Quickfire round: American Murder: The Family Next Door

Despite its forgettable title (is it American Family: The Murder Nextdoor? Or America Nextdoor: The Family Murder? Neither!) this documentary uses incredible original footage to tell the chilling story of how, and why, Shannan Watts and her two children were cruelly murdered.

One person in this photo escaped death. Can you guess who it was?

I’ll start off by saying that this documentary shows how far we’ve come with technology in our society that it is able to tell the story in such a coherent manner with absolutely no voice-over and only first-hand footage (from police body cams and interview rooms, neighbours, news crews, text messages, and Shannan herself).

This method of telling the story makes it all the more terrifying. We start out with police body cam footage – after Shannan’s friend and colleague called the police, concerned for her whereabouts as she wasn’t responding to texts. The footage – otherwise entirely routine – immediately captures a scene of confusion and mystery as Shannan – and her two young children – are nowhere to be seen. Her phone is there and switched off, but the children’s blankets are gone. Her husband, Chris Watts, raced back from work at a remote oil well, and seems distracted as he speaks to officers about the last time he saw his wife alive and who – or where – she could have gone to.

Incredibly, the documentary also features Shannan herself. She was a prolific Facebook user, recording and posting footage of family moments almost daily. What a juxtaposition these happy videos of her and her husband are to the text messages she was exchanging with her friends and colleagues shortly before her death – telling a story of how her husband had become distant and uninterested in her.

I think I know what makes the documentary so gripping. The Facebook videos and text messages are all pre-death, of course. And the police footage is post-death. We therefore see the story unravel from two perspectives – Shannan’s, as she hurtles towards her murder, and the police, as they piece everything together. Everything is revealed in sync with each other – the text messages become more surreal and desperate as the police interviews become more dramatic and revealing. It’s great storytelling, if incredibly tragic.

If you like true crime, you absolutely don’t want to miss this.

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What I thought about: Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich

Convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein, made headlines last year after he was charged with additional sex offences and then killed himself (*allegedly). What I’d never understood was who he really was and what he did to land him in jail and, ultimately, wind up dead. This powerful docuseries explains all.

Sarah Ransome recalling the moment she tried to swim to safety from Epstein’s private island

What’s it about?
Through interviews with ex-business associates, people who worked on his ‘paedophile island’, police chiefs and lawyers who worked on the case, and even Epstein’s own lawyer Alan Dershowitz, the story of Jeffrey Epstein’s criminal history is told. Above all of these people should sit Epstein’s victims, and we hear many of them tell their story in this series.

We learn where Epstein came from, and that he’s always been a manipulative liar. He started out as a school teacher, having lied about his degree (he didn’t have one) to get the job. From there, well, it was just a trail of deceit and crookery. The one thing the documentary isn’t able to tell you is exactly how he made his money, besides the vague notion that he managed other people’s money (and the assertion that, in some cases, he stole it).

What makes for more uncomfortable watching is the history of Epstein’s underage sex offences. With the help of his partner, British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell (who has now been arrested & charged with a litany of crimes), he lured underaged girls to his Palm Beach mansion, offering them money in return for a massage which often turned into non-consensual intercourse – in other words, he raped them. There were apparently hundreds of victims, it’s really quite horrific.

What do I like about it?
It’s not really appropriate to say I ‘liked’ this documentary. I do however think it’s important to watch. You feel a sense of outrage at Epstein’s ability to evade capture and, even when he was convicted of a numbed-down charge of soliciting a minor for prostitution in 2008, how his prison sentence was a joke and he was able to do whatever he wanted.

In some ways we can draw parallels to the shocking Abducted in Plain Sight documentary. Both men managed to manipulate others into letting them do whatever they wanted – and in both cases this lead to the sexual assault of minors.

What do I not like about it?
Overall it is a solid documentary, but some more rigid structure would have been a bit better. We kept jumping up and down the timeline, which was at times difficult to keep up with,

Worth a watch?
It’s not going to be an easy watch for some people, but if you were ever curious about the true scale of Epstein’s crimes then you need to watch this.

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What I thought about: Unbelievable (t/w: rape)

Straight up, I cried at the end of this one. Some people might get bored of the slow-burn, but you have to remember this is based on a true story, and I think the show’s pacing and tone portray the story in an appropriate – and very moving – way.

These two never gave up. And that’s what matters.

What’s it about?
Marie Adler claims she was raped at gunpoint in her apartment where she lives alone. It’s not an easy case for the local police department – the man wore a mask, he showered at her flat, and therefore left no trace of DNA behind. Marie struggles to recall any of the details of her ordeal as she’s questioned multiple times and asked to fill out form after form recalling her horrific experience.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, but this is important. Not too long after Marie’s rape, and in a different state, a police detective attends a call of rape. This time, it plays out entirely differently. Detective Karen Duvall doesn’t rush the victim for a statement. It doesn’t matter, though, as the victim is able to recount the crime in spectacular detail. At the scene, the forensics team come up empty and ask the detective to call it a day. ‘Keep looking’, Duvall says.

Besides being an incredible story of determination by the two main police detectives, the series vibrantly highlights how each victim deals with their assault in a different way, and how some police forces are far better at treating victims of rape than others.

What do I like about it?
I didn’t know anything about the show before I hit ‘play’. At first I thought it was a series of completely unrelated stories of unbelievable true crime. But even with my guard down and without paying close attention, I could see the stark differences in the way the police approached the two rapes. The show does a fantastic job of capturing this.

The show covers everything so delicately and with such emotion. Kaitlyn Denver, playing the part of Marie Adler, is absolutely fantastic in this. Things get a lot worse for her before they get better, and there is a fine balance between feeling aggrieved at the injustice being suffered by Marie, and being filled with hope as the detectives close in on their man.

What do I not like about it?
I thought it was appropriate, but some might not like how slow the show is. I personally watched episode after episode, but I have to admit there’s not a lot happening in the middle. There are a lot of slow, panning shots of concerned faces. We also see into the private lives of the two detectives somewhat unnecessarily.

Worth a watch?
Yes. Do yourself a favour and watch this show. It’s important to help you emphasise with victims of rape, and at base level the facts of this true case are absolutely incredible.

By the way…

  • The story came to light in a 2015 article published on The Marshall Project website
  • There’s also a book titled A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America which you can pick up and read for a more in-depth and less dramatised look at the story

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What I thought about: How To Sell Drugs Online (Fast)

A hidden gem that you’ve probably skipped past after finding out it’s a German language show. Stick some subtitles on and consider it again, because the production values are great and it strikes a good balance between comedy and drama.

In all seriousness, this show gets a lot of technical stuff right

What’s it about?
Moritz, a guy who’s nerdy but not nerdy enough to be properly good at nerd stuff (think Steve Jobs), and Lenny, a proper nerd who is really good at coding (think Steve Wozniak) have been best friends for years. Together they plan to become rich by launching a website that allows noobs to buy high-level gear for online games.

Except, they end up selling a totally different type of gear. Why? Moritz’s out-of-his-league girlfriend returns from a year abroad in the US, decides to put their relationship on pause, and starts hanging out with the stereotypical rich kid drug dealer. Naturally, Moritz needs to show her he’s still cool. During a night of wallowing in self pity, red bull, and Pringles, he pivots the e-commerce platform MyTems into MyDrugs and launches it onto the dark net.

What do I like about it?
Look, it’s a comedy drama and as such it can get pretty far-fetched. But the producers put in a decent amount of effort to get the up-to-the-minute culture right in this show. Lenny communicates with his online gaming friends over Discord. Moritz references Pebble Time, arguably the world’s first smart watch, and even its recent acquisition by FitBit.

Also, the show has some random – but fun – cutaways, such as a school teacher cheerily describing the effects of MDMA, and a freeze-frame displaying legitimate information about how to avoid overdosing. Because why not?

What don’t I like about it?
Not a lot. I will happily admit I finished the whole thing in one sitting. I enjoyed a lot of the on-point cultural references and the subject matter (starting an e-commerce business, not the popping pills part) interests me personally.

It is a bit shallow in other places, though. The show’s social commentary (usually berating people’s use of social media and how out online profiles are mostly fake) is one of its weaker elements. And the angsty teenage love triangle is adequate at best.

Worth a watch?
For sure. Maybe don’t drag it to the top of your list, but this show is fun and the production values are great. It’s also a good way to brush up on your German, if you know a little already.

By the way…

  • It’s inspired by a true story of a guy who got busted selling $600k of drugs in Germany.
  • The show has been renewed for a second series, and the final episode definitely allows for a smooth transition.

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