Alert PETA: I'm about to talk about the disgusting old English pastime known as "bear-baiting." It was a gladiator-style bloodsport that involved bears being tied to a stake and then set upon by dogs to fight to the death in an arena. It was immensely popular. The public wanted to see violence. So I can't help but wonder if my interest in true crime falls along the same line of pathology. Why do I enjoy watching horrible crimes re-enacted that would upset me in real life? I have three friends who have been victims of horrible, brutal rapes; one of them was even placed in her bathtub and set on fire before the man left. Yet the myriad TV shows I watch that discuss cases like that bring up very little emotion in me and in fact only spark curiosity. Why?
A comedian once asked: If Lifetime is television for women, why are women always being brutalized on it? Our gender apparently loves mysteries, thrillers, and suspense. That must be why Investigation Discovery (ID), the channel that plays awesome true crime "documentaries" 24 hours a day, is ridiculously hot with women. So much so that Time is calling its fare "the new soap operas." The network knows chicks are its bread and butter, too, because it has created the tagline "Your guilty pleasure," which sounds like a box of bonbons that taste like being tied up in the woods.
The shows on ID deliver on so many levels I'm not even sure where to start. First, they can spin a genre out of anything — Southern murder, couples who murder, beauty queens who have been murdered, swamp murders, murderers who get murdered... you get the picture. They create re-enactments of the events, which are generally pretty well-acted, surprisingly, while the actual people who worked the cases are interviewed.
Unusual Suspects is a particularly good show. It features cases that baffled investigators who had to sort through many suspects to finally land on the least likely person. Who The (Bleep) Did I Marry? is also amazing: You can tell from the first frame, where the victim is telling his story with one eye and a permanent dent in his skull from a Jimmy Choo, that his will be a titillating tale of woe.
ID knows we like it and the channel purposefully puts these shows back-to-back all day long, a marathon of Disappeared, Cold Blood, or Behind Mansion Walls to completely absorb you in the sickening Darkness of Man on your day off.
Which brings me to my original point: Why is this fun? The Time article quotes the network's head of development, Jane Latman: "I think there's a cathartic journey that the audience goes on that in the end makes you feel somehow safer. It's counter-intuitive, but when the handcuffs are on, justice is served, and the perpetrator is behind bars and you see these real people getting on with their lives, you kind of feel like, 'Okay, I can go to bed and I'm not going to check my door 10 times.'" She's right about needing the satisfaction of perps getting their due at the end of the show. I stopped watching Disappeared because too many of the people were never found, nor were motives for their disappearances ever discovered; this left me uncomfortable. I want to know the truth. The rest of her quote seems like a convoluted way to justify our enjoyment of other people's misery. But there doesn't need to be any underlying reason other than the fact that we are basically the same people who paid to watch a brown bear get ripped apart by bulldogs. Or watched public hangings. Or volunteered to witness Riverdance (I will always carry that albatross).
The other theory being thrown around about ID's popularity is that we all love to watch people whose lives are far more fucked up than our own. There has to be truth in that. You might have just lost your job, but at least your mother didn't sell you to a biker gang for a bag of meth. Perspective. One thing's for sure, my love of ID is not a "guilty pleasure." There ain't no shame in my game.
Follow Katy's weekly TV blogs about Looking, The Real World: SF Ex-Plosion, and The Bachelor at blogs.sfweekly.com/exhibitionist.