The best true crime to stream: Serial killers, with less glorification
By Maya Salam
Decades before true crime crept in from the margins and inundated pop culture, I found a humble paperback buried in the stacks of my parents’ bookshelf about America’s most notorious serial killers. Perhaps the book was inadvisable for a 10-year-old, but I read and reread about the horrors inflicted by, among others, Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy. Though I was already aware that terrible things happened in general, this was different: specific, personal and intimately chilling.
Lately, and fortunately, the tired approach of centering these monsters by rehashing their personal struggles and the details of their deeds has been falling out of favor. Interest has shifted to elevating the stories of those affected and to understanding the mood of the eras and the societal circumstances in which these crimes took place. This shift was reflected to some degree in July when a man was arrested in the Gilgo Beach serial killings on Long Island, New York. Profiles of the suspect abounded, but from the start, there was demand for information about the victims as well as scrutiny of the investigation.
This is the first in a series of streaming lists about true-crime films, shows and podcasts. And while I won’t dwell on these types of murderers in the future, the topic does feel like the appropriate place to start. Here are four picks that offer more than the usual glorification of madness.
‘Last Call: When a Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York’
No series in recent memory has so successfully, thoughtfully and deliberately contextualized a serial killing spree like this four-part Max series, based on a book by Elon Green. In the early 1990s, amid the AIDS crisis and rising hate crimes against LGBTQ people, gay men were being stalked in Manhattan piano bars — murdered and dismembered, their bodies found discarded around New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But the killer’s identity, almost remarkably, is not front of mind as the episodes proceed.
Instead, through interviews with family members, friends, lovers, and members and allies of the queer community, the victims are powerfully, heartbreakingly humanized, while viewers are plunged into the New York City of the time. Instead of simply alluding to the problems of bias and bigotry by those entrusted to solve these crimes, this series boldly addresses the way the New York Police Department and the city’s politicians treated the murdered men, the community as a whole and those pleading for action as second-class citizens. The final episode ran on July 30.
‘Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer’
This four-part Netflix series about the search for Richard Ramirez, who terrorized California with a brutal and unpredictable rampage that lasted just over a year in the mid-1980s, is about much more than who he was and what he did. It’s instead anchored in the recollections of survivors, victims’ families, journalists who worked on the case, and primarily Gil Carrillo and Frank Salerno, detectives who devoted themselves tirelessly to hunting for Ramirez.
While this series, from 2021, doesn’t minimize the horrors of the crimes (be warned, there is crime-scene footage), it, like “Last Call,” conveys an uncanny sense of time and place, highlighting the mentality of the day in the communities affected and the shortcomings of the available technology. Be prepared to be stunned by mistakes made by law enforcement and by political leaders who jeopardized the frantic search.
‘This Is Actually Happening,’ Episode 259: ‘What If You Survived a Serial Killer?’
I have listened to dozens of episodes of this podcast, in which regular people simply tell the stories of staggering, often wrenching, events that have altered the course of their lives. It epitomizes my favorite format across true crime: stripped-down, no-frills first-person accounts that leave space for the gravity of the story to hit hard. And the stories explored on “This Is Actually Happening” run the gamut, which means there’s a good chance it will make another appearance on this list.
This 2022 episode features Jane Boroski, the only known survivor of the Connecticut River Valley killer, whose identity is still unknown. He murdered at least seven women over a decade starting in the late 1970s, but in this podcast, the details of his crimes are put to the side in favor of giving Boroski — who was attacked when she was 22 years old and seven months pregnant, after she’d stopped for a soda on the way home from a county fair — room to discuss who she was before, during and after the attack, and who she is now.
Also, thoughtfully, this podcast includes highly specific warnings in the show notes of each episode page to ensure that listeners are aware of what sensitive topics will be discussed.
This gripping and moody Netflix drama — executive produced by its creator, Joe Penhall, along with David Fincher and Charlize Theron — sadly won’t see a third season, Fincher confirmed this year, but the first two are more than worth the price of admission (that being a slice of your sense of security). Based on the memoir “Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit,” the show dramatizes the creation of the FBI’s real Behavioral Science Unit, where the concept of a serial killer began. And while the three central characters — Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), an FBI hostage negotiator increasingly unsettled by the emergence of a disturbing theme; behavioral-science specialist Bill Tench (Holt McCallany); and psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) — are fictional, the serial killers that appear are all based on real people, with casting that is eerily true to life.
It starts in 1977, with David Berkowitz (Oliver Cooper), who was known as the Son of Sam, and moves on to, among others, Ed Kemper, the “Coed Killer” (Cameron Britton, who was nominated for an Emmy for the role), and the killer known as BTK, Dennis Rader (Sonny Valicenti, still only listed as an ADT serviceman in the credits). The genius of “Mindhunter,” though, is that it’s — as James Poniewozik, chief television critic for The New York Times, put it when the first season came out in 2017 — “more academic than sensationalistic,” with the stomach-turning events rarely spelled out in blood but instead explored through hushed conversations.