Scripted adaptations of true crime stories are at a high point that looks likely to decline as viewers look for more feel-good fare, according to showrunners behind some of the genre’s biggest recent commissions.
Patrick Macmanus, who has been behind Dr Death for NBCUniversal’s Peacock and is co-showrunner on Hulu’s recently released The Girl From Plainville, told TBI at SeriesFest in Denver that true crime’s boom is soon likely to be taken over as some viewers switch to more light-hearted fare.
“I’d say we’re at the zenith of [scripted true crime], I don’t think that we have seen daylight of the downturn yet but over the last year or so, there has definitely been a buzz phrase going around and that’s ‘lighter fare’.
“People seem to want more positive stories, some of that is obvious an outgrowth of the pandemic and some of it is the piece of genius tv that is Ted Lasso, that proves you can have a good heart but still have depth to a show.”
Macmanus was one of a high-profile quartet of speakers on the SeriesFest panel, alongside Robbie Pickering, creator and showrunner on Starz’s Julia Roberts-starring drama Gaslit, and the co-creators of Hulu’s Candy, Nick Antosca and Robin Veith.
The panel agreed that true crime drama’s explosive popularity would likely cool, not least because of the cyclical nature of the content business, while there are questions over whether the market has now been saturated by series.
While Candy, Dr Death, The Girl From Plainville and Gaslit are among recent US shows, the boom is also apparent elsewhere, notably in the UK, where shows ranging from Colin Firth’s The Staircase to HBO Max and Sky’s Landscapers have been on screen.
The BBC has also delved deeply into true crime for its scripted series, with Jimmy Savile-focused The Reckoning, Nottingham-set murder series Sherwood, and Four Lives, while ITV recently debuted The Thief, His Wife And The Canoe.
It bolstered the line-up just last month with The Hunt For Raoul Moat, about the manhunt for the British murderer, while Channel 4 has been behind Deceit and Channel 5 recently greenlit a drama exploring the Soham murders, in which two young girls were killed by a school caretaker.
Candy‘s storyline, meanwhile, explores the life of a Texas woman from the 1980s who was accused of murdering her best friend, a true story that is also the subject of a separate show – Love And Death – starring Elisabeth Olsen, set to debut on HBO Max later this year.
Gabby Petito criticism
But while true crime series have boomed as streamers and broadcasters look to cash in on its popularity, the genre has also come in for criticism from some who argue it can exploit victims and dramatise true events too soon after the fact.
Lifetime last week ordered a TV movie based on the murder of Gabby Petito, a US woman who was murdered last year by her partner while traveling across the US, prompting a barrage of social media criticism.
Antosca underlined the responsibility that showrunners have but admitted that certain parts of the industry have been pushing stories that should not be adapted as the genre’s popularity has soared.
“Every week there is a new horrible story that is being tracked for a couple of days and then it becomes a thing for us and anyone else who has done a true crime show, where you’re getting pitched that story.
“Every week the agencies send out out their available material for option, whether it’s the latest New York Magazine story or whatever. Most of them are not right for adaptation.”
Veith added: “The worst you can do is exploitation. There has to be a reason to tell the story and you have to know that not every story needs to be told.”
Antosca, who created Candy with Veith, continued: “There might be a story about the craziest thing but what is the human story underneath it. I am interested in a crazy story but only if under the surface there is something fundamentally relatable.”
Robbie Pickering, whose show Gaslit explores the Watergate scandal from the point of view of forgotten characters from the time, also admitted that the industry’s thirst for cut-through stories was in danger of squeezing ethical concerns.
“Not every story has to be told and not even the craziest story has to be told,” he said. “I’d rather somebody told a crazy story because they had something they wanted to say with it rather than just to have a crazy story – but there’s a lot of that out there. There is a lot of pressure to do that.”