In the midst of an unpredictable year there’s been one shining star: true crime. From Tiger King to The Vow, some of this year’s most discussed shows and movies haven’t been fictional at all. It’s fitting because this year has marked a drastic shift in the true crime genre. For the first time in perhaps forever some of the biggest additions to this genre have revolved not around the world’s murderers and rapists. 2020’s most powerful documentaries and docuseries have instead been about survivors.
There is a perversity that comes with any examination of true crime. Yes, these stories often end with a flourish of comeuppance that hopefully involves the guilty criminal being sentenced to prison. But before these monsters get what they deserve, you have to look at what they’ve done. There has to be an exploration into all those needless killings, sexual assaults, and deeply deplorable acts before you reach that comeuppance.
That’s where the close examination of most documentaries ends. There may be a segment dedicated to exploring Ted Bundy or Dennis Rader’s traumatic childhood as a way of explaining the horrific criminals they would one day become, but that’s it. Depressingly, that’s often the extent of humanizing most documentaries take. They’re all too focused on providing some sort of explanation about how this monster came to be that the reason they’re monsters — the very people whose lives they ruined — become sidelined. These survivors become secondary characters in the story about the worst moment of their lives.
It’s that oversight that 2020’s take on true crime has slowly questioned and dissolved. The refocusing on survivors started early with HBO’s Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered and Netflix’s The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez. For both docuseries this refocusing was less a matter of choice than necessity. In the case of the Atlanta murders of 1979 to 1981, there’s still speculation about who was responsible for these atrocious deaths. Wayne Williams was convicted of two of the adult murders, but many wonder whether he was responsible for the nearly 30 other victims. When it came to The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez it was the sheer brutality of Fernandez’s murder that demanded he and not his killers be the six-part series’ focus. The eight-year-old boy was abused and tortured for days by his own mother and her boyfriend. Both of these series covered cases that were so sad and had victims that were so young and helpless, taking the camera away from their pain for even a moment felt like another act of injustice.
Yet, blissfully, that focus on survivors and victims has continued throughout the rest of the year. HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was the first series to fully buck the killer-focused trend. Liz Garbus’ six-part series had everything you could ever want for a killer-focused documentary. It centered around Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., a man who was known by many names including the Golden State Killer and the East Area Rapist. The amount of disturbing crimes DeAngelo committed and his reasoning for inflicting this pain is so varied it could fill several books. But I’ll Be Gone in the Dark never took that route. Instead, the series always focused on the late Michelle McNamara, the lone writer dedicated to discovering this man’s identity, and DeAngelo’s survivors.
“Michelle said it herself. It’s the powerful absence that draws you in. Once you know their name, it’s just like Bill or Bob,” director Liz Garbus told Decider when asked about her series’ focus on survivors. “You want to understand how somebody could be responsible for all this. But at the same time there’s no understanding that. Because plenty of people have had trauma, or plenty of people have had rotten childhoods. They don’t go on to become serial rapists and murderers. I think that, for us, what was more interesting was Michelle’s journey, and the journey of the survivors and their resilience. Those were stories that we really wanted to get to.”
Garbus added, “We took the lead from Michelle, in foregrounding the story of the survivors. Their stories are obviously filled with a lot of darkness, but also are uplifting and teach you so much about resilience. Getting through trauma. Michelle had a saying: ‘It’s chaos, be kind.’ It makes you think about their struggles. We really don’t understand them. What we can offer is kindness. Patience. Listening. It was an honor to listen to all of their stories.”
That change of focus was embraced again and again. Lifetime’s Surviving Jeffrey Epstein destroyed the late Epstein’s mysterious power. With every interview from his survivors, the docuseries painted a more deplorable picture of a man with too much power, too much money, and far too many famous friends willing to turn a blind eye to his abuse. Showtime’s Love Fraud took a simple tale of swindling and turned it into a powerful saga about one regular man who believed he could get away with anything. It was never a series about Richard Scott Smith but about a group of women getting some sliver of the justice they deserved. Even HBO Max’s Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults managed to do the impossible. The four-part series took one of the longest running jokes about true crime and spun it on its head, transforming Heaven’s Gate from a bunch of unhinged people into a chilling narrative about how one cult leader was able to rob his followers of all forms of individuality until they were willing to end their own lives.
And then there was the NXIVM of it all. This year gave us not one but two docuseries about the deeply shocking cult of NXIVM. Both of these series refused to center around the abusive Raniere, Nancy Salzman, or Allison Mack. Instead, they took a hard look at this organization’s survivors and listened to them. In The Vow‘s case that meant using the format of the series itself to mimic what it was like to be sucked into a cult. For Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, that meant taking the most difficult-to-watch course imaginable. It meant solely zooming in on the survivors of this horrific organization, especially India Oxenberg.
“I come from a vérité documentary background. I learned filmmaking from my mentor Barbara Kopple. Her approach is always to follow the characters from start to finish,” Seduced’s executive producer Cecilia Peck said. “On this project, we combined India’s personal story, the stories of the other former members of NXIVM with interviews with experts and with archival footage. But we’ve always approached stories that way, as: what is the experience that the person went through?”
This focus on healing rather than pain even translated into how Seduced was filmed. “We have set up a fund with F.A.C.T., Families Against Cult Teachings, which is a caregiving organization that supports victims of cults,” executive producer Inbal B. Lessner added. “Through that fund, we were able to provide therapy services and professional counseling to women who chose to share their stories, before, during, and after filming.”
But by far the ultimate example of this shifting dynamic has been Madison Hamburg’s Murder on Middle Beach. It’s rare to find a piece of filmmaking that’s as vulnerable and honest as Hamburg’s investigation into his murdered mother. Though the docuseries starts off on a promise to find the late Barbara Hamburg’s killer, it offers no clear answers. The only thing it can give the still grieving family is a shaky sense of closure as Hamburg painstakingly proves who was innocent of this crime.
All of these projects put people, not monsters, front and center. And you know what? Each of these stories is more powerful for their unflinching embrace of these victims and survivors. Series like I’ll Be Gone in the Dark have proved that just because something terrible happens to you, that doesn’t give anyone an excuse to hurt others. Conversely, those who go through pain and still manage to find peace and happiness are stronger than these monsters will ever be. Murder on Middle Beach shows the unstated importance of closure. As Hamburg tells his aunt that he knows for a fact his sister couldn’t have murdered their mother, you can see the weight being lifted from Conway Beach’s shoulders. Alleviating those doubts mean something. Solving open cases means something to so many mourning families and friends. Over the course of 13 hours The Vow and Seduced have proven there’s nothing to be gained in being dismissive of cults. The men and women who joined NXIVM weren’t gullible idiots. They were any of us. They were victims who were taken in and manipulated by a man who dedicated his life to this disturbing art.
This year true crime became an exercise in empathy. It extended past shocking stories of murder and deception and became something greater. It became a heartfelt reflection of pain, both the pain of losing your trust in the world and the pain of losing someone you loved. But more than anything else this genre, which all too often looks like a cookie-cutter, showed us what it means to heal. 2020 gave true crime more humanity, and that’s exactly what we all needed.