Favorites: True Crime Documentaries

Sister Cathy Cesnik The Keepers Netflix
Image courtesy of Netflix

Favorites takes a lighter approach to the material we normally cover. Each week, we will take you through a list of favorites—whether it’s moments, scenes, episodes, characters, lines of dialogue, whatever!—in bite-sized articles perfect for your lunch break, a dull commute, or anywhere you need to take a Moment of Zen. So, sit back and enjoy this week’s offering: Ali Sciarabba’s top ten true crime documentaries.

I have always been slightly obsessed with true crime and I attribute this to my lifelong obsession with Twin Peaks. While Laura Palmer’s story was a fictional one, it sparked in me a fascination with the macabre. I’ve always been drawn to dark, disturbing stories about the worst aspects of human nature. Luckily for me, there is no dearth of material to watch these days. The true crime documentary genre is incredibly popular and there are a lot of films and series available for my viewing pleasure (and horror).

What strikes me about the recent true crime documentaries is how well they are made. These are not like the trashy Lifetime movies or shows on the ID channel—which I will admit to having watched and enjoyed. The recent offerings in the true crime genre are artfully done, fascinatingly told, and actually have something to say about the larger world we live in. In no particular order, the following are my top ten favorite true crime documentaries.

The Keepers

Image courtesy of Netflix

I know I said that I did not place these in any particular order, but The Keepers (2017) is by far my favorite documentary. This seven-part Netflix series begins as an investigation into the 1969 murder of a Catholic nun and schoolteacher, Sister Cathy Cesnik. A group of Sister Cathy’s former students at Baltimore’s Archbishop Keough High School have taken it upon themselves to find answers and finally get justice for Sister Cathy, and the series starts with their attempts to discover the truth. In doing so, however, the story becomes much larger and more disturbing than the murder itself. Over the course of the series, truly horrifying revelations about sexual abuse at Keough—told bravely and heartbreakingly by the victims themselves—come to light. The Keepers is not easy viewing; it is graphic and may be triggering for people who have suffered abuse. But the strength and courage of the women who have come forward to tell their stories in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity is something worth celebrating and makes The Keepers a fascinating, if difficult, watch.

The Jinx

Image courtesy of HBO

This 2015 HBO docuseries is one of those stories that is so absurd at times that it feels like it should be a movie. In fact, part of it was a movie: the 2010 film All Good Things, directed by Andrew Jarecki who also happens to be the writer and director of The Jinx. The subject of both is Robert Durst, the New York real estate heir whose first wife, Kathy, disappeared in 1982. Durst had long been a suspect in Kathy’s disappearance but there was never enough evidence to convict him. While it is also about Kathy’s disappearance, The Jinx begins with an entirely different crime for which Durst was responsible. The story has so many twists and turns and a jaw-dropping ending so I won’t give too much away here. Suffice it to say that the story of Robert Durst as told in The Jinx—including one-on-one interviews with Durst himself—is so absolutely bizarre that you have to see it to believe it.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father

Image courtesy of Netflix

I’ve seen Dear Zachary (available on Netflix) several times and, even though I know how it ends, it makes me weep like a lost child every single time I watch it. This is one that I am loath to describe in too much detail because the story the film tells unfolds in a way that must be experienced the first time with fresh eyes. What I will say about it is that it begins, as the title suggests, as a celebration of the life of the deceased Andrew Bagby by his childhood friend, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne. Kuenne wanted to make something for Andrew’s infant son, Zachary, so that when he got older he would be able to know his father and how much he was loved by everyone who knew him. From there, things take several horrifying turns that I will not spoil for you but if you’re going to watch Dear Zachary, I suggest you have a box of tissues handy.

Mommy Dead and Dearest

Image courtesy of HBO

This 2017 HBO documentary film tells the story of the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard and the involvement of her daughter, Gypsy Rose. It is the story on which the new Hulu series The Act is based, although that series is a fictionalized version of the true crime story. The film explores the deeply disturbing relationship between Dee Dee and Gypsy, which—without giving too much away—is the catalyst for Dee Dee’s murder. If you’re anything like me and have a particular fascination with twisted mother-daughter dynamics, Mommy Dead and Dearest is something to check out. Also, if you’re planning on watching The Act, I would watch this documentary first as knowing the story will enrich your viewing of the fictionalized version.

O.J.: Made in America

Image courtesy of ESPN

We all know the story of O.J. Simpson: the white Bronco, the sensational trial, the shocking not guilty verdict. It was totally unavoidable in the ’90s and has been the subject of fascination ever since. While the fictionalized FX series The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was entertaining, it was just that—entertainment. The 2016 ESPN documentary series O.J.: Made in America goes much deeper. What the docuseries does that no other O.J.-related media has ever done (or, at least, done well) is to place the story of O.J. Simpson within the appropriate cultural context. It explores race relations in America, the concept of hero worship, and the cult of celebrity—all of which contributed to O.J.’s ability to get away with horrifying acts of domestic violence and murder. It also provides a great deal of insight into the response of the Black community to the O.J. trial—something which many white people simply could not understand. O.J.: Made in America is about more than just the murders and the trial—although both those things are covered in gory (and I do mean gory) detail. If you want to understand not what happened but why it was allowed to happen, this one is for you.

Wild Wild Country

Image courtesy of Netflix

I love a good cult story and Netflix’s Wild Wild Country delivers and then some. This six-part 2018 docuseries tells the story of the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, his faithful assistant Ma Anand Sheela, and the followers in the Rajneeshpuram community, which took over the small town of Antelope, Oregon in the early 1980s. It isn’t as much of a true crime story as others on this list, but there is definitely criminal activity involved and so I feel okay putting it on my list of favorites. It begins like most cult documentaries do, with everything all peace, love, and harmony, but it turns very dark very quickly. The standout of Wild Wild Country is Ma Anand Sheela. I won’t say much about her so as not to spoil the series but she’s a fascinating (and entertaining) character and makes you kind of like her even though you probably shouldn’t.

There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane

Image courtesy of HBO

This 2011 HBO documentary film hits close to home for me—literally. It tells the story of the 2009 Taconic State Parkway crash, which occurred very close to where I live. The horrific crash was attributed to 36-year-old mother Diane Schuler who drove nearly two miles in the wrong direction on the parkway, killing eight people. The toxicology reports indicated that she was under the influence at the time, but There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane asks the question: was something else going on? Schuler was a seemingly perfect wife and mother and her family refuses to believe that she would drive while intoxicated. The documentary explores possible alternative explanations for Diane’s state of mind during the crash and is an interesting look into a case that seemed otherwise open and shut.

Beware the Slenderman

Image courtesy of HBO

This 2016 HBO documentary film tells the story of two 12-year-old girls who attempted to murder their friend, believing that they had to do so to appease The Slenderman. The Slenderman originated as an Internet creepypasta in 2009 and Beware the Slenderman explores the effects that Internet culture can have on young kids. The documentary examines the whole concept of moral panic regarding children’s access to the Internet and looks at both the psychological effects this can have as well as the mental health history of the girls, their upbringings, and other social factors that contributed to their mental states at the time the crime was committed. While Beware the Slenderman does not excuse the girls’ actions, it provides some much needed context as to how something like this could happen.

Abducted in Plain Sight

Image courtesy of Netflix

This one is just wild from start to finish. The 2017 documentary film Abducted in Plain Sight (available on Netflix) tells the story of the kidnapping of an Idaho teenager, Jan Broberg. There is a lot going on in this documentary and it’s of the twisty-turny variety so I won’t get into too much detail so as not to spoil it. What I will say is that it turns a very critical eye to religious culture, particularly those communities in small-town America. What Abducted in Plain Sight does, in addition to presenting the mind-blowingly absurd details of the case, is to call into question a religious culture that gives a false sense of security and trust where it is not warranted. It also examines how the threat of shame amongst the community can lead a person to do things that are otherwise unthinkable. Also, there’s aliens. This is one you have to see to believe, and even then you can barely believe it.

Surviving R. Kelly

Image courtesy of Lifetime

This is another one of those hard-to-watch docuseries but I believe it is necessary viewing for everyone. There have been rumors for years about R. Kelly’s sexual relationships with underage girls. It was the worst-kept secret in the music business, and yet he was allowed to just go about his business and was protected by those around him. The 2019 six-part series Surviving R. Kelly put an end to all that. A number of Kelly’s victims came forward and bravely told their stories for the Lifetime series. The documentary not only exposed Kelly for exactly who and what he is but, perhaps more importantly, it exposed a culture that ignores the abuse of Black girls and women. Surviving R. Kelly led to Kelly’s record label dropping him and started a renewed criminal investigation that resulted in actual charges being filed against him in Chicago. Surviving R. Kelly is painful to watch but its impact is undeniable.

Written by Alison Morretta

In addition to her position as Senior Editor and Writer for TVObs, Ali is a freelance editorial consultant and author of numerous nonfiction reference books for middle school and high school students. In her spare time, she enjoys obsessing over various television shows, especially Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. When not overanalyzing TV shows, she is wrangling her hyperactive Corgi, who is inarguably the cutest dog that has ever existed.

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