‘The Keepers’ will be good, but lacks urgency of past true crime releases


The Keepers may be the next Making a Murderer, but it’s okay if you don’t watch it the first weekend.

On Friday May 19th, Netflix will drop The Keepers, a seven-part documentary series about the unsolved murder and alleged cover-up of a Baltimore nun. Much, if not all, pre-release coverage calls it the next Making a Murderer, which feels like an accurate assessment. It has all the makings of a prestige true crime phenomenon – murder, secrets, sex, conspiracy and an all-but-definite lack of resolution – plus the extremely trendy inclusion of nuns. 

The Keepers will likely be very good, because these shows, especially when produced by a major player like Netflix – tend to be. But whether it’s good almost doesn’t matter. We’ll go through the motions of binge watching and internet sleuthing, of asking “have you seen it?” and answering “not yet, but it’s on my list.” We’ll enter the backlash phase of questioning filmmaker bias and developing late-onset guilt over the invasion of victim privacy. And we’ll love it – like the last time, like the next time.

Which raises the question: What’s the urgency in watching?

True crime, as a genre of journalism, nonfiction novels, documentaries and so on, has been popular for centuries. But, if one must pick something on which to pin the recent mainstream appeal, the NPR-produced podcast Serial is as good a choice as any. Making a Murderer and The Jinx parlayed the podcast’s moment into multi-part documentaries, which is where the genre lives and flourishes now.

Crucially, the true crime wave of the past three years has been marked by quality content – like so much else on TV, it’s prestige. The film-making, the pacing, the cinematography – it’s all good. The quality of what you’re seeing on Netflix, HBO and FX is light years better than shows like Snapped – enjoyable as those one-crime-per-episode, re-enactment-heavy features are – or any Law and Order that’s “ripped from the headlines.” This true crime wins Oscars.

Prestige true crime comes in a few dominant forms. There are the crimes covered aggressively in their day (OJ Simpson, JonBenet Ramsey) that the new show attempts to tell in new ways, often for an audience who was in part too young or not born yet when it happened. Then, there are the crimes that were previously only locally known, if at all (SerialMaking a Murderer). Finally, there are some that fall in the middle – known if you’re of a certain age, from a certain city or a long-time lover of true crime: Amanda Knox, The Jinx.

And with prestige prefix firmly in place, these shows take on the cultural cachet of must-watch television and water-cooler conversation. But what are we really rushing to see? We talk about the details of the case, things that seem fishy, things that seem frustrating. But at the end of the series, we’re left with no resolution and a sense of the case roughly equivalent to a detailed Wikipedia entry.

The Keepers, like true crime as a genre, will be there when you want it.

It’s extremely morbid and somewhat perverse to ask a filmmaker to do something “new” with subject matter than involves real-life horror, particularly when those who lived through the crime are still alive. After all, we also don’t want to be reminded we’re making a spectacle of tragedy, so a just-the-facts tone can feel appropriate. 

Moreover, you can see the pitfalls of trying too hard or going too big with Discovery Channel’s The Killing Fields, in which the filmmakers appeared to make wild leaps and bounds to connect potential serial killers across the country – losing viewers and critics along the way. It was a cluster of conjecture and mildly offensive stereotyping vis-à-vis shotguns and southern accents.

By most accounts, Casting JonBenet, which premiered on Netflix in April, managed to pull off something new. Rather than tracing the case, director Kitty Green came at the story through the lens of the city in which it took place and the people who auditioned for roles in a true crime production – people with their own theories and baggage. 

Time will tell, but you could argue The Keepers itself is a slight pivot on the tradition. After all, it’s marketed rather dramatically as not about the crime, but about the cover up. And yet, are any of these shows “about the crime,” really?

The Keepers will be good, it may even be great. But its debut lacks the urgency and necessity that characterized other post-Serial releases like The JinxMaking a Murderer and OJ: Made in America, nearly from the jump. The potential for a true crime show to “capture the zeitgeist” has been diluted by how frequently it happens or is hyped.

If you like true crime, you should watch The Keepers. Add it to your list. But if you have something else to do on Friday night, don’t sweat it. The Keepers, like true crime as a genre, will be there when you want it.