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In the advent of ground-breaking true crime shows like The Jinx and Making a Murderer it seems utterly bizarre that a show like Crime Watch Daily exists.
For starters, each episode opens like Inside Edition, the TV show equivalent of those annoying click bait Buzzfeed headlines that clog your Facebook feed with crap like “You won’t believe what happened when this man ate a cheese sandwich!” The barrage of “if it bleeds, it leads” style headlines on Crime Watch Daily provide viewers with very little useful information about actual crime, relying instead on grabbing ears and eyeballs with whatever salacious copy they can conjure. At least you can click on clickbait headlines; you have to sit through an entire episode of Crime Watch Daily to get to the “good” stuff.
It’s bad enough that the Internet is crammed with this kind of junk; do we really need it on our TV screens as well? It’s a relevant question since the Crime Watch Daily set virtually indistinguishable from the ones used by shows like Entertainment Tonight: all glass, chrome, sparkling lights, and giant flat TV screens. The set also looks like a super close up photo of microchips, which ironically only serves to further highlight the distinction that this is Not The Internet.
The idea that a daily TV show would be able to keep up with crime stories in real time as they develop – a market the Internet and 24-hour news channels have cornered – makes the existence of Crime Watch Daily an anomaly in the first place. If they were reporting on the kinds of things that viewers need to know about crime on a daily basis, perhaps an argument could be made that they provide a vital service, but they don’t.
It’s true that we take risks every time we leave the house (or in the case of a home invasion, while we’re there). Depending upon where we live or what kind of job we have, we could encounter a lot of crime: mugging, shooting, stabbing, kidnapping, or sexual assault. These kinds of risks, however, are already covered by local news programs and crime data maps that are available on, you guessed it, the Internet.
Note that I’m not implying local news stations always do a bang-up job reporting on the kinds of crimes we might encounter, but they are at least more qualified to give us a microcast of what’s going on around us than a national program like Crime Watch Daily. The show does have a segment called “Crime Watch Local,” but it only airs weekly, competing with 30 to 40 other minutes of the show’s airtime; therefore, it would be impossible to cover every “local” corner of the United States.
Crime Watch Daily doesn’t even provide any tips or tricks for how to avoid crime, focusing instead on just telling us about it without giving us any insight into what the crime could mean to the viewer on a personal level or what it means to crime in society as a whole. In fact, the show has two specific segments that seem to have been created purely out of some need to make fun of others. “Bad Seed of the Day” and “CrimeTube” are, respectively “a weekly segment profiling a particular criminal and the crime they committed” and “a daily segment… featuring videos of criminal acts, sting operations, police pursuits, and footage of law enforcement activity culled from public doman security camera, traffic camera, and police dashcam footage." Yeah, we have that second thing already; it’s called YouTube.
Sure it might give us a feeling of schadenfreude to witness criminals being caught in the act, but does that serve any real purpose? No, it seems that Crime Watch Daily is merely interested in WATCHING crime, not examining it, not trying to prevent it, not helping viewers get a more profound understanding of it. It’s a spectator sport that takes real tragedies and repackages them into glossy, bite-sized chunks of sugar, providing a quick fix of empty calories.
There is a certain element of fear-mongering on Crime Watch Daily, which feels carefully scripted to highlight the lurid details and the emotional fallout of the crimes it depicts, but the show doesn’t evoke empathy in the same way that seeing a grieving family member at a press conference or being interviewed at a crime scene might. It’s like a ginned-up version of fear that makes people feel like they know what’s going on even though Crime Watch Daily only provides limited information, the kind of thing that people might use to justify racism, classism, sexism, and the intersection of all three.
Crime Watch Daily is fear mongering without the fear, replaced instead by self-righteousness. That’s truly scary.
NBC's limited series Aquarius premiered on May 28, with the remaining 12 episodes going up on NBC.com the subsequent Thursday. Aquarius attempts to add a new spin on the events leading up to the Tate-LaBianca murders that took place on August 9 and 10, 1969.
Opening in 1967, the show follows multiple intersecting narratives: police sergeant Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) investigates an "off the books" missing persons/kidnapping case for his ex-girlfriend Grace Karn (Michaela McManus). Grace's 16-year-old daughter Emma hasn't been seen or heard from in four days. Her father, Grace's husband Ken (Brían F. O'Byrne) is a well-connected, high-powered lawyer who wants to keep the potentially politically damaging scandal out of the press. As it turns out it's Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony) who has lured Emma away from home. Hodiak investigates the case with his younger partner Brian (Grey Damon), who thinks of Hodiak as a square.
David Duchovny is pretty terrific as Hodiak. As for Aquarius, it's no Mad Men, but I'm five episodes in and so far it's has done a decent job of creating a sense of the social and political unrest of the time period, with ongoing threads about drug use, hippies, and racial unrest, including a character that is a member of the Black Panther party. For those who have read extensively about or lived through the Summer of Fear: 1969 Edition, however, Aquarius doesn't do the best job of toeing the line between fiction and reality as far as Charles Manson is concerned.
Charlie and Cults
Admittedly, it's a difficult balancing act. How does one present a compelling portrayal of the horrific events of the late 1960s to a world in which Manson is seen as a pop culture icon, especially when there have been so many fictionalized versions of the story already? Aquarius is a little more edgy and believable than say, the 2004 version of Helter Skelter with Jeremy Davies, but this is network TV, after all, and the show frequently stumbles, especially with its portrayal of Emma and the burgeoning development of The Family.
Although the Tate-LaBianca murders themselves were savage and unprecedented, even at a time when people were being slaughtered en masse overseas, what makes the Manson murders so unique are their origins. After all, The Family was a cult that Manson concocted after flirting with a variety of New Age religions like Scientology and The Process Church, among others. The intervening years have seen no shortage of cults who've killed in the name of someone or something: Peoples Temple, Heaven's Gate, Branch Davidians. Yet the Manson case stands out because the murder victims weren't actual members of the cult.
There have also been a lot of fictionalized portrayals of these cult tragedies, such as Ti West's The Sacrament, a found footage pseudo-documentary that recasts the events of 1977 Jonestown through the modern lens of Vice journalism. Despite this ambitious premise, the movie isn't shocking or scary at all, especially if one is familiar with contemporaneous news articles and photos.
A much better movie about cult activity and its impact is 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene, about Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who has recently escaped from a cult. The film alternates between the current narrative world of the film and Martha's flashbacks, often blurring the divide between dreams, memories, and even reality. It's one of the most frightening movies I've ever seen that isn't a straight-up horror film. John Hawkes plays cult leader Patrick as a wild-eyed, magnetic sleazebag who is legitimately, skin-crawlingly awful, far more disturbing than Gethin Anthony's clichéd, bisexual redneck on Aquarius.
Manson and the Male Gaze
In "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," feminist scholar Laura Mulvey's seminal 1975 essay on the Male Gaze, she argues that because straight men make the majority of movies, women become objects to be looked at and thus, lose their agency. This is part of why Aquarius fails at this task and why Martha Marcy May Marlene, a movie that isn't even about Charles Manson, succeeds.
Even though it was written and directed by a man, Sean Durkin, the key to what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene so successful at being scary is its focus on Elizabeth Olsen's character: someone who's been completely shattered. We see things through her eyes and it makes everything that much more believable. This is the problem with Aquarius: by taking us on this journey with Sam Hodiak as our guide instead of Emma, we don't get the same perspective. We see things happen to Emma; we aren't privy to how she feels about what happens to her.
In Aquarius, Emma feels like a character in everyone else's story but her own: her parents, Charles Manson, Sam Hodiak himself. It's not about her situation; it's about the problems it causes everyone else. The show lavishes more care on a ridiculous subplot in which it's revealed that Ken Karn is not only gay, but was once Manson's lover, in addition to being his former attorney. It's a little too predictable, when a story about one of the most famous serial killers of all time should be far more wanton in its approach.
Even though it's a recent song, Lana Del Rey's "Ultraviolence" manages to create more of a mysterious, malevolent vibe than much of Aquarius (at least so far). In an interview with Grazie magazine, Del Rey states,
"I used to be a member of an underground sect which was reigned by a guru. He surrounded himself with young girls. He thought that he had to break people first to build them up again. At the end I quit the sect."
Fans have speculated that she's referring to the Atlantic Group, an unofficial offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous long condemned for its cult-like activities.
With lyrics like "he hurt me but it felt like true love" and "you're my cult leader" set to a brooding orchestral background and the repeated alliteration of the words sirens, violins, and violence, "Ultraviolence" conjures up a more personal and therefore affecting picture of the ways that a cult can destroy, especially young and vulnerable women. Considering that the Atlantic Group is a current entity, it makes it seem like the idea of another Charles Manson isn't something that happened 40 years ago, but something contemporary and genuinely scary.
I'll keep watching Aquarius because it is ambitious despite its flaws, but I'll also keep hoping that perhaps one day a filmmaker or TV network will capture the creepy crawly feeling Ed Sanders did in his 1971 book on Manson, The Family.