Saturday, February 25, 2012

I'm Not a Criminal, But I Can't Stop Watching Them on TV

I have no idea how it started, but I do remember exactly where I was at the time.

I was lying in bed in my apartment in Bangkok several months ago, watching a documentary on the Crime & Investigation Network about a New Orleans TV and radio sports journalist who murdered his estranged wife in the middle of a parking lot in broad daylight and wasn't even a suspect until more than halfway through.

I won't dive into all of the lurid details here, but the story was as juicy as anything I've seen lately on Days of Our Lives (except maybe Will Horton's coming-out saga, which is must-see TV).

Here's a guy (me) who has never been able to sit through an episode of Law & Order, one who's pretty much allergic to all police procedurals. In Bangkok, I tried to get into Criminal Minds, but not even special guest star Anton Yelchin, whom I loved so much in Like Crazy, could pull me in. But suddenly, I had a new obsession. I was hooked on crime-time TV. But just the facts, m'aam -- the real facts, not make-believe crime stories on Criminal Minds and Law & Order (even if they're supposedly "ripped from the headlines").

For the first time ever, I couldn't get enough of reality TV. Not those desperate housewives, or those pitchy kids itching to be stars. I was hooked on crime -- but only after dark. It's just not the same when the sun is up. Every night, if I wasn't at DJ Station, or fast asleep, I was sitting up in bed watching some real-life crime spree unfold onscreen. (It's all about the re-enactments, which occasionally, feature decent, if not quite Emmy-caliber, acting).

As much as it shames me to say it, the Crime & Investigation Network nearly stopped me from leaving Bangkok. Well, maybe not, but I had a hard time dragging myself away from it. Over the last two months in Melbourne, it's one of the things I've missed most about Thailand, and I'm looking forward to once again going to bed with it when I return. (There's a CI in Australia, by the way, but my TV doesn't get it.)

Thankfully, though, being back in Australia hasn't meant giving up my life of crime. My nights are often still filled with murder (start humming Echo & the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon" here), thanks to the Discovery channel, which on any given evening airs blocks of similar murder stories, complete with re-enactments.

There was one on the other night about a detective who was trying to solve the Jack the Ripper cold case more than a century after the fact. I'm still not sure why he insisted on going there (to London and to the 1800s). It's not like he was going to arrest anyone. It's the only time I've fallen asleep before reaching the end.

One program focused on the young followers of Charles Manson, exploring why he so easily ensnared them into his web and featuring interviews with the ones who got away, the kids who somehow never got around to killing in his name. It was a side of the Manson saga that I hadn't seen covered, and it made me sad that Martha Marcy May Marlene got absolutely no love from the Academy. John Hawkes makes an excellent Manson manque.

Another night, there was a documentary on the serial killer who was going around Gainesville, Florida, in 1990, slicing up students. I'd lived through it firsthand, having been a journalism major at the University of Florida at the time, and I'm still not completely sure how I managed to relive what had been a truly terrifying experience the first time.

Indeed, after I posted about it on Facebook, Stephanie, my roommate from back then, who had gone through much of it with me, said she wouldn't be able to watch, and I completely understood where she was coming from. I can still remember imagining the face in the police sketch that I'd seen in the Gainesville Sun staring at me through the window while home alone one night and lying awake in my bedroom in Gainesville, after escaping to New Orleans for the weekend with my friend's band, all those years ago. But two decades later, I couldn't take my eyes away from the re-enactments of the killings on the TV screen. Most of all, I wanted to see justice served, and since I'd graduated from UF and left Gainesville before the case was closed, I finally got that.

The most disturbing thing about my latest guilty pleasure, this obsession with these true-crime stories, is that Manson and the Gainesville murderer aside, sometimes, when they're told from the point of view of the criminals and not the victims, the victims' loved ones, or the police, I find myself rooting for the bad guys. I haven't been so wracked with guilt since I read The Talented Mr. Ripley in 1996, and spent a week running around Prague, introducing myself to people as Tom Ripley!

There's one series dedicated to criminals who spend years eluding the cops, and the interviews with the formerly on-the-lam crooks years after the fact make them look like not-so-bad guys. Though they fall just short of becoming sympathetic characters, I often find myself watching the re-enactments and secretly wanting them to continue avoiding capture, because I'm enjoying the chase so much. The show must go on.

The good news? Despite my recent nightlife of true crime, I'm no more inclined now than I was six months ago to physically assault an innocent man before taking him out to a deserted field to shoot him in the head, or to make a living selling pirated DVDs of Hollywood blockbusters (though I still think the cops who spent years chasing that copyright-infringement kingpin should have had better things to do). I continue to lead a crime-free life when tomorrow comes.

And I still can't make it through an episode of Law & Order.
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