The number of true crime shows released recently must be unprecedented. Every week, if not every few days, it seems like a new documentary or docudrama drops on a streaming service. Netflix still has a corner on the market, but the caliber of offerings on other channels has forced me to expand my budget for TV subscriptions. I’m not complaining! For me, it’s worth every penny.
From massive hits like The Tinder Swindler and The Dropout to lesser-known shows like My Daughter’s Killer and Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story, here are my picks for best true crime documentaries, docuseries, and docudramas.
Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal (Netflix): When Alex Murdaugh called his son Paul “Paw-Paw” on the witness stand during his murder trial, people were surprised to hear the nickname for the first time. The 22-year-old has largely been an elusive figure, in spite of the media circus that began with his killing. Southern Scandal, Netflix’s new three-part docuseries, stands apart from the plethora of TV shows and docuseries about the Murdaugh family (check out our review of HBO’s Low Country: The Murdaugh Dynasty) by featuring dozens of photos and videos of Paul and extensive interviews with his friends and longtime girlfriend, Morgan Doughty. She was one of the passengers on the boat that he was allegedly driving drunk when it crashed into a bridge, killing Mallory Beach. Paul was charged with causing her death and injuring two others, including Doughty, and prosecutors allege that a pending lawsuit was a factor in Alex’s decision to kill his son and wife. Doughty says in the documentary that Paul physically abused her, drank heavily, and was extremely reckless; she describes being his passenger in a previous drunk driving crash, when Paul rolled his truck in a ditch. Just like their actions following the boat crash, Doughty says, Alex and Paul’s grandfather rushed to the scene to do damage control, removing Paul’s guns and beer cans from the truck and berating Doughty for trying to call 911. In addition to the boat crash and the murders of Paul and his mother, Southern Scandal also examines the deaths of Stephen Smith and the Murdaughs’ housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, but it is a must-see for the archival footage of Paul and heartbreaking interviews with the people who paid a heavy price for loving him.
Girl in the Picture (Netflix): This is another shocker from filmmaker Skye Borgman, whose Abducted in Plain Sight (2017) — about a girl who was kidnapped not once but twice by her neighbor — nearly required me to have my jaw surgically reattached. The filmmaker connects the dots between a fatal apparent hit-and-run in Oklahoma, a brilliant and beautiful high school graduate whose plan to study aerospace engineering was seemingly derailed by a pregnancy and a strict father, and a book-loving exotic dancer in Tampa, Florida, terrified to leave her abusive husband because of what he might do to her young son. Each revelation is more shocking than the last, and what the docuseries uncovers about the life of the titular girl in the picture will haunt you forever.
The Tinder Swindler (Netflix): This wild documentary, which focuses on three victims of a ruthless con artist who targeted women using the dating app, was released just in time for Valentine’s Day and became a viral sensation. Posing as a wealthy Israeli diamond heir, Simon Leviev wooed women with private jets and yachts, luxurious getaways, and lavish gifts paid for by his previous — or sometimes current — marks. His schemes are outlandish to the point of absurdity: He persuaded his victims to lend him money or pick up the hefty tabs because he claimed to be eluding dangerous “enemies” (with staged pictures of his “bodyguard” to prove it). Tinder Swindler is a roller coaster, starting with the successful, intelligent women opening up about how Leviev duped them into emptying their bank accounts and racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. The story takes an exhilarating turn when they band together and become part of an international sting operation. Unfortunately, there’s not a genuine happy ending to this story (Leviev has faced little jail time and is somehow still flaunting a lavish lifestyle), but Tinder Swindler is an undeniable thrill ride.
BTW, don’t miss Katie Camero’s story about abusive and manipulative relationships like the ones on display in the documentary. She interviewed therapists and other experts on how “abuse, intimidation, and gaslighting [can warp] a person’s reality into one that suits that of the abuser” — and how we can stop or prevent the insidious cycle.
Captive Audience: A Real American Horror Story (Hulu): I really, really, really didn’t want to watch this docuseries about Steven Stayner. His story is just so tragic: He was kidnapped in 1972 when he was 7; given a new identity, brainwashed, and sexually assaulted for seven years by his captor; and escaped at age 14 to save another young boy the man had also kidnapped. A 1989 miniseries made about his life was watched by 40 million people in primetime, but as one TV critic said then: “Don’t look for silver linings or cotton candy in I Know My First Name Is Steven. The two-part miniseries about a lost child … hasn’t any sweet tooth. In real life, in a series of motel rooms and shacks all over Northern California, he was sexually molested.” See what I mean?! But it gets worse: When he finally found a measure of happiness after marrying and having two children, Steven was killed by a hit-and-run driver at age 24. And yet, I was glad I finally tuned in: His family — including his mother, sister, wife, and children — opened their hearts to filmmaker Jessica Dimmock, and, despite knowing what happened, I was engrossed. But the story as I knew it was wrapping up toward the end of the second of the series’ three episodes. Then Steven’s sister looks directly at the camera and says, “After Steven dies, terrible things start all up again. … How much more could happen in our lives in one lifetime? In one family?” Well, it turns out there was something indeed QUITE TERRIBLE that I wasn’t aware of. Whether you know about this OTHER TERRIBLE THING or not, it’s imperative that you watch for the what-the-fuckery of it all, and to honor the bravery of Steven’s family for their candor and compassion. (For more about Captive Audience, read Alessa Dominguez’s insightful review and commentary.)
The Dropout (Hulu): I usually avoid dramatizations of true crime stories (and don’t get me started on cheesy reenactments in documentaries), but the rave reviews, especially for Amanda Seyfried’s uncanny portrayal of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, finally convinced me to tune in. Based on Scaachi Koul’s critique of the miniseries’ sympathetic portrayal of a scammer, I expected to be bored because I already knew every detail about the story: I devoured Bad Blood, the book by John Carreyrou, the investigative reporter who first exposed the Silicon Valley entrepreneur’s fraud; listened to Carreyou’s follow-up podcast, Bad Blood: The Final Chapter; and watched Alex Gibney’s 2019 documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. (For a concise explainer, I highly recommend Stephanie Lee’s “The Seven Biggest Lies Theranos Told.”) I’ll admit I found the middle episodes of The Dropout sort of excruciating because I didn’t want to witness the suffering of the victims and whistleblowers again, but I watched before Holmes was sentenced to more than 11 years in federal prison for her crimes. I imagine that for new viewers — I urge you to be one of them! — knowing she does face consequences will balance the angst.
The Girl From Plainville (Hulu): For the same reason that I initially avoided The Dropout, I didn’t hit the play button right away on Plainville — a dramatization of the lead-up to high schooler Michelle Carter’s conviction for urging her 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy, to kill himself. However, once I started watching the miniseries one Saturday night (yep, that’s me, a true crime fan stereotype — I also have cats), I was riveted and watched all eight episodes. The last time I stayed up until dawn marathoning a show was for the original Staircase documentary.
Note: HBO’s Colin Firth–fronted dramatization of the Staircase docuseries is absent from this list. Unlike Plainville — an intriguingly stylized glimpse at Carter and Roy’s personal lives and relationship — HBO’s Staircase miniseries is (despite Toni Collette’s gruesome reenactment of Kathleen Peterson’s fatal “fall”) a redundant retelling, and I found it so unbearable that I could only endure the first two episodes.
“Groene Family Massacre” (People Magazine Investigates on Discovery+): This was my first time learning about the horrific murders of the Groene family in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 2005 — and honestly, I’m not sure I would’ve been brave enough to watch this documentary if I had. As it was, it took me longer than its 84-minute runtime to watch it because I had to keep taking mental health breaks. An opening content warning says, “This episode involves disturbing crimes committed against children and may be upsetting,” and I can guarantee that you can swap in “will” for “may.” Its production as part of the People Magazine Investigates series also has a tabloid feel, but don’t be turned off. This documentary gives a powerful voice to Shasta Groene, the sole survivor of the massacre and the victim of unimaginable horrors. Also interviewed are her other family members, the case’s lead detective, relatives of another victim — whom true crime bloggers helped identify — and many others. There are some minor reenactments, but they serve more as b-roll and don’t involve dialogue.
I Just Killed My Dad (Netflix): The title is pretty self-explanatory: The docuseries, another one directed by Skye Borgman, opens with Anthony Templet confessing to fatally shooting his father, first in a 911 call and later to police. In footage of the police interrogation, Templet shows no signs of emotion or remorse as he details and even reenacts the shooting. At first, I thought this story, as perplexing as it was, didn’t have enough material for even an hour of Dateline, much less three episodes of a docuseries. I was wrong! There are twists, turns, gaspworthy revelations, and low-key heroism from Templet’s pro bono defense attorney, Jarrett Ambeau.
Mind Over Murder (HBO Max): The six-part docuseries tells the extraordinary story of the “Beatrice Six,” a group of people who were wrongfully convicted, five of them based on false confessions, for the rape and murder of a 68-year-old grandmother in her own apartment in Beatrice, Nebraska. In addition to interviewing those wrongfully convicted, investigators, and loved ones of the victim and the accused, filmmaker Nanfu Wang commissioned a local stage production of the case, enlisting local actors to portray the real-life people involved in the investigation. Wang filmed the actors, who read directly from court documents, from rehearsals to the final performance. A choice! It’s almost ludicrous — but I promise it pays off in unexpected and heartstring-tugging ways. For the sake of my mental health and blood pressure, I often avoid stories about travesties of justice, but this is a riveting examination of how overzealous policing and a chillingly persuasive psychologist can convince a person they did something that they probably did not — to the point that to this day some still believe they were involved.
Sins of Our Mother (Netflix): This three-part docuseries examines how Lori Vallow, a once-doting mother of three children and devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ended up being charged with murdering two of her three kids and splashed across headlines as the “Doomsday Mom.” In addition to the killings of 7-year-old JJ and his 16-year-old half-sister Tylee, Vallow and her fifth husband, self-proclaimed prophet Chad Daybell, have been charged in the deaths of Daybell’s wife and Vallow’s estranged husband, Charles — whom her brother Alex, who has also since died, claimed to have killed in self-defense. Filmmaker Skye Borgman (she’s prolific this year!) presents a trove of footage, like Vallow competing on Wheel of Fortune; bodycam of police interviews with Charles and then, later, Alex; a snippet of Alex’s stand-up comedy routine; recorded phone calls and alarming text messages; and dozens of family photos and videos. Sins also includes extensive interviews with Vallow’s adult son and only surviving child, Colby Ryan, who shares both heartwarming and harrowing details about his family, and his helplessness in seeing his mother’s love and faith subsumed by zealotry.
The Most Hated Man on the Internet (Netflix): So many true crime stories focus, admirably, on failures of our criminal justice system that seeing the small victories showcased in Most Hated Man was fist-in-the-air refreshing. After her daughter’s nude photos were leaked to a “revenge porn” website, Charlotte Laws launched an exhausting, relentless campaign to have them taken down. During her investigation (police and attorneys weren’t much help), she found other victims who’d been hacked and sought justice for them too.
My Daughter’s Killer (Netflix): I love a vigilante story, and this docuseries showcases a father, André Bamberski, who took it upon himself to put his daughter’s killer behind bars after shocking failures by medical examiners and police stymied by extradition laws. It is a fascinating morality play about how far a person is willing to go — and for society to accept their actions — to exact justice. I found it easy to side with Bamberski, especially after we learn that the suspected killer of his 14-year-old daughter, Kalinka, was a powerful physician whom multiple girls and women said had drugged and raped them.
A Friend of the Family (Peacock): This docudrama gives viewers nine hourlong episodes to process the shocking events originally chronicled in Abducted in Plain Sight, Skye Borgman’s jaw-dropping and whiplash-inducing 90-minute documentary about a predator who groomed not only Jan Broberg, whom he first kidnapped when she was 12, but her entire family. Colin Hanks and Anna Paquin’s devastating portrayals of Jan’s parents don’t exactly make them sympathetic — their actions are both mystifying and enraging — but they do earn our empathy. Watch Abducted in Plain Sight first for the cold hard facts, then tune in to A Friend of the Family to learn more about how and why members of this family were manipulated for years by a man they’d invited into their lives.
Once Upon a Time in Londongrad (Peacock): This snappy six-part docuseries is based on an explosive BuzzFeed News investigation into 14 suspected hits on British soil that US spy agencies have linked to Russia. Inexplicably, UK police shut down each case, determining that they were a result of natural causes or suicide. That includes one man who was stabbed repeatedly with two different knives and another whose naked body was found inside a locked duffel bag. If you think that I’m biased because I work at BuzzFeed News, watch the first episode and meet me back here. The Bond-esque openers set the tone of this fast-paced real-life spy thriller, and each episode is just under 30 minutes long.
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