The best true crime to watch on Netflix UK
James R | On 10, Jun 2018
This weekend sees the premiere of The Staircase on Netflix UK, with three new episodes added to the existing 10 of the landmark documentary. One of the classic, definitive examples of true crime television, it’s the epitome of what has made the genre so popular in recent years – a rise fuelled by podcasts such as Serial and Netflix’s own Making a Murderer.
Already climbed The Staircase? Get your true crime fix with the best documentary series, TV dramas and feature films available to binge on Netflix UK:
The series first began back in 2004, when director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade decided to follow the court case of Michael Peterson, a novelist whose wife was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their North Carolina home. With no one else present in the house, he was promptly accused of her murder, a charge that led to a 16-year judicial battle.
The notion of following a single legal case for 13 episodes might seem like overkill – indeed, Making a Murderer only spanned 10. But The Staircase’s vice-like grip stems exactly from the sheer length of time we spend going over and over Peterson’s case: by the time you’re halfway through, you’re firmly at the stage of playing armchair detective, but by the time you’re at the end, you’re feeling every new twist and turn with the same mix of surprise and weariness. This is exhausting, exhaustive documentary filmmaking, in the best possible way. Read our full review.
Making a Murderer
One of the most talked-about TV series of recent years, and with good reason, Making a Murderer is essential viewing for every true crime fan.
The documentary follows the decade-old case of Steven Avery and Brendan, his nephew, who were both convicted of the murder of Teresa Halbach in 2005. Bringing international attention to what the filmmakers and attorneys argued were miscarriages of justice, the show became an immediate sensation, as angry, shocked viewers to the Internet to call for justice. Gripping and surprising, the series is hugely entertaining and moving – and, even better, has also proven the ability of TV to impact the real world. (Read: The 6 stages of watching Making a Murderer.)
Unlike Making a Murderer, The Keepers sees victims aiming to find justice of a very different kind. While the former is a programme that lets you play amateur detective, this celebrates the people on screen doing the detecting. Our investigators are Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, who are investigating the death of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a nun at the Archbishop Keough High School. She was found dead in 1969, weeks after she went missing, but her murderer has never been found. Our entry into the case comes from journalist Tom Nugent, who is rooting around his attic and digs out the clippings of a report he wrote at the time. That sense of people nosing through history out of need for entertainment or out of sheer curiosity is a familiar one for true crime enthusiasts, but we soon discover that Hoskins and Schaub have a reason for what they’re doing: they were both students at the school, where Cesnik inspired them. The scorching, shocking revelations that they uncover will move you to righteous fury. Read our full review
Wild Wild Country
When a controversial cult leader builds a utopian city in the Oregon desert, conflict with the locals escalates into a national scandal. Produced by the Duplass Brothers, this six-part documentary is jaw-dropping both in subject and style. It charts the rise of Rajneeshpuram, led by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who inspired a whole community of orange-robed followers, reducing them to tears, ecstasy and erotic pleasure – an orgy of devotion, belief and political manipulation that the show presents without judgement and with an open mind. There’s a real nuance to the way it gets under the skin of some of its more fanatical members, and a rewarding ramshackle approach to its storytelling, which allows the astonishing events themselves to keep you hooked for one more episode, but don’t be fooled: this is one meaty piece of television, which tons to unpack about religious freedom, group mentality and reality TV, all held together by pitch-perfect pacing and a soundtrack that entertains and unnerves in equal measure.
“The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist” proclaims the title of Netflix’s true crime documentary, and it’s a series that actually lives up to that title. Written and directed by Barbara Schroeder, the four-parter explores the truth behind an extraordinary criminal case, known as the “pizza bomber heist”, which saw a robbery go explosively wrong in Pennsylvania in 2003. Dissecting the bomb proves a forensic minefield in itself, from the time taken to construct the device to the equal amount of effort placed on red herring, but what’s equally gripping is the story of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, who emerges from the background of the tale into a fascinating mastermind. The first episode concludes with a freezing cliffhanger that will have you racing to the next episode – you won’t stop until you’ve finished the last chapter.
In December 1996, six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found dead in her home. The young beauty pageant queen had been strangled, her skull crushed. Which makes it all the more unnerving when a young girl looking just like her appears on camera – then, after introducing herself, asks if we know who did it. 20 years on, nobody does. Kitty Green’s true crime documentary deconstructs the true crime trend to mesmerising effect.
The People vs. OJ Simpson
It’s not a documentary, but this drama retelling the story of OJ Simpson’s trial is no less classy or gripping. What possible new angle could this programme have on one of the most high-profile murder cases in history? Firstly, Cuba Gooding Jr., who acts the heck out his lead role, erupting with panic and shock as the charges are brought again him. Is it guilt? Is it sadness? Is it anger? He’s fascinatingly hard to read, but also genuinely emotional – and it’s that ability to make you engage with such a familiar historical case that marks out The People vs OJ Simpson as a success. Cuba’s joined by an equally fantastic cast, from an unrecognisable John Travolta as defence attorney Robert Shapiro, an understated David Schwimmer as defence attorney Robert Kardashian and Sarah Paulson as determined prosecutor Marcia Clark. Shot with style and paced with flair, this is trashy, yes, but all the more gripping because of it.
Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer
Nick Broomfield follows the saga of Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute accused of a string of murders, capturing her trial – and relationship with religious fanatic Arlene Pralle – as well as interviewing Wuornos herself. What emerges is both an absorbing study of Aileen’s crimes and an intriguing exploration of her short time in the media spotlight.
A powerful deconstruction of race and grief, this bracingly subjective documentary will stay with you for days.
The Fear of 13
In 1982, Nick Yarris was convicted of the rape and murder of a woman. He maintained that he was innocent. How often have you heard a TV show or film begin like that? In today’s true-crime-obsessed age, tales of wrongly-jailed suspects have become sadly familiar, from Making a Murderer to Serial. The Fear of 13, though, is something entirely unique. David Sington’s documentary starts at the end – the point at which Yarris petitioned the court, not asking for release, but asking to be executed. It’s a gripping hook and one that draws you in further, thanks to a smartly deployed non-linear structure: we jump back and forth through Nick’s experiences, gradually unfolding the many wrongs done against him.
More talk show than crime thriller, Mindhunter is a gripping study of our fascination with criminals, a dramatised slice of history that charts the FBI’s efforts to interview serial killers to work out what makes them tick. A little more conversation and a little less action might sound dull, but Mindhunter’s success lies in how compelling, complex and creepy those conversations are: it’s a show that has total confidence in the power of speech, knowing that if the characters, topic and words are just right, you can gladly watch two talking heads for hours on end. Read our reviews
If you don’t want to have the results spoiled for you, look away now. An eye-opening demonstration of how athletes, cyclists and Olympians can take performance-enhancing drugs without being detected, Icarus should come with a warning: you’ll never be able to look at professional sports in the same way again.