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TV’s True Crime Voyeurism Reaches Its Crude End

In each episode of Netflix's "I Am A Killer," a man on death row describes his crime. But for what purpose?

Sky Vision

American culture is in love with murder. It has always been this way: People like watching killers cavort in the movies, and trashy true-crime documentaries pull in the numbers. There’s a whole network called Crime & Investigation. But our obsession with murder took a new turn with 2014’s Serial, which elevated the practice of turning a real murder—a real death—into a form of entertainment. It let middle-to-high-brow consumers feel better about their voyeurism. If they were interested in the narrative problems of the crime, the listener was no longer obsessing over lurid violence; they were considering the relation between truth, language, and reality. Or something like that.

A new TV show called I Am A Killer pushes the genre to the absolute limit of acceptability—then goes right across it, arriving at the gruesome apotheosis of our obsession with killers and killing. The show (produced by Sky Vision and distributed by Netflix) is a documentary series that interviews a different man on death row in each episode. The show represents the crossing of a cultural rubicon, the transformation of something abnormal into ordinary entertainment.

I Am A Killer dresses the murders in a cloak of unreliable narrative. In each episode we first see the convicted man speak directly to the camera. In episode four, Miguel Angel Martinez of Laredo, Texas, describes how, at the age of 17, he entered the home of James Smiley, a man he had previously lived with. Martinez brought two friends, Manuel “Milo” Flores (also 17) and Miguel Angel Venegas, Jr. (16). Martinez and Venegas killed everybody in there and Flores brought along the weapons. On the way out Venegas turned a crucifix by Smiley’s bed upside down.

Martinez is the focus, at first. He has charismatic eyes, in that they’re sort of sexy and frightening at the same time. He explains that he intended to only rob the place with his friends, but things just turned. After Martinez’s interview, we then meet various other characters. We meet people who knew Smiley, who mourn his death. We also meet Venegas, who says that when he was 8 years old he “became convinced that [he] was the son of the devil.” To prove this to himself Venegas would fill up a jar with black widow spiders and then pour them on his chest. If he was the son of the devil they wouldn’t bite him. They never did.

All the episodes follow this narrative course. The producers then play for the killer various tapes and interviews they have gathered in the interim. In the case of Martinez, the producers have discovered that James Smiley, with whom Martinez lived as a child, was known to have been a pedophile. This information was deliberately withheld from the early section of the episode, so that the story would have a twist. They play Martinez a tape of Flores’s father explaining that the kids went after a man who seemed like a “good man” but was actually a “bad man.” Martinez loses his composure and seems near tears, but does not explain further. At the end of the episode a title card tells us that Martinez’s death sentence has since been commuted to life in prison—the courts found that a jury has to have been unanimous in passing such a sentence, and his wasn’t.

It’s an unsatisfying conclusion, and in general the show delivers the profound sense of having short-changed all its subjects, from the murderers to the victims. Abuse, murder, capital punishment: Aren’t these the kind of plot points that merit full-length novels, or entire television seasons? That I Am A Killer crams each of these extremely complex crimes into one episode, then moves onto the next, feels like brutalization-by-television, a punishment on top of a punishment.

If there’s an artistic justification for this show, it lies in the old question of unreliable narrators. Inevitably, the murderer’s initial story ends up questioned by other people. Often, the discrepancies are never solved, not even in court. The conviction reflects the dominant narrative, the one the jurors believed the most. I Am A Killer has the interesting side effect of proving that the law’s “version of events” is always just a story. Narrative is what constitutes crime and punishment.

There are also a lot of parallels between the different cases. Often the murderer has been abused as a child, or describes going on a downward spiral after their father dies. Often the murderer makes very piercing eye contact with the camera, even the ones who are being interviewed through glass. People close to the crime very often describe having a “bad feeling” about the day in question, even if there’s no way they could have known what was about to happen. The convicted men often refer to their “case” as if it were something they found themselves in, rather than a crime they committed.

Ultimately, the show’s most compelling moments are the absurd ones. In episode one, for example, we meet James Robertson, a man jailed for a more minor crime who eventually murdered his cellmate in order to get housed on death row (he says the conditions are better there). The Florida Department of Corrections gave him his wish. Later, we meet his lawyer, who likes to spend his spare time driving around on a boat called The Defense Rests.

Still, this kind of television is not normal, for want of a better term. There are good reasons for depriving convicted murderers of screen time. In the case of a Texan named Charles Thompson, for example, we meet the foreman of the jury who sentenced him to death. “He’s narcissistic, he enjoys the attention,” she says. These men will glory in their brief moment of celebrity. They’re all lit well, and allowed to deliver their own version of events, in their own words. Is this how justice is supposed to work, with TV supplementing the courts in the battle for a criminal’s reputation?

In this, I Am A Killer struggles to justify its own existence. Convictions are made of narrative, true, and there is always “more than one side to the story.” Broadcasting the soon-to-be-gone stories of soon-to-be-dead men, however, is cruel and unusual business.