True-crime podcasts coming to a limited series near you

Here’s how you know you live on top TV: When the very specific true crime podcast-inspired anthology/limited series subgenre has enough shows to make an entire potential Emmy category. This season alone, potential contenders include “Gaslit”, “The Thing About Pam”, “Dr. Death, The Shrink Next Door, and The Dropout, just for starters.

And here’s another way to gauge it: The genre is so popular it’s even been meta-fictionalized in another series, Only Murders in the Building, in which three amateur detectives become amateur podcasters just for her to discuss crimes. resolve with the public.

So yes: it’s peak season for true crime podcasts and welcome to it.

“We were drawn to podcasting because it felt like this classic and modern confluence,” notes Murders Executive Producer Jess Rosenthal. “It’s a new way of doing voiceovers and I love that podcasting is seen as so modern and zeitgeisty – but also a wonderful return to early radio.”

The enduring popularity of podcasts has created fertile ground for TV adaptations, as producers, broadcasters, and other developers cling to the in-depth, first-person, journalistic coverage of podcasts in order to bring shinier reinventions to market, starring A-list stars bring. Some touch on national scandals (“Dropout” focuses on Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos; “Gaslit” on Martha Mitchell/Watergate); others deal with crimes typically covered by news magazines (“The Shrink Next Door” is about a businessman and the psychiatrist who exploited him for decades, while “The Thing About Pam” is based on a “Dateline” podcast and the Tale of an Eccentric Tells a Woman’s Participation in the Murder of Another Woman); others have a social agenda (“Dr. Death” is about a neurosurgeon who brutalizes his patients, but he also scrutinizes the medical system that allowed him to continue practicing).

But the question is why? Of all the true crimes out there, what is it about the fact that all of these stories have inspired podcasts worth retelling in another medium?

The answer is complicated. The simplest reason seems to be that, as Rosenthal notes, podcasts are part of the zeitgeist. There’s a brand awareness that makes it look trendy and fresh, even if it’s basically long-form radio journalism. But it also seems that showrunners who turn podcasts into TV series are hoping to add an extra narrative dimension to the stories being told. And that means they can weave some fiction into the facts of a particular case.

“I never wanted to do a Wikipedia overview of what’s happening,” says Robbie Pickering, creator and showrunner of Gaslit. “I feel less attached to the actual events than I do to the emotional truth of what happened – and the emotional truth of the characters. I was interested in doing a show about the rewards of complicity. That felt like a real emotional question to me.”

There’s an interesting switch that happens when a podcast becomes a TV adaptation. Real people become “characters” and thus hybrids of the real and the symbolic. The creators of “Pam” were so fascinated by the strange workings of the real Pam Hupp that showrunner Jenny Klein says they narrated entire sequences through a “Pam Vision” POV.

“Here we represent Pam’s way of telling stories that are snappy and abrupt and contradictory and sometimes physically impossible,” says Klein. “So that absurdity became part of the woven tone of our show.”

In such a shift, the underlying thesis of the show creator or showrunner is revealed: This is how they want to connect individual crime to larger societal illnesses or psychoses. “Shrink” showrunner Georgia Pritchett says the gaslighting the doctor inflicts on the businessman is something everyone can relate to and understand in the years following Trump’s presidency.

“I felt that given the right circumstances, it could happen to any of us,” she says. “I wrote about the country being in an abusive relationship with the President who blew up [citizens] and insisted he didn’t say what he said. Even though this story began in the 1980s, it felt like something we are in danger and experiencing in the current climate.”

Podcasts are at least as old as the new millennium and have enjoyed increasing popularity for years. But the lockdown and quarantine of the pandemic seem to have boosted interest in them, as audiences looked for fresh material to listen to (and the show’s creators looked for new stories to tell).

“We’ve all been locked in our homes and on the run through podcasts, and these true crime stories speak to our collective fascination with the macabre,” says Klein. “Recording these true, scary stories in the safety of your own home can be as comforting as lying in bed and hearing a thunderstorm.”

“Everyone was so desperate for entertainment content [during the pandemic] that podcasts might distract them from what we are dealing with,” says “Dr. Death” creator and executive producer Patrick Macmanus. “You couldn’t take your TV with you when you came out of the house – so you went for walks and listened to stuff. You could become the filmmaker in your own mind of what you read and hear.”

Also, podcasts are structurally TV-friendly; Episode counts often resemble streaming season episode counts, and stories naturally revolve around a limited group of people that might inspire a producer to think about casting decisions.

“It’s a great styling tool for television,” says Dropout creator Elizabeth Meriwether. “A lot of podcasts have this binge structure where by the end of one episode you feel like you need to hear the next one.”

“They give manufacturers brand certainty,” agrees Pritchett. “People have already responded to this story, so they’re ready to make things more interesting and diverse. So many podcasts are well done and so impactful that people feel like they’re unpacking. There’s something immediate about hearing that voice in your ear telling you a story.”

Whatever the reason, Hollywood seems to be staying in love with true crime podcasts for a while yet. There is an endless stream of startling stories that can provide glimpses of the emotional truth creators seek.

“If you watch a fictional fantasy show, the entire story is in that show,” says Klein. “There is nothing else. But there’s always more to a true crime story. There’s a whole rabbit hole full of details. The story – it lives.” True-crime podcasts coming to a limited series near you

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