The True Story of True Crime’s Unscripted-to-Scripted Evolution and the Genre’s Seemingly Endless Appeal

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Brother’s Keeper,” which, as Berlinger says, is “one of the granddaddies of the true-crime docu movement.”

It’s true that the 1992 film about the bizarre murder trial of Delbert Ward, who was accused of the “mercy killing” of his brother in rural upstate New York, was an early entrant in our collective societal obsession with the unscripted true-crime format, which in recent years has crossed over to the scripted side.

As one of the founding fathers of the format that has piqued our interest in true crime to the point where limited series including “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” “The Staircase,” “The Dropout,” “Inventing Anna,” “Dr. Death,” “A Very British Scandal,” and several more are all competing in the same Emmys’ cycle, Berlinger has some unique insight into the nonfiction-to-dramatized evolution.

“I can think of no other storytelling technique where there is perfect dramatic structure,” Berlinger, who most recently produced Netflix’s docuseries “Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes,” says. “There’s rising and falling action. There’s a clear beginning, middle and end. There are two parties vying for the truth. There’s an inciting incident and there’s a resolution. There’s just a natural dramatic structure.

“So if you want to create unscripted content that feels like a movie that has dramatic structure to it, that’s true crime,” he adds. “And I think that scripted filmmakers have discovered that as well. It is a category of content that is extremely satisfying from a narrative-slash-dramatic-structure standpoint.”

In 2015, Ryan Murphy debuted the first chapter of his scripted true-crime format, FX’s “American Crime Story.” Titled “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” the first season received 22 Emmy nods in 13 categories and won nine, including for limited series. The third season, “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” is now looking to clear the Emmy bar set by “People v. O.J.” and its follow-up, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” both of which are based on violent crimes. But “Impeachment” writer Sarah Burgess notes the ways in which the series fulfill the same need in viewers.

“‘The People v. O.J.’ is such a great use of the limited series format. I think a good true-crime story, with all of the different worlds and characters you get to experience and all that colliding in some kind of climax, is a wonderful use of scripted, limited series television,” she says. “Also, there’s a collective experience in that kind of television.”

Burgess says these stories are often well-known ones, including the Simpson murder trial and the Bill Clinton scandal, but can still work if it’s a lesser-known crime, as long as “there’s some kind of community aspect to it.”

“It makes sense it could be a collective streaming or TV viewing experience, too,” she says. “We don’t have a shared book, a lot of us, or a shared religious text or even a shared newspaper. But these collective obsessions, we do actually all share, across party lines, across ideologies. There’s something there that’s still very much a place where we can come together — or fight about things. But we’re all able to be there.”

Betsy Beers, who along with Shonda Rhimes produced Netflix’s Anna Delvey limited series “Inventing Anna,” says what helps in leveling the playing field between a violent crime, such as the Michael Peterson murder trial at the center of HBO Max’s Colin Firth and Toni Collette-led “The Staircase,” and a non-violent crime story, e.g. the ones committed by Delvey, is how they handle what is at stake for their characters based on real people.

“I think to Anna, the stakes are as high as a situation in which a man may or may not have killed his wife,” Beers says. “What’s really interesting about true crime in general is there’s something really fascinating about the puzzle of not being sure if you know somebody. Certainly with ‘Inventing Anna’ and with Anna Delvey [played by Julia Garner], a lot of it is about, do I know her? We all know different sides of her. What does that mean? What does that say about me as a viewer based on my new or held opinion?”

Beers adds: “With ‘The Staircase,’ in which, certainly, the stakes are incredibly high in a life-and-death way, it’s the same. There’s a parallel there, because I’m looking at those characters and I’m saying, did he do it? It always boils down to, did he do it? Did she do it? Did they do it? And whether or not we feel like, as an audience, we can figure that out, and number two, what would I do in that situation? We all want to feel like we know.”

Based on the Peterson trial, but also Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Netflix’s docuseries that followed the trial, “The Staircase” is itself a story about a true crime and about making such content.

“Initially [‘The Staircase’ docuseries] was this seminal piece of true-crime media within the canon of true crime,” executive producer Maggie Cohn says. “And it kind of started to shape our idea of what true crime can be: the twists and turns, the family element. So, for us to use this seminal piece was a way to be like, look, this is the thing you’re familiar with. You’ve seen this. Now what we’re going to do is, not only are we going to show you what you haven’t seen, but we’re going to show you what you have seen from behind the scenes. We’re going to show you how that thing was constructed. And now looking back at that thing, you’re going to have a different perspective on it.”

Cohn sees audiences continued interest in true crime — whether it be unscripted or scripted — as speaking to “a somewhat primal need to believe that we have some form of control over our lives.”

“Investigating real-life tragedies that have occurred to other people that are, to some degree, relatable makes us think that maybe we can find some sort of roadmap for our life and find some way to protect ourselves, protect our loved ones,” she says. “I’d like to think it’s beyond voyeurism. I like to think people enjoy joy as much as train wrecks. So, I’d like to avoid thinking that that’s the reason that people are interested in true crime. I really think it is to protect themselves, to try and find that control in the chaos that we all experience every day within our lives.”

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