On March 15, entertainment and reality intersected during the final episode of HBO’s six-part documentary, “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.” The documentary, which examined Robert Durst’s life and his connection to three separate murders, made television history during its finale by broadcasting a murder confession on national television.[1] In the concluding moments of the finale, Durst is recorded saying, “There it is. You’re caught… What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”[2] One day before the broadcast, Durst was arrested in a New Orleans hotel for the murder of his friend, Susan Berman.[3] With The Jinx’s broadcast of Durst’s confession and his arrest, the line between entertainment and reality was blurred. The moment also presents an opportunity to consider the ways that, rather than just reflect reality, entertainment constructs it and participates in the act of criminal punishment.

A staple of the true crime television genre, the television show Cops illustrates the way entertainment constructs the reality of crime and criminal justice. Described as a slice of “raw reality” by its creator John Langley, the show constructs how its viewers interpret police, crime and the criminal justice system.[4] First, Cops encourages its viewers to identify with police officers by humanizing them through showing their interactions with their family, at home and outside of work. In contrast, by blurring their faces and only providing their criminal histories, suspects are dehumanized and distanced from viewers.[5] In addition, through police commentary, viewers are provided the police officer’s interpretation of an arrest or event, even in ambiguous situations.[6] Cops also constructs its depiction of crime and criminal justice through its selection of events and characters. Whites are overrepresented and minorities are underrepresented as police officers. In contrast, whites are underrepresented and minorities are overrepresented as suspects. By choosing to shoot in poor neighborhoods, Cops presents crime as a lower class phenomenon.[7] In sum, through a series of production decisions, including its portrayal of police officers and suspects, its narration and selection of events, Cops provides its viewership with a constructed portrayal of crime.

In addition to constructing society’s conceptions of crime and criminal justice, true crime television also participates in the act of criminal punishment. This is demonstrated by the television show To Catch a Predator, in which individuals are induced to enter a home under the belief they will be meeting an underage child with whom they have been chatting with online. Instead, upon entering the home, the individual is interviewed by the show’s host and, subsequently, arrested by local law enforcement. Consequently, like Cops, To Catch a Predator constructs viewers understanding of crime by promoting the myth that strangers, rather than individuals known to the victim, are the primary perpetrators of child sexual assaults.[8] Described as a “carnival of humiliation,”[9] To Catch a Predator also acts as a form of extrajudicial justice by humiliating, shaming and morally condemning individuals in front of society on national television.[10] In addition to constructing viewers’ conceptions of crime and criminal justice, shows like To Catch a Predator participate in the act of criminal punishment, an act traditionally thought to be reserved for the legal system.

In a moment where entertainment and reality overlapped, The Jinx’s finale drew over a million viewers.[11] While undoubtedly a source of enjoyment for many, we should pause to consider how, rather than just reflecting reality, true crime television shows construct and participate in it. Shows like Cops send powerful messages to its audience that law enforcement is inherently just, that the individuals they are arresting are inherently unjust, and that crime is the product of racial minorities and the poor. Moreover, shows like To Catch a Predator, usurp the legal system by doling out extrajudicial criminal punishment in the form of public shamings. The true crime television genre is a form of entertainment that is here to stay. Rather than pretending the genre is a reflection of reality and that we are passive consumers of it, we should consider how the genre constructs our conceptions of crime and what the ramifications of its participation in the legal system are.

[1] Mike Hale, TV Review: HBO’s ‘The Jinx’ Finale Was Gut-Wrenching, Remarkable Television, March 15, 2015, http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/15/the-jinx-finale-review-robert-durst/.

[2] Charles v. Bagli and Vivian Lee, Robert Durst of HBO’s ‘The Jinx’ Says He ‘Killed Them All,’ N.Y. Times, March 15, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/16/nyregion/robert-durst-subject-of-hbo-documentary-on-unsolved-killings-is-arrested.html.

[3] Id.

[4] Aaron Doyle, Reality Television and Policing: The Case of Cops, in Arresting Images: Crime and Policing in Front of the Television Camera 32, 34 (2003).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Steven A. Kohm, Naming, Shaming and Criminal Justice: Mass-mediated Humiliation as Entertainment and Punishment, 5 Crime, Media, Culture. 188 (2009).

[9] Id.

[10] Id., 200 (2009).

[11] Rick Kissell, Ratings: HBO’s ‘The Jinx’ Finale Draws Over 1 Million Viewers on Sunday, March 17, 2015, http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/ratings-hbos-the-jinx-finale-draws-over-1-million-viewers-on-sunday-1201454423/