Confessions of a True-Crime Re-Enactor: Inside TV’s Hottest, Most Morbid Genre
Investigation Discovery, which exclusively airs true-crime series, is cable’s most watched network by women. To understand why, we became a dramatic re-enactor on one of its shows.
Americans haven’t met a murder they didn’t love.
Some say it’s impossible to escape politics when you turn on the TV, but let’s be real. It’s murder that’s everywhere. We love murder! It’s always been true, but now it may be more popular than ever.
Give us a true crime series about an eerie backwoods killing where there’s doubt over the accused murderer’s guilt and we will devote 13 hours of a sunny Saturday to watching the whole damn thing. Do we already know everything there is to know about the O.J. Simpson case? JonBenét Ramsay? The Menendez brothers? Most likely, but we will watch three new series, two documentaries, and a Dateline special about each of them every year just to be sure. Netflix shows! Podcasts! Sexy Ryan Murphy series! We literally can’t get enough.
You know what? Just give us an entire channel devoted it.
Since launching in 2008, Investigation Discovery has monopolized the market on the true crime genre, to the tune of becoming one of the most popular channels on cable TV.
Sure, HBO scored with The Jinx. And Netflix’s Making a Murderer was huge. But no other channel has made it its 24/7 mission to devote its entire lineup to crime and justice. With shows like Fear Thy Neighbor, Murder Chose Me, and The Killer Beside Me, it’s hardly the kind of material that gives you the warm-and-fuzzies, but the network is tapping into some morbid fascination in viewers—and not necessarily the viewers you might think.
Over the last several years, Investigation Discovery has consistently been the most-watched cable network among women aged 25 to 54. Not Lifetime, not the Hallmark Channel, not HGTV. The network that exclusively airs true crime content. The murder network.
With cable viewership on the decline, it’s the only cable network launched in the last 10 years to rank in the top 20 in year-end ratings. Last year, it climbed to 12th place. According to the Los Angeles Times, Lady Gaga, Serena Williams, and Nicki Minaj are fans. More, it is also the network with the longest length of viewer tune-in, meaning that people watch this stuff all day long without changing the channel. That might suggest that people leave the network on as background noise, but we’d venture the opposite: They can’t stop watching because they’re riveted. By the murder!
When another network has a big hit, like Netflix did with Making a Murderer, Investigation Discovery even gets a residual bump in ratings, with viewers clamoring for similar content. And with the network producing upwards of 650 hours of true-crime content each year, it’s a reliable destination.
As the network becomes more popular, it’s starting to attract top talent in the documentary and journalism spheres, too. Barbara Kopple recently began working on a project with them. Award-winning journalist Tony Harris hosts the investigation series Scene of the Crime. The civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center partnered on Hate in America, a series of specials that launched with an episode about white supremacy. Southwest of Salem, the network’s 2016 documentary about the wrongful convictions of the San Antonio Four, won a Peabody Award.
The murders are getting prestigious.
So what is it? What is it about this genre that, for all its gruesomeness and inherently upsetting nature, that is so appealing, that we can’t get enough of? With more than 500 original TV shows produced each year and nearly as many ways to watch TV, how is Investigation Discovery getting us to tune in literally all day to a traditional cable network? One that, it bears repeating, has a lot of murder?
If I was going to learn about the popularity of these murder shows, I needed to get as close as I could to the heart of them. I needed to be a part of the murder! That’s how I ended up making my debut as a crime series dramatic re-enactor. To find out more about the phenomenon I went to the scene of the crime, at Scene of the Crime.
The diva is having a wardrobe issue.
His black car has just dropped him on-location at the Scene of the Crime set, which this day is a church in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. A producer hands him a hanger with his costume for the day’s big scene, but he is too fat. The pants will not button, and he cannot possibly make his debut as “Prison Guard 1” in a recreation scene from the show’s season finale in blue jeans.
This is clearly a crisis of the highest magnitude, which makes the workman indifference of the show’s on-set recreations producer all the more confusing.
He practically shrugs as he returns with another pair of pants that, I kid you not, are a size 70 waist. I pretend not to be affronted by the insinuation that this is the only solution for a man who just barely couldn’t button a pair of size 30 pants, but there’s a scene to shoot and we soldier on. Chris DeRosa, the aforementioned producer, pins the roughly two extra feet of fabric in the back of the pants with a clothespin. The pants have no zipper. A piece of gaffer tape is holding my fly shut.
Resourcefulness, it turns out, is the key to producing 650 hours of true crime content a year, and, in the case of Scene of the Crime, an entire episode’s worth of re-enactments in a day. (For context, I once spent 12 hours on the set of an FX series, during which 10 seconds of one scene was filmed.)
The glamor of my on-screen cameo is further dimmed when DeRosa jokes about how often the series’ crew is asked to appear in the recreations in a pinch. So far this year, he’s played a forensic anthropologist, a diver fishing a body out of the water in Alabama, a detective (many times), a cop (many times), and “basically any kind of police personnel.”
Scene of the Crime With Tony Harris, which launched its second season earlier this month, is one of Investigation Discovery’s more recent brand staples. It hits all the hallmarks of the network’s most popular series—small town wracked by horrific violence—but capitalizes on Harris’ background as a journalist to surface new details in the sordid cases, as well as capture the human element of how the crimes affected these communities and the victims’ families.
“There’s the psychological drama of how people are capable of doing these horrible things to others,” Harris tells me when I ask how this show taps into our grim murder-series fascination. “But it is also the dynamic of the individuals who have gone through this and how they come through it.”
The episode that will feature my star turn airs July 8, and centers around the 2009 murder of Angela Moss, a 39-year-old military veteran and nurse who was shot and killed one summer night in Orchard Park, New York, an otherwise sleepy town 20 miles from Buffalo. Her death remained an unresolved cold case for years, until a second murder and, in an unlikely turn of events, insurance fraud led police to her former fiancé, who killed her in a scheme to collect her life insurance policy.
Harris is making his directorial debut with this episode, so when I arrive his hands are full directing the first of the half-dozen recreations that will be shot that day. They are, objectively, hilarious.
If you’ve watched any of these shows, you know the deal. In the midst of an intense, hyper-serious narration about what the victim and suspect’s lives were like before the life-changing crime, the screen fades to a soft-focus flashback in which actors recreate some imagined scene between them, usually some melodramatic argument that foreshadows the violence to come.
Episodes of Scene of the Crime are pieced together using news footage, police interviews, family testimonials, court documents, public records, and as much primary source material as Harris and his producers can find. Dramatic re-enactments are then used to recreate the most important plot points of the story, Harris says, “but if we can do that with real footage then that’s our preference. It’s the audience’s preference, too.” A blow to the ego maybe worse than the fat pants.
I couldn’t stop laughing at these scenes being filmed. Actors come in and whisper in hushed, heightened tones, carrying intense conversations that are improvised on the spot. A smoke machine is constantly spitting out mist to visually cue that it is a recreation, while Harris barks out choreography from behind the camera like a fashion photographer from Zoolander: “Extend your hand! Rub his bicep! You’re hurt, look pained! He’s lying to you, you’re scorned! Yes! Yes! That’s it!!!” All in a church basement doubling as a prison.
When it’s time for my scene—a conversation that takes place in a prison visitors room between the victim’s murder suspect and his new lover—the crew takes a break just to set up lighting for me in the background of the scene, which is embarrassing but also the diva needs his light. Harris gives me my blocking: When the suspect caresses his lover’s arm, I’m to cross in front of the camera to the table where they’re sitting and gesture at them that they’re not allowed to touch.
Action is called, and it quickly comes to my attention that I have forgotten how to walk like a human being. Where do your arms go when you walk? I couldn’t tell you. I somehow make it to the table and wag my finger all tsk-tsk-like, apparently deciding that my spin on the prison guard trope would be to give him the personality and physicality of a cranky grandmother. “No touching!” I silently mouth for some reason, even though no audio will be used and I could have shouted my best George Bluth impression and no one would be the wiser.
“Nailed it on the first take!” Harris laughs. The entire crew claps. I am mortified, yet also planning my trip to L.A. for next year’s pilot season. I’m a star. I have also seen the finished clip from the episode and you cannot see my face. But the finger wag made it! Iconic.
Did the whole thing feel silly? Yes, which certainly juxtaposes with the weight of the subject at hand: A woman was murdered, and we were there to explain why. But that also speaks to the dueling appeal of these shows. The stories are awful. Just awful. Yet we’re so entertained by them. The more awful, the more we enjoy it.
“You can talk to any local news director or anchor, and their rundowns almost every day, the A-block of their newscasts are filled with crime,” Harris says when we connect the next week to talk more about the appeal of these shows. “It is immediate, it is traumatic, it gets your attention. It always has.”
Even Investigation Discovery is the first to admit that the network didn’t invent the wheel here. “True crime has always been the most popular genre in fiction, going back to the novels of Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse,” says Sara Kozak, the network’s senior vice president of production. But what’s happening now is that reality is more dramatic than fiction.
“This might sound somehow counterintuitive, but it’s a beguiling form of escapism,” she explains. “[Viewers] are sucked into the stories and forget about everything else that is going on in the world, which is an attractive proposition these days.”
For the omnipresence of these shows, it’s easy to forget that it’s such a small population of us who have actually been close to or involved in a murder. The stories of people who have, then, understandably fascinate us. There’s something primal it, tapping into our keen interest in our well-being: Are we living in safe communities? Are we protecting our families?
But the sensational aspect of the murders as they are logged in these true-crime series might hit on something else: our sadistic desire to scare ourselves. The communities that these murders happen in are recognizable to us. The victims are often innocent, model citizens. Their families are forever changed. Especially when they occur in small towns, they’re seismic events, the kind that people will never forget where they were when it happened.
“There’s a sense of wanting to understand how this could happen with someone who could essentially be my next-door neighbor,” Harris says. “It’s wanting to understand what it is in our human nature that is capable of doing what these people do to other human beings. Then there’s this idea of what lessons can I learn? What are the signposts that I can be made aware of? Is there information in the storytelling that can be useful for me?”
Interestingly, the addictive nature of these shows—again, no network has longer tune-in sessions than Investigation Discovery’s viewers—has nothing to do with the murder, violence, or gore. If that was the appeal, no one would watch past the opening the description of the crime.
“The armchair sleuth has always been part and parcel in appreciating true crime and fictional crime,” Kozak says. “It’s always been that case. No one picks up a true crime novel and reads the first chapter then jumps to the final page to find out who did it. You want to go on the journey.”
For all of our talk about murder, these aren’t really murder series at all, but investigations. Hell, it’s in the network’s name. We may be murder-obsessed. But we’re mystery-obsessed, too. These series can play out with all the drama of a soap opera, with the added intrigue of being rooted in real life, in effect removing the “guilty” from the “pleasure.”
And in the age of TV reboots and revivals, when crime and murder is the root of your programming, as we sadly know too well, you’ll never find yourself facing a shortage of new ideas.