail reporter Nick Pisa -- tell their side of the story. “We really hope that the film is a portrait of each of these people who are caught up in something far bigger than them,” Blackhurst says, adding that “nobody had really taken the time to understand who they were as individuals.”
“We wanted to both understand why that had happened and what it would feel like as well for each of these people caught up inside of this,” he continues. And it was for that reason that the directors felt it was “really worth” telling this story from the first-person perspective, with the four personalities sitting down for an unfiltered conversation about their account of what happened.
Fyre Fraud and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
In 2017, CEO Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule attempted to launch a brand new luxury music festival, dubbed the Fyre Festival, which was created to support McFarland’s talent booking company. Heavily promoted by social media influencers and models like Kendall Jenner, thousands of fans descended (and ultimately were stranded) on a Bahamian island location that was not sufficiently prepared to host the multi-day event. Two years later, two competing documentaries -- from Hulu and Netflix -- recounted the creation of the “the most iconic festival that never happened” and the fallout that followed in its wake. Released the same week, the two films sparked an unofficial feud between the two streaming services. While the reviews favored either film for their access and storytelling, it's best to watch both as companion pieces.
I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter
Michelle Carter, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the case surrounding Conrad Roy’s 2014 suicide, is the subject of filmmaker Erin Lee Carr’s eerily compelling HBO documentary. The two-part series examined the 2017 precedent-setting criminal trial -- popularly known as the “Texting Suicide Case” -- of a teenage girl who was deemed responsible for sending texts that seemingly encouraged her boyfriend to kill himself. The case quickly became a national news sensation, which Carr attributes to the fact that Carter is pretty, privileged, and most notably, female. When there is a gender switch and the male is the victim and the girlfriend is the perpetrator, Carr says, it got a lot of people talking about it, sparking a huge debate around digital technology, social media and mental health.
Before her fall in 2017, Elizabeth Holmes -- the deep-voiced, blonde CEO and founder of Theranos -- had set out to create a home device that people could use to test their blood for all types of illnesses. However, investigative journalists discovered that she was allegedly falsifying data and using commercial devices to do so while collecting millions from investors and becoming an undisputed star of Silicon Valley. By 2018, authorities got involved and she was charged with nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. While her case is still playing out in court, her story was first captured in the 2018 nonfiction book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, which served as the basis for the HBO documentary directed by Alex Gibney.
John Wayne Gacy, one of the world’s most notorious serial killers who famously posed a clown to lure his victims, is the subject of Peacock’s chilling six-part true-crime documentary, Devil in Disguise. The series features a previously unreleased, multi-hour interview conducted with Gacy from prison as well as new interviews with one of his closest confidantes and his second ex-wife.
While convicted of 33 murders, it’s believed by many that Gacy, who was sentenced to death and died in 1994, is responsible for more unsolved murders or disappearances. “One of the most compelling reasons to revisit this story is that there's just still so many unanswered questions about the case,” executive producer Alexa Danner tells ET. “There's still so much mystery that lingers even to this day.”
Jordan Peele executive produced a four-part docuseries that reinvestigates the deep moral issues and painful human tragedies buried at the heart of an American scandal, when Lorena Bobbitt infamously cut off her then-husband, John Wayne Bobbitt’s, penis with a kitchen knife while he was asleep. Directed by filmmaker Joshua Rofé, Lorena reveals the hidden truths in the notorious case and challenges the long-held narrative that surrounded this event, with both Lorena and John providing fresh perspectives of the story.
“When we hear the name Bobbitt, we think of one of the most sensational incidents to ever be catapulted into a full-blown media spectacle. With this project, Lorena has a platform to tell her truth as well as engage in a critical conversation about gender dynamics, abuse, and her demand for justice. This is Lorena’s story and we’re honored to help her tell it,” Peele said of the series.
The Netflix doc, which quickly became a national sensation, tells the story of Steven Avery, a man falsely imprisoned for sexual assault and later exonerated after 18 years in prison, who after his release was subsequently charged for the murder of Teresa Halbach. Filmed over the course of 10 years by filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, the series takes a closer look at the prosecution’s investigation, shedding a light on the potential injustice in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Following its initial success, the series returned for a second season, which follows Ricciardi and Demos as they return to the Midwest to get the latest on Avery, his nephew, Brendan Dassey, their families and the legal teams fighting on their behalf.
“Before O.J. Simpson, the Preppy Killer was the trial of the century,” New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy says in the Sundance Now documentary, which re-examines the 1986 murder of Jennifer Levin at the hands of Robert Chambers. At the time, the case was headline fodder with both Chambers and Levin’s lives getting scrutinized and sensationalized by the media. And in the decades since, the murder has been turned into the 1989 TV movie starring William Baldwin and Lara Flynn Boyle and has inspired multiple episodes of the Law & Order franchise.
The docuseries, however, is the first of its kind to take an in-depth look at what really happened and recount events from Levin’s point of view. “What always was concerning to me was I never really got to look at the memory of Jennifer,” says executive producer Robert Friedman, who grew up in New York City and used to hang out at Dorrian's -- the same bar where Chambers and Levin met -- as a teenager. “That whole case and in the many ways that it was reported, was an assault on her memory.”
Ted Bundy’s longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall, and her daughter, Molly, speak out for the first time after nearly 40 years of silence in the five-part Amazon docuseries chronicling their relationship with the serial killer, which overlapped with his murdering spree from 1974 to 1978. “This story has been told so many times by men. Now it’s time to talk about our own story from beginning to end because we lived and so many people didn’t,” Elizabeth says.
In addition to sharing new, unsettling details about their time with Ted, the mother and daughter also have numerous never-before-seen photos of them with a man whom they did not suspect to be a murderer at the time. “They portray what feels and looks like an authentic love, which adds a layer of mystery to the theories I wasn’t anticipating. You can’t look at those and not think that maybe he really did love her,” director Trish Wood says about discovering their trove of photo albums.
The wild Netflix docuseries details the multiple rivalries within the extremely lucrative and illegal business of exotic animal breeding. In the words of Saturday Night Live’s Stefon, this unbelievably true tale “has everything”: a gay polygamist roadside zoo owner; a wild animal rescuer accused of feeding her missing husband to a tiger; a local zoo owner who has a cult-like hold over his female employees; a strip club owner; a Las Vegas con man and his cohort of convicted criminals; a failed murder-for-hire plot; arson; ensuing legal battles; a failed 2016 presidential bid; and a federal investigation that brings it all together.
At the center of it all is Joe Exotic, the self-proclaimed “Tiger King” who has made headlines over the past year thanks to a New York Magazine investigative and a Wondery podcast, which explored his fierce love for big cats, his escalating antics and intense battle with Carole Baskin, an animal activist and owner of a big cat sanctuary who is attempting to put him out of business.
The first major film to come out about the ongoing #MeToo investigations into Harvey Weinstein is the documentary directed by Ursula Macfarlane. Her film details the sexual abuse allegations against Weinstein, who was ultimately found guilty of rape in the third degree and of criminal sexual assault in the first degree, while trying to contextualize the scandal by revisiting the early years of Weinstein and his brother, Bob. The film features interviews with former colleagues and accusers, including actresses Patricia Arquette and Paz de la Huerta. The film’s initial release also coincided with a number of other projects tackling his story, from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to Ronan Farrow’s gripping novel, Catch and Kill.
After escaping NXIVM in 2018, India Oxenberg finally tells her story in the intensely intimate and emotional Starz docuseries, Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, detailing her seven years spent inside founder Keith Raniere’s self-help organization, which was eventually exposed as a pyramid scheme and cult that subjected female recruits to sexual slavery. After meeting filmmakers Cecilia Peck, who was also recruited by NXIVM, and Inbal B. Lessner and learning about the direction of their project that Oxenberg wanted to become involved on camera. “They wanted it to be a women’s production focused on women’s stories that was raw, real and vulnerable, and showed the complexity of indoctrination and coercion in high-controlled groups,” she says, adding that she saw it as the “best and the purest approach I wanted to take.”
While Seduced focused on what happened to the women inside the cult, The Vow took a broader approach to telling the story of NXIVM and how Raniere gained power over his followers. The nine-part docuseries directed by Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer pulls back the curtain on a world of lies, deception, coercion, extortion and abuse. Through unprecedented, real-time access to NXIVM defectors and insiders, the series exposes new allegations against Raniere and senior member Allison Mack as well as show what former members risked by joining and later leaving the cult.
If you’ve never heard of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh or the residents of Rajneeshpuram, the events of Wild Wild Country unfold like something out of a Gillian Flynn story: residents of a small, rural town in 1980s Oregon find themselves at odds with a strange spiritual sect and the indomitable woman who stands at the right hand of its center. The Emmy-winning six-part docuseries, directed by brothers Maclain and Chapman Way, tells the captivating, real-life story of the rise and fall of the Rajneeshees and their mercurial mastermind, Ma Anand Sheela, through present-day interviews as well as archival news footage, which serves as a surreal reminder of the story’s real-life grounding when events escalate to levels too outrageous for even the most ardent believer.