It's the year of the true crime adaptation. For months, TV has been dominated by the fictionalized versions of real-life murderers and scammers, from the horrifying (The Staircase, Candy) to the ridiculous (Inventing Anna). The ethics of true crime shows, and the concept of creating entertainment from very public suffering of actual victims as a whole, is murky, but when handled correctly, there can be value in telling stories like these.
Still, with so many out there, where do you start? As something of a true crime skeptic (that's always what you want to hear at the beginning of a true crime show ranking!), I struggle with it myself — which shows will manage to say something new about a case, and which will end up being nothing more than sensationalist nonsense? Here, I took the liberty of ranking the true crime series we've gotten so far this year, which will hopefully help you make sense of such a crowded sea of narratives.
A note about how this list was made: Shows like Peacock's Joe vs. Carole, which dabbles in true crime territory but is ultimately about a feud between two weirdos, as well as Apple TV+'s WeCrashed and Showtime's Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, which both have true crime elements but deal more with the inner workings of scammers' minds, aren't here, though they were considered. The shows ranked are ones that I felt really dug into (or, in some cases, at least attempted to dig into) the crime itself.
How many episodes: 6
Who's in it: Renée Zellweger, Josh Duhamel, Judy Greer
What it's based on: The Dateline podcast, The Thing About Pam, which explored the 2011 murder of Betsy Faria, for which her husband, Russ, was convicted and later exonerated. His conviction being overturned set off a wild chain of events that ultimately lead to Pam Hupp being charged for Faria's murder.
Is it good?: As compellingly crazy as the source material is, the show is a ham-fisted mess. Under several layers of awful prosthetics and a fat suit, Renée Zellweger gives an off-puttingly cartoonish performance as Hupp, and her casting speaks to the inexplicable tone of the series. It's almost hard to discuss whatever The Thing About Pam might have been trying to do, since Zellweger is so distracting. At times, it seems like it wants to be dark comedy, but that glib style doesn't balance itself out with the show's more serious attempts to explore the failings of the justice system that lead to Russ Faria's (Glenn Fleshler) conviction. It's all over the place. [Trailer]
How many episodes: 8
Who's in it: Lily James, Sebastian Stan, Seth Rogen, Taylor Schilling, Nick Offerman
What it's based on: Amanda Chicago Lewis' Rolling Stone article, "Pam and Tommy: The Untold Story of the World's Most Infamous Sex Tape." Lewis interviews Rand Gauthier, a contractor who in 1995 broke into Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's home and stole their sex tape, which he then distributed widely in the early internet days. Anderson sued the video company that profited off of it, and confidentially settled.
Is it good?: Nope! Aside from Lily James' standout performance as Anderson, this show sucks. It's not as much of a true crime dramatization in the way that the rest of the entries on this list are, but its heavy focus on Rand Gauthier (played by Seth Rogen, who also developed the series) make it clear that Pam & Tommy wants to at least be in the conversation. And, actually, the thing that earns it a place within the genre ends up being where the show falls apart; it vacillates so frequently between crime thriller (the whole first episode centers around Gauthier's ransacking of Anderson and Lee's home), raunchy sex comedy, and media critique, and as a result never ends up landing anywhere meaningful. [Trailer]
How many episodes: 5
Who's in it: Jessica Biel, Melanie Lynskey, Pablo Schreiber, Timothy Simons
What it's based on: The case of Candy Montgomery, a Texas housewife who in 1980 killed her neighbor, Betty Gore, with an axe. Montgomery was controversially found not guilty.
Is it good?: As Montgomery and Gore, respectively, Jessica Biel and Melanie Lynskey do good work, but the show itself doesn't feel fully thought out. It maybe could have used more episodes to flesh out its characters; its limited amount of episodes don't provide a whole lot of illumination to the inner workings of who Montgomery and Gore were pre-crime, and its gruesome reenactment of the killing feels off-putting and insensitive rather than immersive. Still, Candy was apparently Hulu's best debut ever, so maybe this is what people want. [Trailer]
How many episodes: 8
Who's in it: Amanda Seyfried, Naveen Andrews, William H. Macy, Laurie Metcalf
What it's based on: The ABC News podcast The Dropout, which documents the rise and fall of the blood-testing company Theranos and its disgraced founder Elizabeth Holmes, who was accused of defrauding investors and patients. Holmes was found guilty of criminal fraud.
Is it good?: It doesn't really do what it thinks it's doing. I understand that I'm in the minority of critics who didn't like this show, but to me, The Dropout is meandering, underbaked, and, often, boring. Amanda Seyfried does her best as Holmes, but doesn't quite come off as the confidently charismatic freak she needs to be, or convincingly digs into the motivation of why, exactly, Holmes got in so deep scamming so many people with technology that she was never capable of creating. To its credit, the series picks up in its final episodes, as Holmes and her boyfriend/business partner Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) face off against threats of an investigation by a reporter. It just takes six-ish hours of nothing to get to it. [Trailer]
How many episodes: 9
Who's in it: Julia Garner, Anna Chlumsky, Laverne Cox, Arian Moayed, Anders Holm
What it's based on: Jessica Pressler's New York Magazine article, "How Anna Delvey Tricked New York's Party People," which dug into the story of Anna Sorokin (who went by Anna Delvey), a scammer supreme who spent years successfully tricking New York's elite into believing that she was a German heiress. She defrauded tons of people in her quest to open an exclusive club, stealing a lot of money (and, at one point, a plane) in the process, and was found guilty of theft and larceny.
Is it good?: Call me controversial for ranking this so highly, but in the words of vehicular manslaughterer Kendall Roy, I won't apologize for what I'm doing, which is correct. In my opinion, Inventing Anna does what The Dropout does not: makes its source material entertaining. Is it shameless and ridiculous and campy? Is every episode dialed up to an absolute 10 at all times? Is the tone often inconsistent? Yes, of course, this show was created by Shonda Rhimes. (No disrespect, Shonda.) But Julia Garner is having such a blast doing that approximation of the real Delvey's German-Russian-Californian hybrid accent that it's more than enough to keep you watching. I don't believe that this is how actual events unfolded, but what I want from a show about a conwoman of Delvey's caliber is splashy, fast-paced absurdity. Inventing Anna delivers on that. Under Rhimes' supervision, Delvey's rise is glamorous and expensive, and her fall is appropriately pathetic. Look, Delvey's crimes just aren't at the same level of severity as the ones people like Michael Peterson and Candy Montgomery were accused of, which means that Inventing Anna was right not to take itself too seriously. That's what makes it good! [Trailer]
How many episodes: 7
Who's in it: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Wyatt Russell
What it's based on: It's an adaptation of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer's 2003 nonfiction book of the same name. In it, he connected the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the 1984 double murder of a woman and her baby in suburban Utah by two brothers who claimed to have killed them as an act of God.
Is it good?: It's pretty great. Under the Banner of Heaven is very much a post-True Detective series; its influence is all over it. The Mormon detective investigating the case, beautifully brought to life by Andrew Garfield, is a creation for the series, but the show's delicate and nuanced exploration of his struggle with his faith stops the character from feeling hokey. Sometimes it veers a bit too far into becoming a documentary about the history of Mormonism as it flashes back, frequently, to the Joseph Smith-Brigham Young era. That second timeline just isn't as strong as the one with the actual murder investigation, but if you can deal with it, the rest of the series is worth your time. [Trailer]
How many episodes: 8
Who's in it: Elle Fanning, Colton Ryan, Chloe Sevigny
What it's based on: The case of Michelle Carter, a high school student at the center of the 2014 "texting suicide" case that saw her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, kill himself after Carter texted him encouragement to do so. Carter was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Is it good?: It's really good. Elle Fanning anchors the series with her fascinating, multi-layered performance as Carter, navigating some truly disturbing moments (hello, Glee reenactment scene) with care, but The Girl From Plainville is also careful about focusing the story on Carter and Roy (Colton Ryan), as well as the many mental health issues, grief, and feelings of teenage isolation at work, rather than the sensationalism of the alleged crime. It doesn't get bogged down conforming itself to the restrictions of the genre, running free with the "fact-fiction" aspect and adding a level of fantasy to things like the texting sequences, which are dramatized by having Fanning and Ryan read the lines from the messages face-to-face. It's sensitive and thoughtful that turns the two teens at its center into three-dimensional people, which is what you always want from a series born out of tragedy. [Trailer]
How many episodes: 8
Who's in it: Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Michael Stuhlbarg, Juliette Binoche, Parker Posey, Sophie Turner, Dane DeHaan, Patrick Schwarzenegger
What it's based on: The Staircase, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's docuseries that followed the trial of Michael Peterson, a writer and would-be local politician who was accused of killing his wife, Kathleen, after she was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their home. Peterson was convicted for her murder and later freed, with his charges reduced to manslaughter.
Is it good?: It's great. Created by Antonio Campos (who also directed most of the episodes), the series came in with an impressively strong vision and a willingness to experiment with genre tropes. It's part true crime adaptation, part actor showcase (Colin Firth and Toni Collette give two of the best performances of the year as Michael and Kathleen), part fanfiction as it imagines the many different theories as to how Kathleen's death could have occurred. It crucially digs into the behind-the-scenes process of de Lestrade's docuseries, and makes incredible use of the Peterson family's eerily baroque home. It's compellingly constructed, at times unfolding like a play, and boasts excellent supporting performances from Parker Posey, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Juliette Binoche. Although Peterson himself has gone on record with his dislike of the series, I will go on record saying that it's the best of this year's true crime adaptations, setting itself apart in a very oversaturated category. [Trailer]