A Very Fatal Murder is funny. But is it really a perfect parody?
It has been universally received as a perfect genre spoof. But it misses the ways in which true crime podcasts have evolved since Serial.
Three years ago, in those heady, post-Serial salad days, radio stations, newspapers and dudes-in-basements everywhere set out to capitalise on a new demand for serialised true crime audio. It's a demand that has persisted, even as those of us in the audio review biz have grown ever more weary of new entrants. He's innocent, you say? Well, sure, maybe.
This year, we have been gifted with A Very Fatal Murder, an extremely competent and often funny parody podcast from satirical news site The Onion. We smirked our way through the six-part series, which follows relentlessly-condescending public radio reporter David Pascalle's attempts to solve the murder of a young woman, Hayley Price: "a typical 17 year old with big dreams and clear skin". Pascalle descends in pomp and circumstance on a rural backwater, where he embeds among the exotic small-town locals to investigate Hayley's death.
But in the pleasing after-glow of this binge-listen, we got to thinking about our present-day true crime diet, and how few of those podcasts actually come within the range of A Very Fatal Murder's crossfire: a beautiful, young, female victim; a magnanimous public radio reporter, air-lifted into an unfamiliar backwater. In fact, we could think of far more that broke the mould than adhered to it. And at that point A Very Fatal Murder started to look rather late to the party.
So, in defense of the evolution of true crime podcasts to the present day, let's take a few examples. A few culprits initially stood out to us as perhaps superficially subscribing to AVFM's premise - but, on further examination, defied it.
Someone Knows Something. This hit CBC show came first to mind, given producer David Ridgen's penchant for rural mysteries. It does occasionally suffer from a sanctimonious tone and Season 2 (Jan 2017) does focus on a beautiful missing woman, Sheryl Sheppard. But previous and subsequent series' have examined the disappearance of a child; an historic case in which klansmen were exonerated for the murder of two black men; and (in the present season) a farmer's death by mail-bomb. In the cases of Seasons 1 and 3, Ridgen had investigated both for years, and Season 1 was set in his hometown - far from unfamiliar ground.
Accused. Season 1 (Aug 2016) did focus on the death of a beautiful blonde college grad. But it was ferociously and compassionately reported by local journalists at the Cincinnati Enquirer - not some parachuted-in Johnny-come-lately. Season 2 (Oct 2017) explored the murder of a decidedly unglamorous middle-aged prison minister.
Trace. This blockbuster Australian true crime (Jun 2017) investigates an infamous cold case - the murder of an Italian mother, Maria James, in 1980. Again, host Rachel Brown has skin in the game, having investigated the case for years, in her own time, before the podcast released to acclaim. The series trod far beyond the realm of glamorous dead blondes, exposing systemic abuse in the local Catholic church, including the abuse of Maria's sons.
What about a recent hit like Dirty John - focused on domestic crimes of, as we described it, a "smaller and weirder" scale. It doesn't fit the bill. Nor does Breakdown from the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which is presently honing in on its fifth case; Bill Rankin has never told the story of a pretty dead girl. Or Bowraville (May 2016), which sought justice for the long unsolved deaths of three Aboriginal children. Or Black Hands, the imperfect but mesmerising investigation of an entire New Zealand family's murder, and the son who was acquitted of the crime. None of them sound like AVFM, or meet all (if any) of its key indicators for ridicule.
You know what AVFM does sound like, more than anything? Serial and S-Town - one, the originator of the form, and the other, a transformative, expectation-confounding masterpiece, which deliberately plays with the narrative expectations set up by Serial in order to upend them, and burrow deeper. We have no problem with satire punching up, but these targets don't really make sense. They are not inimitable - and it is funny to hear them imitated - but nor are they truly representative.
Still, we can't deny that something feels accurate about AVFM. It doesn't actually sound like most true crime podcasts, but it does sound like a lot of stories from American public radio reporters, on the scent of a story, in a thrillingly unfamiliar place. True crime podcasts do unfold in similar narrative patterns, which grow tiresome. And AVFM also speaks to a perfectly real phenomenon - there is a glut of true crime podcasts, and audiences are still hungry for them.
But reporters and audio makers are cognizant of the pitfalls in true crime reporting, and increasingly conscious of the optics. As Rachel Brown, host of Trace, told the ABC, "True-crime podcasts often make the mistake of treating tragedies like spectator sports." That's not to say true crime has evolved to a point of perfection - but we are a good way further down the path than AVFM would have you believe.
And to be clear, we don't deny it's funny. It's good, clean fun for podcast lovers. Plus, we suspect there'll be at least one positive effect: a new urge to innovate in true crime audio, if only for fear of a very fatal comparison.