One read-through of Oxygen's current programming immediately gives the uninitiated a feel for the network. Titles like Buried in the Backyard, Killer Affair, and Snapped: Killer Couples aren't exactly nuanced, and neither is their respective content. On any of these Oxygen shows, the first five minutes typically involve a reenactment of an unsuspecting hunter, fisherman, or hiker who stumbles upon a dead body. Next, an actual detective who responded to the scene that day usually recalls to cameras how he noticed "the unmistakable scent of death" upon arrival. It can be very formulaic, with the exception of one show that was added to Oxygen's lineup this year: Murder for Hire, which breathes some new life into a channel mostly about dead people.
Created by Dick Wolf of Law & Order fame, Murder for Hire is, like the rest of Oxygen's programming, exactly what it sounds like: a show about contract killings. But it never opens up on a grisly homicide. Instead, each episode follows good Samaritans and law enforcement joining forces to make sure a hit put out on someone never goes according to plan. This in itself is refreshing; Murder for Hire still has all the salacious elements of betrayal to draw true crime fans in, but none of the murder porn that ends up leaving viewers feeling uncomfortable and desensitized after being entertained by a life lost.
The concept of contract killings may seem like a cliched, silly plot in a Hollywood movie, not something that actually happens in real life. But while doing research as an executive producer on Criminal Confessions, another Oxygen show, Adam Kassen kept discovering real murder-for-hire cases that were thwarted thanks to a combination of undercover police work, meticulous planning, and selfless participants. What struck him most while learning about these cases was the type of people who initiated these crimes -- and they aren't the hyper-masculine mobsters you see on screen.
"One of the things that's compelling and scary is ... they seem like people you could know," Kassen, now an executive producer on Murder for Hire, told TV Guide. "They seem like people that have all the advantages in life. They're therapists, they're doctors, they're businesswomen, they're teachers, they're writers."
The first episode of Murder for Hire focuses on Cynthia Guy, an addiction counselor from Wyoming who blackmails one of her patients into helping her hire someone to kill her ex-husband following a bitter divorce. Another episode tells the story of Nancy Mancusco Gelber, an amateur crime writer with a flare for the dramatic who attempts to get her ex-husband killed for $60,000.
"Often it's the first violent crime that they ever decide to do, and it's the ultimate crime, which is a murder, and somebody that they once loved. How could someone like that feel the greatest love for somebody and then turn around and want to kill that person?" Kassen said.
There's another element of Murder for Hire that sets it apart from the crowded true crime TV landscape: recorded footage from sting operations. In order to secure the evidence needed for a guilty verdict in a contract killing case, law enforcement sets up recorded sting operations that they hope will show much more than threatening words. In most cases, investigators are looking for an exchange of money or another "overt act" where criminal intent is inferred. As a result, the audience gets to see jaw-dropping, shameless confessions that truly would be hard to believe if video footage did not exist. During the sting operation for the case against counselor Cynthia Guy, after finalizing plans with an undercover cop posing as a hitman, Guy ends the conversation by saying, "I don't know if I'm supposed to say good luck or... You get one shot, don't f--- it up."
In the sting footage featuring author Gelber, she tells a friend who, unbeknownst to her, is working with police, "If it were up to me, I'd have him tied up and then f---ing nipples removed, his dick removed, and everything else."
With the help of this damning video evidenced, every case covered on Murder for Hire has resulted in no deaths, as well as a sentence for each person who orchestrated the killing. Of course, no one who has ever had a hit put out on them walks away completely unscathed, even if they live to tell the tale. Many of the victims featured on Murder for Hire live with from PTSD, anxiety, and general trust issues long after the unsettling experience. Still, the overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and sense of justice at seeing a murder prevented is one we don't often get when watching other true crime shows.
Kassen agrees: "Not only do we get justice for the victim, but unlike some of our other shows, the [sting operation] actually saves their life."
Oxygen's Murder for Hire is back for a new season premiering Saturday, October 5 at 6pm ET/PT.