I don’t ask for much in my television, and I am not above being basic. I love true crime, and I’ll gladly binge a limited series based on real events. What’s better than watching an actor who is much hotter than a real-life person pretending to be a real life person? Nothing. Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clarke in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story was a revelation. I am no monarchist, but I cannot resist The Crown — the ultimate true crime adaptation.
There is one problem with today’s ripped-from-the-headlines television offerings, though — an alarming number of them are about things that happened forty seconds ago.
Don’t get me wrong: Like everyone else online, I was obsessed with Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Delvey, the protagonists of Hulu’s The Dropout and Netflix’s Inventing Anna, respectively. White girls with weird voices and bad hair somehow casting a spell on everyone around them are always irresistible. The demise of WeWork CEO Adam Neumann — the delusional real estate guru at the center of the upcoming WeCrashed — is also a fantastic story. But these people have already given us hours and hours of content — books, podcasts, articles — in the last two years alone. Perhaps we need a moment to digest before revisiting their stories with the help of an all-star cast. And it doesn't’ stop there — Super Pumped, about rise and fall of former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, is premiering this weekend on Showtime, while Tiger King, a docu-series that brings back chilling memories of early lockdown, has been adapted into Peacock’s upcoming Joe vs. Carole. There is a can of fancy tuna I’ve been saving since before Tiger King was released the first time. These stories are just too fresh!
As much as I would love to see Amanda Seyfried and Jennifer Lawrence and Jared Leto and Nicolas Braun (ok, maybe not so much these last two) hamming it up with crazy accents and overwritten speeches while telling juicy stories I feel I know intimately, their subjects have barely aged since becoming public figures. Which is why I am proposing a simple rule moving forward: We must let at least twenty years pass before immortalizing crime-related stories on screen.
The appeal of revisiting stories like the O.J. trial or the Bill Clinton impeachment with fresh eyes is having a chance to re-evaluate our memories and biases, and truly consider the legacies of figures of recent history years after the dust has settled. We can’t really do this with stories that only just happened, or, in some of these cases, trials that are still ongoing. What are we truly learning by having actors play dress-up and act out scenes we just read about in the New York Times six months ago? What exactly is the goal beyond buzzy film actors getting Emmy nominations for doing glorified SNL impressions?
What makes so much “based on real events” media work so well is seeing our past selves reflected back to us. In order for that to have any emotional impact, we first need some time to forget.