I was recently chatting with some of my college buddies on Zoom, and when the conversation inevitably shifted to what we’ve been watching to distract ourselves from the monotony of our current reality, I was surprised to hear a couple of my friends say they’ve had a hard time committing to anything because of the overwhelming number of options to choose from on the frankly unnecessary number of streaming services we have to pick from these days.
I understood where they were coming from but hadn’t experienced that particular feeling myself, which I eventually realized had something to do with my incredibly one-dimensional taste in entertainment; if I don’t have sports to turn to, I usually just throw on the many episodes of The Simpsons I’ve basically memorized by now due to how many times I’ve watched them over the years.
One of the few things that can buck this trend, however, is a true crime documentary, and I’ve been provided with plenty of chances to expand my horizons thanks to the deluge of series I’ve been treated to as virtually every streaming platform has scrambled to get in on the action.
I have always been an absolute sucker for true crime, and over the years, I’ve devoured more books, shows, movies, and podcasts than I can keep track of. As a result, I cannot thank Netflix enough for everything it’s done to help me scratch this itch since the company responsible for pummeling your friendly neighborhood Blockbuster into oblivion arguably sparked the true crime trend around the middle of the previous decade.
I’m pretty sure I’ve given every true crime documentary Netflix has to offer a shot, and while not all of them have managed to draw me in, I’ve routinely found myself sitting on the couch for an unhealthy amount of time after getting hooked on yet another fascinating saga.
I like to think these many binges have made me a bit of a scholar when it comes to this particular realm, so I figured I’d do the world a service by putting my knowledge to good use and dive into Netflix’s true crime catalog to pick the ten documentaries that manage to rise above an incredibly formidable pack.
10. Making A Murderer
2015’s Making A Murderer was Netflix’s first original foray into the true crime genre, and even though it’s not one of my personal favorites, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give some recognition to the series that started it all.
Making A Murderer focuses on the incarceration of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man accused of killing Teresa Halbach, a photographer who visited his salvage yard in 2005 to take pictures of a van he was planning on selling online. Her death came two years after Avery was released from prison after 18 years when DNA evidence revealed he’d been wrongfully convicted of sexual assault only to find himself proclaiming his innocence yet again after being charged with murder.
Avery was never exactly on the best of terms with local law enforcement, and he maintained he was framed for the crime due to their vendetta against him. After the series exposed the almost countless ways the case was mishandled at practically every turn, people rallied around Avery (as well as his WWE-loving nephew Brendan Dassey), both of whom have exhausted essentially every single legal remedy in a fruitless attempt to gain their freedom.
Constructing a true crime documentary is both an art and a science, as you want to make sure you’re able to give enough time to all of the vital elements without dragging things out too long. The first season of Making A Murderer is ten episodes, which is at least two too many. At times, the show felt like it was channeling a high school student who resorts to rephrasing the same thought in a bunch of different ways to hit the page minimum, especially due to its tendency to devote a ton of time to a supposedly damning piece of evidence that was turned out to be a dead end.
I’m not sure if the second season ran into this same problem and probably never will, because there was no way in hell I was committing to ten more episodes when I already knew how things played out.
9. Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez
There’s nothing I love more than a true crime documentary that introduces me to a case I’ve never even heard of or sheds some new light on something I’d forgotten about entirely. Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez doesn’t really do either of those things, but that doesn’t mean it’s not solid.
In addition to being fairly recent, the tale played out in an incredibly public manner, as his arrest, trial(s), suicide, and rumors concerning his sexuality dominated the headlines for years on end. It does contain some compelling interviews and previously unreleased footage and phone calls, but anyone who followed the case as it played out probably didn’t have their mind blown.
However, I do commend the filmmakers behind Killer Inside for limiting themselves to three episodes (although they probably could’ve swung one more) in addition to going out of their way to shine a light on the victims and their families, whose stories were largely overshadowed by that of the fallen tight end.
8. Don’t F**K With Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer
2019’s Don’t F**K WIth Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer is easily one of the wildest stories covered in any of these documentaries. After a series of disturbing videos of an unknown person sadistically killing cats surfaced online, a group of internet sleuths managed to piece together who the culprit was: a Canadian man by the name of Luka Magnotta.
The group attempted to call attention to this truly disturbed individual, but sadly, warnings about his potential to inflict similar harm upon a human being weren’t enough to prevent the grisly murder of Jun Lin, who Magnotta killed in 2012 before drastically changing his appearance to elude authorities around the world before he was tracked down in Germany later that year.
I remember hearing about the story after Magnotta was apprehended, but I had no idea about the insane series of events that transpired prior to his arrest—which Don’t F**k With Cats manages to compress into an incredibly digestible three episodes that don’t leave you with any lingering questions when it wraps up.
7. Unsolved Mysteries
This one is a bit of an outlier compared to everything else on this list, but the original Unsolved Mysteries was not only a true crime O.G. but an iconic television series featuring the legendary Robert Stack unpacking mysteries in need of some solving.
The reboot that Netflix treated us to last year is missing some of the hallmarks of its predecessors—primarily a host peppering episodes with chilling narration—but it’s still a damn good show. Each installment focuses on a single case, all of which run the gamut of unsolvedness, ranging from “That guy definitely did it but there’s no evidence to prove it” to “I have no damn clue about the truth behind a mystery will remain unsolved forever.”
It can be a bit hit or miss, but when it hits, it hits.
6. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, And Madness
I don’t know if there’s a single series on this list that rattled the general public’s cage quite like Tiger King (and there definitely aren’t any that made me feel worse about getting my picture taken with a baby tiger at a street fair when I was nine).
Tiger King was an absolute sensation that dominated the pop culture zeitgeist in a way that rivaled the likes of Game of Thrones or Jersey Shore before fatigue set in and most people moved on (sort of like Game of Thrones or Jersey Shore.
However, the was a reason it was the sensation it was, as you could probably convince an unsuspecting viewer it was actually a mockumentary due to its ever-escalating absurdity and surrealness. There are countless moments where you think there’s no way the saga of Joe Exotic could possibly get any wilder only to get blindsided by the story of the husband Carole Baskin definitely didn’t feed to tigers or random footage of a dude riding a Jet Ski while Survivor blares in the background.
Some of the best documentaries are ones where filmmakers set out with a story in mind only to get so much more than they ever could’ve bargained for, and you’d be hardpressed to find anyone who’s been strapped into a roller coaster ride wilder than the people behind Tiger King.
5. The Ripper
In the late 1970s, “The Yorkshire Ripper” terrorized the residents of (you guessed it) Yorkshire and Manchester, a nickname that alluded to the similarities between the murders committed by Peter Sutcliffe and the infamous case of Jack the Ripper, who also targeted prostitutes in England almost a century prior.
The Ripper details how officials bungled the investigation that would eventually lead to Sutcliffe’s arrest, as law enforcement found themselves fixating on those similarities to the point where they became more concerned with Jack The Ripper as opposed to, you know, the guy who was actively killing people.
This documentary unfolds over four episodes, which I consider to be the golden number when it comes to a limited crime series. The Ripper never really drags or feels like it’s skipping over some important pieces of information; it provides viewers with all the background they need, outlines the essential aspects of the ensuing investigation, and ties everything up in a nice little package.
4. Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer
Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer revolves around Richard Ramirez, a serial killer who went on a murder spree in California back in 1985 (although there were almost certainly other crimes that he committed before then).
What really sets this series apart is its almost unrivaled focus on the people in charge of overseeing the investigation. Both Frank Salerno (a legendary homicide detective who had solved the Hillside Strangler murders in the 1970s) and Gil Carrillo (who was just starting out when he was assigned to the case) are interviewed at great length and provide some fascinating insight concerning the toll investigating such horrific crimes can have on the lives of those tasked with getting to the bottom of them.
Night Stalker was the source of a little bit of controversy, as some felt that the use of very lightly-edited crime scene photos was gratuitous to the point of being exploitative. I personally thought they were an incredibly effective way to showcase the unmitigated evil Ramirez, so while I had no trouble making it through the four episodes, I can understand why some people might have a harder time.
3. Wild Wild Country
Examinations of cults are easily my favorite true crime subgenre, which I think has something to do with my fascination with leaders who possess as much charisma as I lack who are able to convince their followers to do whatever the hell they tell them to—like engaging in some bioterrorism by poisoning salad bars in the Pacific Northwest.
That’s exactly what the followers of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh did at his request in the 1980s after the man also known as “Osho” amassed a massive following in his home country before deciding to start his own “utopia” called Rajneeshpuram in a remote part of Oregon, where his burgundy-loving “Rajneeshees” were happy to carry out his bidding.
What really sets this series apart is the wide range of interviews with the people he managed to indoctrinate, as the filmmakers were even able to convince Bhagwan’s right-hand woman Ma Anand Sheela to sit down and share her story. While I’d normally object to its decision to spread the story over six episodes on principle alone, the series needs that many due to how much background exposition is required to fully comprehend the meat of the story, and there aren’t many stones left unturned by the time it wraps up.
2. The Keepers
There aren’t really any true crime documentaries I’d describe as “a barrel of laughs,” but some of them are easier to watch than others. The Keepers is not one of those; no, it’s one of the most uncomfortable and disturbing things I’ve ever watched due to the twisted nature of the abhorrent crimes it shines a light on.
The Keepers primarily focuses on the unsolved murder of Catherine Cesnik, who was a beloved nun and teacher at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore. What starts as the story of two of her former students trying to solve her murder transforms into a nightmarish web of sexual abuse and subsequent cover-ups among law enforcement and high-ranking members of the Catholic Church.
The series devotes seven episodes to unpacking decades of information in a way that’s as easy to follow as it is unpleasant to watch, but you’ll have a hard time turning away even though you’ll probably want to at certain points.
1. Evil Genius
I vividly remember reading about the death of pizza deliveryman Brian Wells because the circumstances surrounding it were simply bizarre: on August 28, 2003, Wells attempted to rob a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania with a “collar bomb,” claiming he was instructed to do so by a group of men who locked the explosive device around his neck. While some members of law enforcement thought he was bluffing, they realized that wasn’t the case when it detonated in full view of the television crews that’d flocked to the scene
I’d forgotten a lot of the details by the time Evil Genius came out in 2018, and I wasn’t sure if the ones I did remember were actually true or just the result of some sort of fever dream. However, upon watching it, I discovered the entire saga was somehow even more insane than I recalled.
My favorite documentary of any genre is King of Kong, which (like Tiger King) features a cast of impossibly quirky characters that make you wonder if you’re being pranked. While Evil Genius is obviously a bit more macabre, it features some equally eccentric central figures (including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, the titular “Evil Genius”) who played a role in one of the most unbelievable crimes ever committed.
I’m not going to even attempt to sum up Evil Genius, but you should know that it puts every single second of its four episodes to good use. If this somehow flew under your radar when it was released, you owe it to yourself to clear your schedule (and maybe order a pizza) and binge it as soon as you can.