Netflix sure picked a fantastic time to get into the documentary game. With the explosion of true crime over the last few years, Netflix has begun to produce and feature some of the best true crime content there is. Whether you love getting into the finer points of detective work or just marveling at the antics of some of the most colorful criminals around, there’s a ton of fascinating true crime to add to your queue.
This is truly one of the greats. The film was originally released in French (although the story is set in North Carolina) as a miniseries, and has been updated multiple times over the last 17 years. Why, you may ask? Well, therein lies the appeal.
The Staircase is one of the original true crime whodunit series, the godfather of Serial: Season One, Making a Murderer, and the rest of the stories that attempt to poke holes in allegedly closed cases. The protagonist (if these kinds of stories ever really have protagonists) is Michael Peterson, a novelist and journalist who lives in a palatial mansion with his gorgeous and doting second wife Kathleen. Late one night, he calls 911 to report that she has fallen down their narrow staircase and isn’t moving. By the time the paramedics arrive, she’s dead. Almost immediately, the police find a number of details you wouldn’t expect from an accidental death case – the marks left on the walls as she fell down the stairs, for example. Or the fact that this isn’t the first woman in Michael’s past who’s suffered a fatal fall down the stairs.
But of course, there’s another side to the story. Like the fact that Michael had been an outspoken and aggressive critic of local law enforcement in his column, which lends a new light to their decision to prosecute on largely circumstantial evidence.
One reason this documentary makes my “best of” list is also the thing that makes it truly unique: it’s filmed during the investigation. It’s clear throughout most of the show that no one, including the filmmakers, has any idea what’s going to happen. There are gaps in the story that arise because someone or another simply refused to talk to them for a while. It’s as close as us normies will ever get to a real live police investigation, and it’s both fascinating and horrifying. These cops are professionals, but they’re also just people, reacting in the moment without the benefit of full evidence, a court case behind them, and a few hours with their PR department to refine the narrative. In that sense, it’s a great documentary for this historical moment. The corruption and manipulation isn’t obvious or even necessarily omnipresent like in Making a Murderer. Michael is no saint either. But that’s exactly why the power that law enforcement wields in this story is so menacing.
Wild Wild Country
There’s so much more to true crime than murder, and Wild Wild Country is the absolute best example of this. Wild Wild Country is the story of an apparently innocuous, vaguely hippie Indian cult that quickly goes south. After coming into conflict with the mayor and city council of the small town adjacent to their commune, they come to the frankly baffling conclusion that their only means of protection is a violent takeover of the surrounding area – and eventually attempt a coup on the entire state of Oregon.
Frankly, the most baffling thing about this entire story to me was how incredibly recent and yet unheard-of it was. The final climactic showdown before the cult is taken down from the FBI happened the year I was born. Most of the major players are still alive – in fact, many of them give interviews for the documentary. And yet somehow, the fact that a cult (I cannot emphasize this enough) tried to take over Oregon is almost completely unknown to the general public. It’s amazing to me that this story doesn’t have the notoriety of people like Heaven’s Gate or Waco.
It’s also a fantastic perspective into the whole process of radicalization. Most of the participants were fairly left-leaning hippie types, following the Beatles to India to achieve enlightenment with a guru who taught peace and love. And yet, within just a few years, many of them came to believe – in some cases still believe – that they needed to take up arms and plot acts of widespread murder and terrorism in order to carry out the will of their guru. It’s amazing how unbelievably normal so many of them are, at least in comparison to where they end up. In one sense, it’s the story of a group of people driven to extremes by actual religious persecution – though, of course, it goes so much further than it had any right to.
This might be the most heartwrenching true crime documentary series I’ve seen. The Keepers is the story of a group of women who find community in the most horrific of circumstances: they were all victims of a ring of powerful rapists, led by a Catholic priest, who are trying to find justice and closure.
The documentary jumps back and forth between the modern efforts of these women to connect and support each other through their shared trauma and flashbacks to the unbelievable series of crimes committed by Father Joseph Maskell – including the possible murder of a nun who threatened him with whistleblowing and disappeared shortly thereafter. It’s long overdue in the wake of the abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church for the past few years, giving deep insight into the complex web of conspiracy that protected monsters like Father Maskill.
The story is dark and extremely graphic, but it feels very right. The women are given the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words, and several of them do not mince words in describing what happened to them. It’s difficult to listen to, and it makes it all the more difficult to hear the scores of people who still defend Father Maskill and refuse to believe that he committed any crime. I don’t want to give away the whole story since it’s full of twists and turns, but despite the incredibly difficult subject material I found it surprisingly hopeful. In the end, this is the story of a group of women who find support, love, and connection in the face of unspeakable evil. Despite everything they’ve suffered and all the setbacks in their path toward justice, they are hopeful, resilient, and connected.
I can’t tell if this is the best or the worst heist of all time. You’ve probably heard the story of the apparent hostage who was forced to rob a bank and then killed with a remotely detonated suicide bomb. Believe me when I tell you that is the least insane part of this story. Evil Genius is the story of the group of people, led by Marjorie Diehl, who masterminded this bizarre bank robbery scheme and the series of increasingly absurd betrayals and subterfuges they engaged in to try and get the upper hand on each other. The story would be a comedy if it wasn’t a very real tragedy.
There are some storytelling missteps in this one – the person making the documentary befriends Marjorie while she awaits trial in prison, and has a hard time staying objective. This is another story that’s fairly recent, and at the time of filming there are still pieces that are unknown – and considering how many participants in the story are dead, they may stay that way forever.
But as a piece of extremely black real-life comedy, it works. The characters are all larger than life, and very aware of it. With each one more eccentric and self-important than the last, it feels to me like The Usual Suspects transported into small town America – right down to the identity-shifting, highly intelligent, but ultimately violently insane villain. The ending of this story is a bit unsatisfying, but the characters are larger than life and well worth your time.