Decades later, true crime stories keep gripping viewers

This is a story that I sent to papers, but failed to post here. Sorry about that; here it is.


By Mike Hughes

Joe Berlinger has
spent decades in a distant corner of the TV landscape.

He makes
documentaries, in a world that prefers adventure and comedy. He's
drawn praise, prizes (two Emmys, an Oscar nomination) and little
attention ... until recently.

“I've never been
busier,” he said.

That's because of
the surge in true-crime stories. It peaks this weekend with:

-- “Cold Blooded,”
his two-part documentary on Sundance; the first half is 9-11 p.m.
Saturday (Nov. 18, both halves are 7 and 9 p.m. Sunday. This is based on the
case Truman Capote described in “In Cold Blood,” a half-century
ago. “When I read it as a teen, I was obsessed with it,”
Berlinger said.

-- “I Am Elizabeth
Smart,” from 8-10 p.m. Saturday on Lifetime, rerunning Sunday. It's
a scripted film, not a documentary, but Smart narrates it and says
the details are meticulous. “It's the best/worst movie I've ever
seen .... I'm very proud of it, but at the same time, part of me
thinks I'll be happy if I never have to watch it again.”

-- And all the
shorter stories. Two cable channels – Investigation Discovery and
Oxygen – now focus on true crime; network newsmagazines (“48
Hours,” “Dateline,” “20/20”) are also obsessed.

“We have this
unbelievable explosion .... We are swimming in crime stories,”
Berlinger said.

That can make it
difficult for the real people who were involved. Smart is 30 now and
her ordeal was half-her-life ago, but people still spot her. “I go
to Costco still now and what should be 45 minutes usually turns into
an hour and 20 minutes,” she said.

By comparison, Paul
Dewey – whose dad Al was the prime “Cold Blood” investigator –
has avoided attention. “Nelle's advice was to not talk to anyone,”
he said.

Later, “Nelle”
would be known as Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Back then, however, she was just an unknown who accompanied her
friend Capote to this tiny town.

Most people avoided
them at first, but not the Deweys.

“My mother was
from New Orleans,” Paul Dewey said. “The poor woman had moved to
this little town in Kansas. When Truman Capote came to town, it was
love at first sight.”

The book was
followed by an acclaimed, 1967 movie. Al Dewey “had mixed emotions
about it,” his son said. “His concern was that the film had too
much about the killers.”

Now Paul Dewey lives
in Oregon and has had little contact with the story ... until
Berlinger found him. After, “finding that he's a very serious
documentarian, I thought, 'Well, maybe now is the time.' I went
through all the old boxes that Mom had saved (and) thought this was
the chance to tell that story.”

There are chances to
tell – and re-tell – many stories, during TV's true-crime spree.