From a sex cult to battling Fyre Festival documentaries, here are some of the biggest true-crime pop culture moments of the year.
Ever since Serial, the investigative journalism podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig, became a sensation in 2014, there’s been an explosion of interest in the true-crime genre. Fascination over these kinds of stories was further buoyed by the success of the docuseries, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and Making a Murderer, as well as the anniversary of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, which was revisited on the FX anthology series, American Crime Story.
Several years later, there’s no shortage of true-crime podcasts, television shows or books, capturing the attention of America and beyond with their unbelievably addictive stories, fascinating real-life characters and shocking twists. And this year proved to be no different, thanks to the headline-making Fyre Festival, a fraudulent event that was recounted in two competing documentaries, the Silicon Valley sensation Elizabeth Holmes, renewed interest in serial killers Charles Manson and Ted Bundy, the reckoning faced by some of the entertainment industry’s most powerful men, as well as two actresses caught up in a college admissions scandal.
As 2019 draws to a close, ET is revisiting the biggest true-crime pop culture moments of the year:
Central Park Crimes
“Before O.J. Simpson, the Preppy Killer was the trial of the century,” New York Post columnist Steve Dunleavy says in the Sundance TV documentary, The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park, which re-examined the 1986 murder of Jennifer Levin at the hands of Robert Chambers. The series was one of two projects to explore notorious crimes that took place at Central Park, becoming tabloid fodder and center of controversy for the New York City criminal justice system in the late-’80s. The other was Ava DuVernay’s Emmy-winning Netflix series, When They See Us, about five teens of color wrongfully convicted of brutally raping a female jogger in 1989 after being coerced by police into making false confessions. Strangely enough, at the center of both stories, was prosecutor Linda Fairstein, who made a name for herself in the case against Chambers but was later shamed for her perceived involvement in the mishandling of the Central Park Five. Interestingly enough, in the Netflix series, she was portrayed by Felicity Huffman, who was the subject of another true-crime movie.
For decades, Hollywood has attempted to tell the story of Charles Manson and Sharon Tate -- all to varying degrees of success. Directors Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher were the latest to take on the events of 1969 with their respective projects: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a revisionist take starring Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie as Tate, and the second season of Netflix's Mindhunter, which attempts to get inside of the heads of America’s most notorious killers. Coincidentally, both featured actor Damon Herriman as Manson. And the two were the most well received of a series of projects to revisit the cult of Manson and the 1969 murders of Tate and her friends in 2019. (Want more? Here are the best films, podcasts and series to stream.)
College Admissions Scandal
America’s secondary education system and Hollywood alike were rocked when 50 people, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin as well as ringleader William “Rick” Singer, were charged in a massive college admissions cheating scam in March 2019. The charges were the end result of an ongoing investigation dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” named after the 1999 teen film starring James Van Der Beek. In the months that followed, the fallout was swift for those involved in the scam -- especially Huffman and Loughlin, who saw their star power fall to varying degrees with the former serving a 14-day jail sentence -- while Hollywood scooped up the rights to tell versions of this story onscreen. The first of those was a TV movie starring Huffman’s former American Crime co-star, Penelope Ann Miller, as one of the parents who attempts to fraud the system in order to get her child into an elite university. “It’s a cautionary tale,” Miller told ET of The College Admissions Scandal, which aired as part of Lifetime’s ongoing “ripped from the headlines” series.
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, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, directed by Alex Gibney. In an interview with ET, producer Jessie Deeter explained how deep Holmes' manipulative world ran -- even after she got into trouble. “When I spoke with [Elizabeth] in the fall of 2017, the SEC hadn’t yet come out with all of those multitudes of allegations against her,” Deeter said. “So our team didn’t know about that. But she knew about that. She acted as if she was going to be moving forward [with our documentary]. But we did have John Carreyrou’s excellent Wall Street Journal reporting, right? And so I said, ‘You know, Elizabeth, you’re being accused of fraud.’ And she got very angry with that word and said there was no fraud and she told me that she felt that she had been treated differently [than men] in Silicon Valley because she was a woman. She said, ‘You know, men are allowed to fail and men are allowed to make mistakes in this business and because I’m a woman I was not.”
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 promote 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 -- Fyre Fraud and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened -- recounted the creation of the “the most iconic festival that never happened” and the fallout that followed in its wake. Released the same week by Hulu and Netflix, respectively, the two films sparked an unofficial feud between the two streaming services. While the reviews favored either film for their access and storytelling -- ultimately, it's best to watch both as companion pieces -- the Television Academy made the final determination about which one was better, awarding Netflix with four Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, versus one for Hulu.
In March, HBO debuted Leaving Neverland, the controversial two-part documentary detailing allegations of sexual abuse against Michael Jackson, which was immediately followed by a sit-down interview with Oprah Winfrey and the film’s two accusers, James Safechuck and Wade Robson. In the film, Safechuck and Robson -- now married adults with sons of their own -- claim they engaged in sexual relationships with Jackson that started when both were underage, 10 and seven years old, respectively. Through on-camera interviews, they recall how they each first met the music icon and later, became closer and closer with the pop star. Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, the film was met with intense pushback from the Jackson family and Jackson’s estate, which has previously issued strong rebukes of the film to ET, calling it a “lurid production.” While Jackson maintained his innocence before his death and his estate has since defended him, Safechuck and Robson’s allegations were searing indictments of the singer.
Michelle Carter, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the case surrounding Conrad Roy’s 2014 suicide and is now serving a 15-month prison sentence, was the subject of filmmaker Erin Lee Carr’s HBO documentary, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter. 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, she says, it got a lot of people talking about it, sparking a huge debate around digital technology, social media and mental health. And it was that intersection of technology and crime that piqued the interest of Carr and her producing partner, Andrew Rossi, whose two previous films together include Mommy Dead and Dearest and Thought Crimes. “When we found out that a young teen was indicted for involuntary manslaughter for texting her supposed boyfriend to kill himself, that felt absolutely like an HBO story,” Carr told ET, explaining that they specifically look for cases that fall into a “very specific Venn diagram.”
While Carter’s story was adapted for Lifetime, the story behind Mommy Dead and Dearest became the inspiration for Hulu’s award-winning limited series, The Act, starring Patricia Arquette as Dee Dee Blanchard, a woman with Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a mental illness that led to her making her young daughter, Gypsy Rose (Joey King), purposely sick to gain attention and sympathy from others.
NXIVM, a personal development company founded in the 1990s by Keith Raniere, garnered national attention in 2017 when the New York Times exposed it as a pyramid scheme and cult that forced its female recruits into sexual slavery. In the years since, various people were revealed to be members or recruits -- from an heiress to the Seagram Company fortune to a daughter of a former Dynasty actress -- but none were more shocking than former Smallville star Allison Mack. In April 2018, she was arrested after reports alleged that the seemingly wholesome actress was a high-ranking member within the sex cult responsible for recruiting women and branding them. Since then, several projects -- from Lifetime’s Escaping the NXIVM Cult: A Mother's Fight to Save Her Daughter to Vox’s Netflix series Explained -- have shined a light on the cult’s practices and Mack’s involvement. The former is based on the 2018 memoir, Captive: A Mother's Crusade to Save Her Daughter From a Terrifying Cult, by Catherine Oxenberg, who told ET that the Lifetime movie did a “magnificent job” of “highlighting and showcasing the most salient points and really exposing the grooming process and how women like my daughter were recruited and the level of deception and coercion involved.” (Want more? Here’s everything to watch or read in addition to the Lifetime movie.)
R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein
Both R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein faced their own reckonings in 2019, after multiple allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct surfaced in various reports by the New York Times, New Yorker, Rolling Stone and other publications. While both have denied all accusations, they have been charged and been forced to atone for their crimes in court. At the same time, two documentaries debuted on TV, allowing their alleged victims to have a platform to speak about what they’ve allegedly experienced. The first was Lifetime’s docuseries, Surviving R. Kelly, which featured 54 individuals telling versions of their story. Lifetime will continue investigating the singer with a sequel series set to debut next year. The second was Untouchable, a documentary film featuring former colleagues and alleged victims discussing the rise and fall of Weinstein that first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before debuting on Hulu. The latter’s release coincided with a number of projects tackling his story, from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit to Ronan Farrow’s gripping novel, Catch and Kill.
Filmmaker Joe Berlinger pulled double duty in 2019 with two projects about serial killer Ted Bundy that debuted 30 years after his execution. The first was a four-part Netflix docuseries, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which featured audiotapes of Bundy’s interviews from behind bars. The series became such a sensation, with viewers taking to Twitter to gush about how attractive Bundy was, that the streaming service had to respond. “I've seen a lot of talk about Ted Bundy’s alleged hotness and would like to gently remind everyone that there are literally THOUSANDS of hot men on the service -- almost all of whom are not convicted serial murderers,” read the message. Bundy’s looks would once again make headlines when Berlinger’s scripted movie, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile starring Zac Efron as the convicted killer, started streaming online. The actor spoke with ET about the controversy surrounding the film, saying, “I think the movie itself is really deep. It doesn't really glorify Ted Bundy. He wasn't a person to be glorified. It simply tells a story and sort of how the world was able to be charmed over by this guy who was notoriously evil and the vexing position that so many people were put in, the world was put in.”
Unbelievable is the Netflix limited series based on the 2015 ProPublica article "An Unbelievable Story of Rape," which chronicles the real-life stories of a teenage girl who was charged for lying about an assault while two other detectives investigated a serial rapist. Starring Kaitlyn Dever, Merritt Wever and Toni Collette, the series has earned critical acclaim and four Golden Globe nominations since its release in September. While speaking to ET about her nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Limited Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television, Dever also revealed that she was thinking of Marie Adler, the real-life survivor of assault whose story is the basis of Unbelievable, “and the fact that I was able to be a part of telling her story and getting her justice,” she says. “I just think about her watching the show and saying it gave her a lot of closure.” The actress was also not surprised that the series resonated with so many people, adding that because the series addressed issues of assault, social and police injustice “in an honest way, we opened a lot of eyes.”
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