Veteran comic Steve Martin has returned to our screens, this time taking aim at that most prolific of podcast genres: the true crime documentary. In his new Hulu show, Only Murders in the Building, the former star of The Jerk plays a washed-up TV actor and true crime obsessive who, along with two other misfits, sets out to turn a neighbourhood homicide into the new great American podcast a la Serial.
The first episodes of Martin’s sitcom are funny enough, managing to skew the pretentiousness and ego of the wannabe sleuths. But they do beg one question: which is why it's taken this long for someone to fire a shot at true crime podcasts - a genre which, for all its role in turning podcasting into a ten-billion-dollar industry, has been more than ripe for a takedown for several years now.
Because, for all their success, the truth about most true crime podcasts is quite simple: they're pretty rubbish. Predictable, drawn-out, exploitative, brain-numbingly repetitive and – despite being showered with hundreds of millions in production cash – poorly made to boot. Yet they're still popping up at a rate of knots, and drawing in tens of millions of listeners as they go. Why?
True crime podcasts tend to fall into two broad categories. The first – of the kind sent up by Only Murders in the Building – are perhaps the most irritating: the immersive documentary podcasts. They’re the ones where a host records themselves trying to get to the bottom of some mystery or other, giving you a running commentary of every turn and twist in the case.
Listen to five minutes of these kinds of detective podcasts and you’ll soon get a good idea of how their creators see themselves: as fearless and dogged investigators determined to crack even the trickiest of cases. Is this messianic egotism handy when it comes to solving mysteries? Maybe (unless of course a generation of police dramas have lied to us). But one thing’s for sure: it makes for very irritating radio.
For a start, detective podcasters routinely break that most basic of journalistic rules: they put themselves at the centre of the story. The documentaries end up becoming less about the crime itself, and more about the process of making a podcast. Whole sub-plots develop in which the host tries desperately to track down a potential lead only for the whole thing to turn into a wild goose chase. Yet it all ends up filling an episode anyway.
I have another gripe with these mystery podcasts, which is just how few of them actually end up solving the very case they're discussing - something which, in a fairer world, should probably be flagged up in advance. Time and again, they use a big, tantalising premise to reel us in, before performing a shameless bait and switch.
Was a Hollywood actress actually murdered by her husband? Did the CIA write the song Wind of Change as an anti-Soviet psy-op? Was Woody Harrelson’s dad hired by the government as a contract killer? All three were questions posed by recent hit podcasts - and all three went unanswered. (Incidentally, for a podcast that actually does manage to solve the mystery, try Neil Strauss’s To Live and Die in LA).
The second type of true crime podcast is even worse. They’re the ones which take a historic murder, look it up on Wikipedia, and then milk it for as much as they can. Like much of the podcasting world, these magazine-style serials aren’t exactly a new idea (American networks have been pumping out cheap ‘reconstruction’ shows for decades now) but that hasn’t stopped them from racing up the podcast charts.
Given the commercial incentives to spread out these podcasts for as long as possible, the serials are usually full of deliberate padding. One favourite method is to hire a writer to turn the source material into snippets of faux-literary radio drama, which can fill more time.
Take this random excerpt from the hit podcast, The Dating Game Killer, which describes how the eventual murderer follows his young victim across town: 'He spots her through the wind-shield from half a block away. Seven, maybe eight. She’s carrying books, no doubt on her way to school. With the slow-moving morning traffic, it’s easy to keep pace with her. As he angles closer to the sidewalk, he can see her lips moving in an improvised little tune.'
Are we really supposed to believe this kind of needless verbiage serves any purpose beyond generating more advertising revenue for the production company? Or that it wouldn't end up being slashed to the bone by a competent editor if it was written for any other medium other than true crime podcasts? And yet we lap it up regardless.
Perhaps we should be grateful, then, that one of America’s great comics has finally arrived to take the world of true crime down a peg or two. Fingers crossed he doesn't hold back while he's at it.