Inspired by Real Events: The Serpent, The Investigation, and true crime drama

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“No-one’s said or written a word about him in years. Someone so vain must hate that. He pulls a stunt like this, and the world remembers his name.”

The Serpent, Episode 8

“Maybe it’s because the more civilised we become, the greater is our need to stare into the darkness.”

The Investigation, Episode 6

The Serpent and The Investigation each represent different extremes for true crime fiction. The former, a co-production between BBC One and Netflix, dramatises a series of murders committed by Charles Sobrahj in Southeast Asia during the 1970s; the latter, a piece of Nordic noir broadcast by BBC Four and HBO, depicts the police investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall. They make for interesting comparisons to one another – in part simply for being released in tandem, but largely for all the ways in which each stands as a rejection of the other.  Where The Serpent (named for its lead) places a charismatic killer at its centre, The Investigation (named for its process) refuses to feature or even name Kim Wall’s murderer, instead focusing solely on the slow and painstaking work leading to his eventual conviction.

On an immediate level, at least, it’s obvious why The Investigation’s approach holds an appeal. There’s always a certain tension inherent to any true crime project, be it documentary or dramatization – an underlying ethical murkiness, the discomfort that comes from treating real trauma and suffering as a type of entertainment. Arguably dramatization is worse: there’s no academic remove, no pretence made that this might be on some level informative or educational. Instead it’s lurid, even voyeuristic; it’s perhaps a little simplistic to suggest that true crime drama in the vein of The Serpent glorify the killers they centre, but it’s not that simplistic. Actors are hailed for their transformations, glowing profiles are written about how they confronted a darkness within themselves to evoke whichever celebrity murderer they’ve been tasked with portraying – there’s an assumed prestige to it all, a glitz and glamour (look at how much money was clearly spent on The Serpent, look at its prime-time BBC One New Year’s Day slot) that cuts against the inherent griminess that can’t help but pervade. That’s very much the model The Serpent operates in, seemingly almost despite itself: the non-linear structure, skipping back and forth between different perspectives on Sobrahj, is a clever conceit that could offer a route to interrogate his crimes without granting him protagonist status – but the series always returns to Tahar Rahim as Sobrahj, never quite able to break its gaze, forthright about who and what it finds most compelling about this story.

Watching The Investigation¸ the difference is palpable. There’s no attention-grabbing stunt casting, no recognisable actor made to look eerily (or vaguely) similar to the murderer – who is, pointedly, only ever referred to here as “the accused” – it’s all decidedly, pointedly low-key. Tobias Lindholm, who wrote and directed all six episodes, said he wanted to tell “a different kind of story here, not just another tale of a “fascinating” man who killed a woman […] a story where we didn’t even need to name the perpetrator. The story was simply not about him”. The Investigation is quiet and careful, as methodical in its writing as the process it depicts, and it’d be difficult to seriously argue that it’s particularly sensationalist or sleazy – compared to The Serpent, it’s aseptic. In lieu of focusing on the suspect, or depicting the crime itself in any detail, Lindholm centres the people affected (or tries to, at least).

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Immediately, obviously, The Investigation seems more respectful – more ethical – than The Serpent. Certainly, it’s clear that Sobrahj is the star of The Serpent, but that’s not the real contrast between them. They’re both true crime fiction, but they’re operating in different modes: The Investigation is a procedural, but The Serpent is a thriller, its dramatic engine predicated entirely on tension and suspense. Cliffhangers are built around capture and escape, the camera lingers on violent images; whatever else The Serpent might be, it’s not trying to be about Sobrahj’s victims in the same way The Investigation aims to be. You get the sense it almost was, or almost could’ve been, about Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) primarily, with Sobrahj a more marginal figure, but it’s as though the fascination with the eponymous killer was too great to ever really leave him. In turn, there’s something that feels almost exploitative about it, as is so often the case with true crime drama.

However, there’s an argument to be made that The Serpent at least is aware of what it is and honest about it, while that The Investigation – for all the praise its received – isn’t, in fact, quite so ethical as it seems. The Investigation doesn’t name Kim Wall’s murderer, quite pointedly so, but it strains to do so: it feels artificial. Worse, it almost feels as though the series is still mythologising him, because it doesn’t eschew the sort of cheap psychoanalysis that typifies the most lurid true crime – the suspect is offscreen, but talk of his serenity, of his temper, of his sex life, doled out via interviews with his friends and colleagues, only serves to position him as a figure of intrigue. (Perhaps notably, most discussion of the series has still focused on the killer, with some reviews affording more detail to describing the brutal crime than engaging with the show itself.) It’s as though The Investigation doesn’t believe in its own premise, leaving that central conceit feeling less like an innovation of the form and more like a marketing gimmick.

More to the point, it’s not like The Investigation isn’t still fundamentally a piece of entertainment built on a trauma. First and foremost, it’s a crime procedural: it’s not really a show about Kim Wall’s parents, who are supporting characters at best, their emotional lives an afterthought in comparison to the painstaking, glacial investigative work that makes up most of the series. Notably, the series approaches Wall’s parents by contrasting them with lead detective Jens Møller (Søren Molling, previously of The Killing and Borgen), framing their loss in terms of his strained home life – which is, reading between the lines, seemingly an invention on part of Tobias Lindholm. (In those moments, The Investigation resembles nothing more than a string of ITV true crime dramas, at this point almost a subgenre unto themselves, which all seem to be made with the same script.) That clichéd dysfunction is the weakest part of the series, and if the only way the series can engage with grief and trauma is through such tired, overwrought stereotypes, can it actually be said to be engaging at all?

The Serpent is the better piece of television, to be clear. It’s not perfect – the first half of the series struggles with glacial pacing, and its non-linear structure is presented in a needlessly confusing fashion that takes a while to get used to – but it’s more engaging than The Investigation ever manages to be, an actual drama series rather than an extended intellectual exercise. The series is well cast (much will be said about Coleman, Howle, and Rahim, and with good reason, but even the supporting roles impress, Amesh Edireweera in particular proving magnetic throughout) and it remains, in spite of itself, very watchable. There’s something to be said, too, for its story of an increasingly desperate, low-level civil servant investigating crimes the local law enforcement had been happy to ignore; it’s a stark contrast from the explicitly pro-policing approach taken by The Investigation. (Which isn’t to suggest that The Serpent is, for lack of a better word, ‘unproblematic’ – the patina of orientalism to its depiction of Southeast Asia makes that clear enough – merely that it offers a more complicated narrative than crime drama tends to, and to note that The Investigation doesn’t necessarily have the straightforward moral clarity it purports to.)

What’s striking about both series, though, and it’s something they share, is the sense that they’re both a little uncomfortable in themselves. The Investigation makes a laughable gesture towards psychoanalysing its audience, suggesting that if one is too happy or secure, they’re drawn to the catharsis of true crime – almost looking to the camera to insist it really is okay to treat a recent murder as ballast for television schedules, in fact not just okay but necessary, as though struck by the sudden insecurity that it might not be enough to just avoid naming the killer. There’s no attempt to understand that on a deeper level, to engage with the sensationalist journalism that drove interest in that particular crime: in the end, The Investigation proves superficial. Meanwhile, The Serpent ends by condemning the attention given to Sobrahj, insisting that he was doing it all for attention – all seemingly without noticing the irony of that insight being offered by this show.

That discomfort raises the question, ultimately, why either series actually exists. There’s a sense that each one stumbles around and just misses being a better programme: if they’d opted to be about something more than just one man (or his absence), if The Investigation put more emphasis on a media circus it only briefly acknowledged and if The Serpent had delved more closely, and more delicately, into the conditions that allowed Sobrahj to thrive. True crime is best when it uses its real-life subject as a lens to interrogate a much broader set of themes – something like The Assassination of Gianni Versace is surely the benchmark here (as well as being one of the few such series that could make a genuine, and convincing, case that it centres the victims). As it is, though, The Serpent and The Investigation taken together don’t just represent different extremes of the true crime genre, but are also a stark demonstration of its limits.

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

Joseph Quinn on Catherine the Great, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and more

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I also think the timelessness of the human condition is quite interesting for the viewer – seeing people in different times and in different environments that are foreign to ours, still going through the same shit that we go through. People get jealous, people get angry, people get depressed, all these things that are attached to what it is to be human.

I think maybe there’s some kind of comfort there [in seeing that] or definitely a kind of fascination. We do [historical drama] better than any other country, I’d say, because we’ve got such a rich history. There’s definitely a need for [historical drama] and I think that we keep turning them out, but I think we’re doing it and doing it well.

Joseph Quinn! Took a little while to arrange this one, but Joseph was great to talk to when we eventually got around to doing the interview – very polite, which is always a plus, and some great answers too. He, I suspect, is going to have quite a long and interesting career ahead of him.

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On Succession, likeable characters, and the scope of a series

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Succession’s first episode recently aired for the first time in the UK; in the US, meanwhile, the HBO series has just finished its first season.

What’s been interesting to observe, though, is the narrative that’s built up around Succession. Certainly, the series is well acclaimed – or, at least, it is now. There’s been a noticeable trend of people who watched the pilot episode and gave up, only returning because of the strong word of mouth from those who did continue with the series; in terms of the show’s reception, Succession is the story of a programme that lost a lot of viewers before eventually reclaiming them.

It’s not difficult to understand why someone might not want to continue watching Succession after finishing the first episode. It’s not that it’s a bad episode, exactly; in a lot of ways, it’s quite compelling. However, focusing as it does on a family seemingly comprised entirely of deeply horrible people, Succession isn’t a programme that goes out of its way to endear viewers to its characters – indeed, the exaggerated displays of ostentatious wealth that punctuate the pilot episode are no doubt intended to elicit contempt for the characters. There’s no ‘pat the dog’ moment, with director Adam McKay and writer Jesse Armstrong going to great lengths to ensure that, by the end of the episode, you’re going to hate more or less all of them.

So!

A few scattered thoughts here on Succession, one of HBO’s latest dramas. (Well, I’m inclined to be difficult and call it a comedy, but still.) What I found quite interesting about Succession is the way that the conversation around it developed, with a lot of people beginning the series, abandoning it, and then returning because of strong word of mouth from those who stuck with it.

That got me thinking a little bit about likeable characters (I’ve been winding myself up a lot about whether or not “likeable” is the correct spelling, and I’m still not wholly sure) and… I called it “the scope of a series”, but what I mean is the amount of time we’re willing to give a programme to unfold and show its full hand. That had been on my mind for a while anyway, ever since I saw a couple of reviews really rip into Genius: Picasso based on its first four episodes, so it was good to get a chance to talk about it.

I’m not, admittedly, entirely sure anything I said made sense, but then I’m never especially sure of that to be honest! I always find the more editorial/opinion esque pieces a little more difficult. Something to work on, I suppose.

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Westworld, and the possibility of change

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Revolution has been a key theme of the second season, of course, following as it does the path of Dolores’ nascent rebellion. A particular throughline has been an interrogation of the morality of revolution, and of oppressed people using violence against their oppressors; it’s telling, for example, when Dolores notes that she’d rather “live with your judgement than die with your sympathy”, rejecting the idea the hosts’ uprising should be bound by the ethics of the humans. At the same time, though, there’s an emphasis on how the revolution needs to create something new, rather than simply invert the old paradigm; Dolores’ rewriting of Teddy, another host, clearly parallels the way Ford would deny Bernard autonomy. No doubt Teddy’s final indictment of Dolores will haunt Westworld moving forward: “What’s the use of surviving if we become just as bad as them?

Certainly, it’s one of the more compelling ideas that Westworld puts forward, and you can see allusions to it throughout; indeed, it’s inherent to the very setting, with the old West having been built on violently displacing Native Americans. (Note also the significance of some of the other ‘worlds’, like the Raj, evocative of ideas of colonialism and imperialism in similar ways.) Granted, it’s not perfect – Westworld still has a predominantly white cast, making its attempts to tell a story about oppression a little dishonest, if nothing else – but the show does put forward some genuinely engaging ideas, independently of its structural games and narrative tricks.

An article on Westworld! I’ve got to say, I’ve actually been really enjoying the show – I only caught up on the first series this year, a month or two before the second series began, and found it really compelling.

Unlike a lot of people, though, I quite enjoyed this year’s series as well – particularly for the ideas of change, and of revolution, that it tried to engage with. Hence writing this piece – it took me a little while to work out the right angle for it, and while I was pleased with how it turned out in the end, it is probably split a little too much between two ideas (change in general and revolution in particular) without enough effort to draw the link between them.

In any case, though, I think the article turned out quite well, and I am very much looking forward to Westworld series 3. Roll on… 2020, I suppose.

Gunpowder was a powerful explanation of the real reason why we remember the 5th of November

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Here, in fact, is where Gunpowder displays a penchant for subtle, intelligent choices. When in Catholic Spain seeking help with his plot, Catesby sees the Spanish authorities burning a Jewish man at the stake – a mirror of the Catholic priest hanged as the drama began. In creating that parallel, Gunpowder makes it obvious that this isn’t a case of good against evil, rather the powerless against those with authority. Director J Blakesonemphasises that again as the drama ends, juxtaposing a gold necklace presented to spymaster Lord Cecil with the noose placed around the necks of the plotters – it’s about power rather than morality. If Gunpowder can be said to be on the side of the Catholic plotters, it’s not because they are Catholic.

I was mostly pleased with this article. Not super sure about the title in hindsight though.

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Why I don’t watch Game of Thrones and I never will

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Game Of Thrones is one of the most popular television series around – a genuine, proper, global phenomenon. When people describe the golden age of television, Game Of Thrones is one of the hallowed offerings placed alongside the likes of Breaking Bad, Mad Men or The Wire. People build their lives around this programme in a way they do with few others – it doesn’t just command a loyal cult following, but a real populist significance too.

I don’t watch Game Of Thrones, though. I never will.

So, a couple of things are going on here.

The above article is not, admittedly, especially good. The main part of my objection to Game of Thrones was, basically, that as I understood it the show had a lot of issues to do with its female characters, chiefly in terms of an overreliance on rape as a plot device. For a couple of reasons, I ended up a little unwilling to actually address that directly, largely talking around the point for five hundred words and leaving it at that. As a result, it’s a bit weak, but also bungles the point entirely – I end up putting “there’s nearly 60 hours of it” on par with “it has massive ethical failings that I would find offensive to watch”, which is, you know, not true, no matter how terrible my attention span is.

The other thing is that, actually, about six months after writing this – probably not even that – I did actually end up watching all of Game of Thrones across the span of two or three weeks. Oops.

I will, I imagine, end up writing about it at some point (I actually took notes while watching it, with the intention of putting together a “117 notes, thoughts and observations I had while watching every episode of Game of Thrones for the first time” type piece, until I realised that brevity is my enemy and that would end up somewhere far in excess of ten thousand words, the sort of length reserved for emails to Alexis rather than Yahoo blog posts I’m paid a pittance for) so I’ll hold off on giving you my full thoughts on the show now. Suffice to say, while it does actually have some good things going for it, pretty much every critique I’d heard vis a vis gender and race and so on was pretty much on the money.

So, even though I’m now more inclined to appreciate the things it does well, I’ve now got a much fuller understanding of the things it does poorly. (Things which, frankly, it is not criticised for even nearly enough.)

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Is Veep moving in the wrong direction?

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Yet in the final episode, the show changed tack once more – the seventh season will see Veep once again tackle a presidential election, this time seeing both Selina Meyer and Jonah Ryan running for president. In and of itself, it was a reasonably well-constructed episode; Groundbreaking, the sixth season finale, bluntly underscored one of Veep’s longest running themes – that Selina Meyer will do anything, sacrifice anything, for power. Moving forward, however – well, it’s difficult to see exactly how the programme will continue to stay fresh, arguably returning to the well one time too many.

I absolutely adore Veep – it’s one of my favourite shows on television. Much as I did enjoy season 6, though, I can’t help but feel the seventh season is being set up for failure…

(Admittedly, the subsequent revelation that season 7 is going to be the last does change things a little bit.)

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Veep: A presidential showcase for Julia Louis-Dreyfus

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There’s a biting satirical edge running throughout Veep, carried perfectly by Louis-Dreyfus; hers is a powerful and unrelenting performance, always perfectly pitched and with an expert understanding of exactly what will make a scene come alive. Of course, Louis-Dreyfus is lucky to be working alongside similarly talented co-stars – any of her scenes with Timothy Simons’ Jonah are a particular delight – but it’s always clear who the show revolves around, and who makes it work quite so well. It’s difficult to imagine Veep without Louis-Dreyfus, or who could have taken her place – it’s unlikely that there’s anyone else who could have made Selina Meyer such a wickedly funny character. 

I love Veep. It’s one of my favourite comedies ever. And, featuring a drastically incompetent president, it feels somewhat relevant nowadays.

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Film Review | Everything is Copy (2015)

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Most of us live our lives devoid of cinematic moments.

Something of a departure from the norm for me here, given that this is a documentary, rather than a piece of fiction. (I say that, of course, but I’m working on reviews of another documentary and a biography at the minute, so perhaps this is just the new norm.)

This movie caught my attention not because I knew who Nora Ephron was – though I soon realised that I was actually reasonably familiar with her work – but rather because the documentary was one about a journalist and screenwriter. With the former ostensibly being my current “job”, and the latter my destined dream job, it seemed like this was a documentary that would be, at the very least, quite interesting to me.

Given that little preamble, I suppose I should point out now that you’re not necessarily going to be getting advice on how to become a writer, but rather a lot of insight into the life of this particular writer, and how she approached her work. The title, Everything is Copy, refers to the mantra of Ephron’s mother, who was a writer herself; it also comes to reflect, however, the manner in which much of Ephron’s best work was that which was personal to her. Indeed, the whole documentary is quite an intimate and personal affair, with close friends and family members musing on Ephron’s life and their relationship with her, following her death from leukaemia in 2012. That the movie is directed and presented by her son, Jacob Bernstein, only adds to the intimacy with which her life was viewed.

It becomes quite clear that Nora Ephron had quite an interesting life rather early on in the movie, as it tracks her career across its different stages, from her first job at the New York Post (which she got after writing a satirical piece criticising the paper which impressed the editor) to her final theatre play, which starred Tom Hanks as a journalist himself. In a way, it’s quite circular; perhaps another manner in which everything is copy. Between these two events, though, Ephron had a long and distinguished career, with a host of articles, books, and movies to her name – including one of my favourite romcoms, You’ve Got Mail. (It’s really great.)

A series of different guests, with actors such as Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Meg Ryan, to other collaborators such as Mike Nicholls, alongside Ephron’s sisters Delia, Amy, and Hallie, really help to flesh out the picture of Ephron that we get. It’s very clear how much of an impact she had on their lives; they were all clearly quite upset, in the way that one is when you’ve lost someone special.

What also became very clear, though, was how talented Ephron was as a writer. Across the film there are a series of excerpts from Ephron’s writing across the years, with Meg Ryan, Lena Dunham, and Reese Witherspoon all providing readings, and even Ephron herself in archive footage; it’s immediately evident how incisive and insightful Ephron could be, with a very strong voice, as well as being quite funny generally.

Ultimately, Everything is Copy is quite an engaging documentary, and I’d really recommend giving it a look if you’re interested in writing, or indeed the life of Nora Ephron. It’s a respectful yet fair historiography, which shines a light on the trials and tribulations of a genuinely fascinating – and genuinely talented – woman.

7/10

Related:

Film Review: Inequality is for All (2013)

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