Maybe it’s because my favorite shows are in reruns, or maybe it’s because I have seen every episode of Law & Order and L&O: SVU at least once, but for whatever reason, I have been on a true-crime kick lately. Especially since I discovered that there is a whole channel devoted to reruns of true-crime shows: Investigation Discovery, 113 on my TV. (I was going to link to its website, but I went there just now and then a bunch of weird "update your security!" pop-ups started, well, popping up, and I had to restart my computer. I don't know where they came from, but I'm going to avoid directing you there just in case.)
Since I stumbled on the treasure trove of Investigation Discovery, I’ve been DVRing various programs to try to get my crime-and-punishment fix. One of my most frequent indulgences is 48 Hours: Hard Evidence, a "series" that repackages reports from 48 Hours. My favorite thing about this show is its host, Maureen Maher. I don’t know who she is, but I love the presumption that I should know, or care. “I’m Maureen Maher,” she tells us at the beginning of each show, and the blurb on the ID website says, “Host Maureen Maher uncovers the facts surrounding some of the most disturbing crimes…” even though she doesn’t do any of the investigating or interviewing, or even narrating. Unless I am very much mistaken, her role in "uncovering the facts" is limited to announcing what episode we're about to see, welcoming us back from commercial breaks, and occasionally giving us an update at the end if there have been significant developments since the episode originally aired.
But this is the really fascinating part: whenever we see Maureen Maher, she is always walking around in some dangerous-looking area -- a dingy basement, an abandoned warehouse, an overgrown field. I am endlessly intrigued by these location choices. She could be speaking from a neutral studio background (like Lester Holt, who hosts the repackaged Dateline episodes). Or, for a touch of drama, she might be pacing the halls of a prison, or standing in an empty courtroom. They could even have her posed in front of a crime-scene investigation in progress (like James Kallstrom, hilariously stiff host of FBI Files), wearing a trench coat and staying just outside the yellow tape. But the creative minds behind 48 Hours: Hard Evidence have chosen to put Maher in what looks like a future crime scene, or else a recent and not-yet-discovered one. There's no connection to the actual cases (when those involve a suspicious death, the body usually turns up in someone's living room). But even as Maher is walking slowly toward the camera, earnestly setting up the episode’s story, you expect her to turn a corner and stumble upon a corpse, or stop in front of a wall studded with torture instruments. What I want to know is: Whose idea was this? And do they build these sets specially, or do they just scout a location? What instructions do the producers give the designers/scouts? “We want something that says, A body was discovered here. Or maybe If you were a serial torturer, this is just the sort of place you’d bring your victims. Nothing bloody, you understand. No corny stuff—no bats or cobwebs. Just someplace you’d definitely avoid after dark, and maybe even during the day.”
Much as I enjoy speculating about the intros, I think I'm going to stop recording 48 Hours: Hard Evidence because, despite the title, the program tends to shortchange the actual evidence in favor of lengthy, manipulative interviews with family members of the victims and the accused. "Tell me how you felt when you found your daughter's body." "Walk me through that moment when the police came to arrest you." You know the drill. Suggestive framing devices aside, these cases tend not to be terribly lurid, and I'm tired of seeing weary parents insisting that their accused-murderer child is "a good kid." That is not "hard evidence," and time and again I find myself frustrated by how little attention the show pays to the evidence that exists and the way it affects the verdict in the case. The other day I watched one about the murder of Kent Heitholt that might as well have been called 48 Hours: No Evidence.
Far better, in my estimation, is FBI Files. That show focuses on the investigation itself, with no-nonsense interviews with detectives in place of emotional conversations with victims and families. The low-budget reenactments are sometimes hard to swallow -- it's a little like Rescue 911, but with fewer choking toddlers and more spree killers. But here the reenactments feature very little dialogue -- the narrator does all the work -- so they're not quite as ridiculous as you might expect. I find them much less risible than the photo-distorting visuals and silly, ominous sound effects that characterize shows like 48 Hours, and somehow the whole thing feels a bit less exploitative when I don't have to see the actual people involved. Who needs Law & Order, anyway?