Once again, a television series is proving that American audiences have a thirst for stories revolving around real people and actual crimes.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story debuted last week to record ratings for its network, FX, while a documentary that also focuses on the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial airs on ESPN this summer, proving that two decades is not long enough to drain the interest of American viewers in the so-called “trial of the century.”
Of course, The People vs. O.J. is just the latest example of a true crime story captivating viewers recently. From the podcast Serial to Netflix’s Making a Murderer, the genre’s popularity is surging.
America’s fascination with true crime storytelling has existed for quite some time, with Truman Capote noting in the 1960s that he’d created a new art form (the “nonfiction novel”) with In Cold Blood, his best-selling account of the gruesome murder of a Kansas family.
But, what’s different about the latest flood of movies, documentaries and podcasts is that the focus is less on the gory details and more on what happens once the wheels of justice begin to spin. What seems to be of the utmost interest to fans of these stories is how their subjects may or may not have been victimized by the American criminal justice system. And, it is likely no coincidence that the public’s appetite for stories about a flawed criminal justice system is growing.
In an oft-cited statistic, America has roughly 5% of the world’s population but can claim around 25% of the world’s prisoners (about 2.3 million people). Which suggests that more Americans than ever have had some experience — or know someone who has — with the criminal justice system. Groups like The Innocence Project have spent years helping to bring stories of the wrongfully-imprisoned to the public’s attention—sometimes resulting in exoneration.
Meanwhile, in the last year, YouTube videos of alleged police brutality have gone viral, helping to inspire the growth of the #blacklivesmatter movement, and America’s swelling prison population has even become a subject in presidential debates.
Here are seven highly-praised and massively-popular documentaries, TV series, and a podcast, that offer in-depth looks at the U.S. criminal justice system—warts and all. While some have been criticized for not giving enough attention to the murder victims, the shows no doubt are contributing to the debate over the role that factors such as race, class, privilege, and (sometimes) plain bad luck can play in matters of criminal justice. And in some cases, the shows are exposing so many flaws that the case is reopened.