The Art of Unease: ‘The Jinx,’ ‘Serial,’ and the New True-Crime Boom


This Sunday night, I, along with a small but increasingly impassioned group of like-minded obsessives, will be watching the final episode of HBO’s six-part true-crime miniseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. In some ways, The Jinx will look familiar to anyone who watches HBO’s scripted dramas; it’s dark, it’s polished, it has an elegant score, and its opening-credit sequence is so hyperproduced that you wouldn’t be surprised if Matthew McConaughey drove through it, murmuring in his Lincoln. But The Jinx is also excitingly off-brand; it’s a docu-soap that draws from influences as tawdry as the Lifetime–Nancy Grace nexus of bad-husband police-blotter TV and as lofty as Serial, to which it is a grimmer and more noirish cousin. It airs at 8 p.m., which feels like a tactical mistake even though, in the last couple of weeks, buzz has been building; if ever a cable show could have busted open the Sunday-at-midnight time slot, this gooseflesh-inducer, a true American horror story, is it.

Some background — and I’m not going to say “spoiler alert” here because this is real freaking life and has been on the front page of many newspapers recently and over decades — The Jinx is about the indisputably creepy, semi-disputably homicidal scion of a New York real estate dynasty who, over the decades, has been variously suspected of (a) the 1982 slaying in New York of his then-wife, Kathie, who has never been found, (b) the 2000 slaying in Los Angeles of a longtime friend who he may or may not have feared was about to turn on him, and (c) the 2001 slaying in Texas of a man who was Durst’s neighbor while he was on the run and disguised as a woman. (This tale really does need six installments to tell.) In the last case, there is no dispute over the fact that Durst chopped the man up into many pieces, placed those pieces into several plastic bags, and dumped his components into Galveston Bay. The legal argument over what, exactly, the extenuating circumstances might have been are too flabbergasting to reveal here. Watch the show; binge on it; you can marathon these 45-minute episodes in a day, and you will want to, since director Andrew Jarecki’s shrewdly structured narrative built, last week, to an end-of-Part-5 revelation so shocking that my jaw and stomach both dropped as I watched. It is the kind of perfect, chilling click that the writers of fictional mysteries ache to pull off and almost never do.

We engage with murder mysteries in part because we like being in a state of suspense, a kind of not-knowing that gives way to maybe-knowing that makes the eventual knowing all the sweeter. But I think we also want our presuppositions confirmed. For instance: Like many New Yorkers, I have a special relationship to the phrase “real estate magnate.” We walk down streets that are shadowy because these people’s works have obliterated the sun; our skyline is defined by their rule-bending and profiteering. They are, in many ways, the Batman villains of our real-life Gotham, and, like “club promoter” or “hedge fund manager,” they reside for me in a category where, if they’re accused of anything, I’m pretty much going to presume that they’re as guilty as a blond frat boy or a Russian sex trafficker on SVU.

So please excuse me from the jury. I’ll cop to my own bias upfront, and I’ll also note that I think, to some degree, it is shared by Jarecki. The Jinx is not a meditative, let’s-talk-about-the-nature-of-our-preconceptions take on three killings; Jarecki, who previously explored parts of the case in dramatized form in the 2010 movie All Good Things, seems to have become Durst’s Javert, and if the final part of The Jinx isn’t leading up to his face-to-face confrontation with a man who appears at best a bonkers sociopathic narcissist,1 then we’ve all been fooled.

But one thing I won’t expect from the show’s finale is clarity, resolution, or closure — and I don’t care. The story of a killing without a conviction, or a wrong unrighted by justice, or a kind of evil that is not particularly explicable, can be its own reward — and in understanding that, The Jinx, like Serial, is offering enthralling proof that when it comes to crime narratives, we’re not always looking for what we think we’re looking for.

I’m using a presumptuous “we” here. There were, of course, many listeners of Serial who became livid as the weekly installments unfolded and it became apparent that not only were we not going to get a definitive answer about Adnan Syed’s guilt or innocence, we probably weren’t even going to be told what Sarah Koenig thought about his guilt or innocence. To those listeners, the show was nothing but a 12-week practical joke with “MailChimp” as the punch line. And even though The Jinx is up to something different — this time, the central question in the minds of most viewers is not “Did he do it?” but “Is he ever going to admit it?” — there will probably be those who end up frustrated if this six-Sunday journey ends with the camera staring into rapidly blinking eyes with absolutely nothing decipherable behind them. Courting, then alienating, the segment of their audiences that wants certitude and finality is a risk The Jinx and Serial both run by using the techniques of fictional filmed/recorded storytelling (music, crosscutting, the deliberate withholding of information, structural ingenuity, and, in the case of The Jinx, some subdued and shadowy reenactments) in the service of documentary truth. Both projects have a sly and teasing narrative shape; their creators are people who spent a good deal of time trying to walk into the very center of a mystery, and I wonder if in some ways they want not only to craft a good yarn but to simulate their own immersive experience — the brick walls, the frustration, the sudden discoveries — for viewers or listeners in much the same way. This can get them branded manipulative by non-fans, and that isn’t wrong. But all storytelling that’s more organized than a boxful of documents dumped on your desk is manipulative, regardless of whether it’s fictional or factual. Storytelling wants to have an effect on you. That is not in itself a form of dishonesty.

I’m more interested in how sharply this new brand of crime storytelling goes against the grain of what Matt Zoller Seitz described last week as “Slow Crime” — his name for the fictional genre that “starts with a seemingly isolated act of savagery and then widens its scope.” This storytelling mode, pioneered on television 25 years ago this April by Twin Peaks (which is, appropriately, about to have a comeback that was largely nourished by affection for the genre it virtually created), is all about context and ramification. The show — whether it’s True Detective, The Killing, Secrets & Lies, or Broadchurch — starts with the unspeakable: a dead girl, a dead boy, a human being treated like waste. It then offers viewers two promises: (1) As the camera pulls back, and back, and back, we will understand how this slaying was an almost inevitable end product of the entire universe in which it took place, and (2) the resolution to the crime, beyond being definitive and satisfying, will be fully comprehensible only in the light of the seemingly disconnected information we pick up in the course of the 10 episodes/two seasons/five years it takes to resolve.2

That strategy has become irresistible to many viewers, even though as often as not those initial promises go maddeningly unfulfilled. It conflates something true — the idea that a single violent death ripples outward in endless circles to affect many lives — with something false, which is the inappropriate comfort and reassurance that even a brutal and apparently random homicide, when examined in rich enough detail, will always turn out to feel inevitable. It’s a belief in violent death as a narrative endpoint rather than as a narrative interruption, and the effect it has on us — “Ah, so that’s why she died!” — allows us to put the story away, because it’s just a story.

The Jinx and Serial are exciting because they are, for all the viewer-friendly filmmaking techniques of the first and the inquisitive public-radio affability of the second, fiercely committed to unease. They are not about ramifications, pulling back, taking a broader view. They start with the headlines and then push in, closer and closer, sifting the minutiae — was there a pay phone in the Best Buy parking lot? How do you spell “Beverly”? — until we get to the heart of the matter. But that heart is devoid of any answers except those we’ve lugged along with us since the beginning of the journey — for instance, the expectation that if a young Muslim man is in prison for killing a girl in Chapter 1, he will be freed in Chapter 12, or that, if a terrifying rich old man is blandly proclaiming his innocence in Episode 1, the series finale will bring him face to face with his guilt. The tension, and frustration, of Serial is that we can’t know the answer. With The Jinx, it’s different. I suspect that on Sunday, we’re going to hear a lot of Durst’s voice — which we now know is one part bland New York nasal honk and one part Something Is Really Wrong With This Person. He will talk, as he has so far, in tones of mild affability, mild irritation, or mild confusion, but everything he says will have that chillingly disembodied quality that has now become familiar. And although we may not get closer to the answers, we will probably be pressed right up against the questions: Is there anybody in there? What makes someone like this? Why would you do that? What were you thinking?

We won’t know. We can’t know. But at the end of six hours, these crimes will seem more horrible, and more real, and even less explicable, than they did at the start. That, rather than “closure,” seems like a step in the right direction.

Filed Under: TV, HBO, The Jinx, Serial, NPR, This American Life, Andrew Jarecki, Twin Peaks, true detective, broadchurch