Marijke Rowland

True-crime documentary makes for riveting TV

Robert Durst is shown on the set of HBO’s “The Jinx.” He has been arrested in one of the killings he has been suspected of.
Robert Durst is shown on the set of HBO’s “The Jinx.” He has been arrested in one of the killings he has been suspected of. HBO

There’s an old media adage that goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

It’s true: We humans certainly love to hear about our crimes, crashes and other catastrophes – both the fictional and nonfictional kinds. Click through the TV dial and every other show is “Law & Order: Crime Scene Minds.” And on any given day, click on the modbee.com home page and most of the Top 5 stories are about crime.

It’s just human nature. I saw the trailer for Dwayne (“The Rock”) Johnson’s new quake disaster flick, “San Andreas,” last week, in which pretty much all of Los Angeles and San Francisco were swallowed by the earth, and thought two things: 1) Sweet, now the Central Valley will finally be ocean-front property, and 2) Yep, I’m definitely watching that.

So into that pop-culture reality came perhaps the most extraordinary true crime entertainment of all time: HBO’s six-part documentary series “The Jinx.” As billed, the miniseries examined the life and deaths of New York real estate scion Robert Durst.

The one-sentence summary of Durst’s life is that he is a very, very rich man whose first wife, a friend and a neighbor either disappeared or died grisly unnatural deaths. The slightly longer summary is that while he was suspected in all three deaths (his first wife, who disappeared in 1992, was declared dead years later), he never was convicted of any, even though he admitted to one of the killings and was even put on trial for it. He was acquitted, successfully claiming self-defense despite having chopped up the body and thrown it into a bay.

Durst, now 71, actually approached filmmaker Andrew Jarecki about making the documentary. As the eldest son of one of New York City’s wealthiest real estate families, Durst’s possible involvement in all the crimes was big news over the years. So, one can only assume, he felt a perverse need to tell his side of the story.

Whatever it was, it was absolutely riveting television. Indeed the finale, which aired Sunday, may have been the most jaw-dropping thing I’ve ever watched. Out of an abundance of caution, I’ll issue a spoiler alert for what follows. (Though can you really spoil real life?)

In the documentary’s final scene, Durst, cornered when Jarecki confronts him with handwriting evidence that links him to one of the killings, retreats to a restroom. With his mike still on, he mutters to himself, “There it is. You’re caught. What a disaster. … What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

The real-life epilogue to the story is that the day the finale aired, news broke that Durst had been arrested by Los Angeles authorities for the second slaying, that of his longtime friend and confidant Susan Berman.

After the success of the true-crime podcast “Serial” last year, “The Jinx” has taken that trend and given us quite possibly our most voyeuristic look into the mind of human darkness. It was amazing television. I couldn’t stop thinking about it hours, even days, later – as this column proves.

But, when I really think about it, it also makes me a little queasy. While it may be only human to be curious about crime, to watch an entire show for fun about a man who may well be a murderer reveals an uneasy part of our nature. It’s all good to pretend at death and destruction, but to let the beady, blinking eyes of the real thing beam into your living room is something else altogether.

Elsewhere around the Scene:

For something considerably more uplifting, mark your calendars for an upcoming bluegrass show at the Peer Recovery Art Project on March 27.

Newgrass pioneer Eddie Adcock and his wife, Martha, will perform along with local bluegrass quartet Red Dog Ash at the event. Adcock was a member of the 1960s bluegrass act the Country Gentlemen and has been compared to fellow bluegrass greats Mac Wiseman and Bill Monroe.

The show starts at 7:30 p.m. at the downtown Modesto venue. Tickets are $15. Call (209) 581-1695 or visit www.peerrecoveryartproject.org.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on Twitter @marijkerowland.

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