You’d think that after a year of a pandemic, I wouldn’t look as fondly on the grim subject of true crime. But looking back on what I’ve consumed this year, some of the most notable stories that popped up on my podcast feed or in my streaming history are still true crime stories. For many, true crime documentaries and investigations aren’t just about the crime itself, but the people behind the cases. There’s the justice — or injustice — of a case, the unsolved cold cases that linger for years, the triumph when a perpetrator is finally caught. And while I also indulged in popular series like Tiger King, Making a Murderer, and Serial, the following top 10 choices are the ones that have stuck with me past the hype. Some are newer documentaries released in 2020, others are older but still just as impactful.
But before the list, I’d just like to issue a content warning in regards to the media on this list, as often times true crime documentaries detail events that involve abuse or violence. I’ve done my best not to shine a spotlight on the perpetrators of these crimes or the details of the crimes, but instead I wanted to highlight the stories being told in these investigations and productions.
10. The Vow/Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult (Docuseries)
I hate that this is on the list because honestly both of these docuseries are insanely biased. If you do end up watching HBO Max’s The Vow and Starz’s Seduced: Inside the NXIVM Cult, I highly recommend you peruse Reddit and the internet to educate yourself a bit on the creators behind both series. It’s also one of those true crime stories that butt up against the pop culture world. If NXIVM doesn’t sound familiar, then perhaps Allison Mack’s sex cult sounds more familiar? This cult also has an alarmingly large amount of members from Battlestar Galactica as well as a cast member from the Star Wars prequel films. The docuseres were created by high-ranking members of the cult and it often feels like they’re trying to cover their bases and seem less guilty. I won’t go into too much detail on that (because honestly I could spend a whole article talking about the shadiness of Mark Vicente and Sarah Edmonson) but this makes the list because I have been obsessed with reading and following the NXIVM story. If you’ve ever wondered how rich, famous, and seemingly successful people can get sucked into a cult, this is the story for you.
9. Abducted in Plain Sight (Documentary)
Directed by Skye Borgman, this film covers the kidnapping of Jan Broberg Felt, who was abducted by her neighbor twice. On the surface, it’s a shocking tale about how a man manipulated an entire family in order to abduct and abuse their young daughter, but Abducted in Plain Sight is far from a simple tale. It’s hard to go into too much detail without spoiling this insane story, but suffice it to say that there is much more than meets the eye. This isn’t high on my list because I’m often conflicted about how I feel about this story. Jan’s parents, while also manipulated by their neighbor, seem impossibly naive in the face of the horrors that have occurred during Jan’s young life. But at the same time, I can’t lodge all my frustrations at them, because there was an entire culture of silence about sexual abuse and assault during the ’70s. Find this one on Netflix and decide for yourself how you feel about it.
8. The Keepers (Docuseries)
Directed by Ryan White, this series covers the unsolved murder of Cathy Cesnik. The only reason this is lower on my list is that it’s been about three years since this series has been released on Netflix, but make no mistake, I think often about the outrage I feel at the injustice of Sister Cathy’s death. In this seven-part series, White examines the disgusting system created by the Catholic church in order to insulate their priests, even in the face of gross sexual abuse of children. Sister Cathy was a teacher at a Catholic high school who uncovered the truth of this abuse. When I think about The Keepers all I feel is rage. Rage at injustice, rage at a system that protects rapists, rage at a community that silences victims, rage at these monsters who target children. But, a shining light amidst this painful story is amateur investigators like Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, who knew Sister Cathy and have spent years trying to dig out the truth. I can’t recommend this series enough, but also a strong content warning, I often left these episodes feeling like I needed a long shower and maybe some time in front of a punching bag.
7. The Teacher’s Pet (Podcast)
Published by The Australian newspaper, this podcast centers around the disappearance of Lynette Dawson. Much like the COLD Podcast, this podcast looks into the prime suspect of the case, Chris Dawson, Lynette’s husband. This podcast, hosted by journalist Hedley Thomas, went from covering a cold case to an active case, as the suspect was actually charged with Lynette’s murder in 2019, 37 years after her disappearance. It has also became the first podcast to be cited by a judge for a temporary stay of proceedings. The Teacher’s Pet investigates the Dawson’s marriage, as well as Chris’ affair with one of the students at the school where he taught P.E. While the podcast can sometimes get mired in the details, its existence brought Lynette’s case back to life and hopefully by 2021 we will start seeing some movement on the trial.
6. The Ripper (Docuseries)
Although I want to rejoice in finally having a case on this list that is actually solved, I can’t because here is another series that left me feeling furious. There’s a bit of controversy surrounding The Ripper, a recent Netflix release directed by Jesse Vile and Ellena Wood. Criticism stems from the belief that the naming of the series sensationalizes the serial killer known in the ’70s as the Yorkshire Ripper. However, The Ripper is highly effective in showing just how misogynist the world once was (and might still be, if you just glance at Google reviews). If you grew up as a girl, you were probably all too familiar with your parents warning you not to stay out too late at night, not to walk alone at night, and not to dress a certain way. This series examines the culture around this sentiment and how it affected the investigation of an entirely catchable serial killer. It examines the police’s myopic efforts that lead to the murder of 13 women and chooses to center the series around the investigation instead of giving more attention to the killer.
5. COLD Podcast (Podcast)
There are so many true crime podcasts out there, and so many of them are well done, but the disappearance of Susan Powell has stayed with me for all these years. Debuting in 2018 from Wondery and KSL Podcasts, COLD is hosted by Dave Cawley and reveals (at the time) completely new details about Susan Powell’s case. Missing since 2009, COLD not only investigates the prime suspect, Josh Powell, Susan’s husband, but also the horrific aftermath that leads to Josh killing himself and their two young sons Charles and Braden in a murder-suicide. I can’t even begin to describe to you the rage and fury I felt at Josh and also the majority of the Powell family (looking at you, Steven). No other series covers this story with as much detail and unlike many other podcasts, I found myself returning and relistening to this in order to make sense of everything that had happened. COLD is done extremely well and goes deep inside this case, unearthing recordings and wiretappings and more evidence for a case that might never truly be solved.
4. Unsolved Mysteries (Docuseries)
I must have watched maybe ten episodes of Unsolved Mysteries in the past, for the pure reason that nearly all of those episodes left me, at the tender age of 13, terrified. But it’s revival this year has not only captured my attention, but it has me revisiting some of the older episodes from its 1987-2010 run. Even without Robert Stack narrating each episode, the unsolved mysteries are riveting and honor the original tone of the series. Notable episodes include “13 Minutes,” “No Ride Home,” “Washington Inside Murder,” and “Stolen Kids”. From disappearances to unexplained deaths, to aliens and tsunami spirits, the series doesn’t shy away from the soul of the series. I also love that the episodes look at cases from around the world, instead of just in the United States.
3. McMillion$ (Docuseries)
I won’t say McMillions is necessarily light-hearted, but amidst my list of serial killers and unsolved murders, this six-part docuseries by James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte tells the outrageously chaotic story about the McDonalds’ monopoly scam. Not gonna lie, almost all of the charm that lured me into this series laid on the shoulders of the absurdly charismatic and goofy FBI agent Doug Mathews. From his golden fry-colored suit to his ridiculous undercover ideas, I was hooked. Of course, the series isn’t just about the agents trying to track down the perpetrators of the fraud, but also about ties it had to the mob and the extensive details of this long con. This story seems poised to become a movie or tv show one day, and if you want to get ahead of the curve, get this on your screens ASAP.
2. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark (Book/Docuseries)
When I first listened to the audiobook of Michelle McNamara‘s book back in 2018, I was working as an intern and trying to hide my tears at work as I consumed McNamara’s posthumously published book on the Golden State Killer. I’ve already talked a lot about the docuseries in our Best of Television list this year, but McNamara’s book affected me so much more than the docuseries. Reading Michelle’s own words, following her on her investigation, learning about the challenges she faced and overcame, reading her final “Letter to an Old Man”, it’s impossible not to list McNamara as one of the investigators who contributed to the case (though definitely not the only one). And when a couple of months passed and authorities found and charged the man responsible for terrorizing so much of California during the 1970s through the 1980s, it felt tremendously triumphant. Many of the cases on this list remain frustratingly unsolved; this one has the immense satisfaction of being a long-time cold case that has finally gotten to face justice.
1. True Crime Obsessed (Podcast)
In a time of podcast hosts getting cancelled or coming under allegations for plagiarism, True Crime Obsessed remains the one and only comedy true crime podcast I can still keep up with (I’m living in a post-murderino life here). It’s a fine line to walk when creating a true crime podcast, even more so when it comes to injecting some comedy into the subject matter. Too often the hosts can become flippant and even exploitative. This is not the case for TCO. Their concept doesn’t revolve around a murder-of-the-week format, but rather reviewing and talking about true crime documentaries and docuseries. I can’t shower enough praise for Gillian Pensavalle and Patrick Hinds, who are able to respectfully deal with the subject matter while also injecting their humor into it. It is one of the few podcasts I support on Patreon (Lady Payts!!) and a podcast I look forward to checking out every week, multiple times a week. If you consume as much true crime as I do, True Crime Obsessed is here to break all of what you watch down. No garbage bells for this podcast, only hero bells! (If you know, you know.)