Tag Archives: The Imposter

Why I Won’t be Watching Netflix’s Madeleine McCann Series

I remember exactly where I was when I first learned about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann from a holiday resort in Portugal. Not because the news should have had the impact of a flashbulb memory – I didn’t yet know anything about her or her family. I remember it rather because as I watched a news interview with the parents on TV, I was in my local hospital, cradling my 14 month old son Dillon. He would die the next day, as a result of complications from the rare brain condition he had suffered from since birth.

And yet as I sat there, knowing that Dillon was dying, that these were in fact his final hours, my thought was: “there but for the grace of God go I”. Because the McCanns had a gorgeous lovely happy three year old who had vanished, and their lives must be a living hell. I myself had a gorgeous lovely happy two year old at home waiting for me, and couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to him.

With Dillon, the pain was different. He had always been ill, and we had long known his time with us would be limited. It was a different type of pain. And when you are a parent living a nightmare, your life can easily become a study of relativity: who has it worse than you?  As far as I was concerned, the McCanns were in the minority of people who had it worse than we did.

After Dillon died, I watched the McCanns deal with endless media scrutiny which went on for many years, and brought no one any closer to understanding what had happened to their little girl. They had initially welcomed media attention, hoping that it would help them find their daughter. But it spiraled out of control. The public’s never ending appetite for the story, and the British tabloid’s press willingness to cash in on it, soon turned into a living hell for them. At one point even the McCanns themselves became suspects. Each time they pop up in the news, I always think of the Dorothy Parker line “what fresh hell is this?”  I was able to grieve and try to move on with my life. Their torment continued.

I have always been a fan of true crime. My first docsonscreens blog waxed lyrical about my love of it over the years, and of how it had been rekindled by the podcast Serial. I enjoy the twists and turns of modern day factual storytelling; it’s a central theme in my media teaching. The feature doc, The Imposter, which does this to perfection, is a mainstay of my documentary class – students always engage with the way that it leads them through the story. I’m also okay with ambiguity, with not knowing how something turned out – both Serial and The Imposter are filled with it.

But the new Netflix series about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann leaves me feeling queasy. The McCanns have refused to take part in it, and urged others to abstain as well. Yet the series has been made, with Netflix forking out a fortune in documentary terms for the telling of it over eight long hours, with some forty interviews. I’m sure it will be glossy and compelling. I’m sure it will lead a younger generation of viewers through many twists and turns, spinning an often jaw dropping true life tale.

I’m also sure that it will bring fresh pain to a family that has now endured 12 years of agony – with Madeleine’s twin siblings growing up in the terrible shadow of their vanished older sister. And I’m sure that at the end of those eight compelling hours, viewers will be no closer to knowing what happened to her. I get why the series has been made – business is business after all. But to bring fresh hell to a family that has suffered for so many years, and to do so merely for entertainment, is something I just can’t support. I won’t be watching.

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Serial and the Imposter – True Crime’s New Wave

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I couldn’t possibly have been more primed to become a Serial podcast fan. Hailing from a family of lawyers, in my early twenties I was obsessed with true crime writing – my favorite book was Fatal Vision, not least for the very messy relationship between author Joe McGinnis and convicted murderer Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald. With the launch of Court TV in the early 90s I turned to TV for my true crime fix, enjoying even the most mundane of trials for their revelations about real lives. Having been raised in Cleveland, Ohio, in a truly barren television era, the only factual offerings being the news, 60 Minutes and Candid Camera, I was desperate for real life stories. No wonder then, since moving to London in 1996 I have become obsessed with documentaries and all of the messy truths they unearth, and made them the focus of my working life.

A latecomer to This American Life, I’ve spent the last 18 months listening to all of its 500+ archive, while walking the parks of North London. When This American Life announced recently they were launching a second podcast, Serial, its episodic unfolding of a long-ago Baltimore murder seemed tailor made for me.

What I didn’t expect was that five million people would feel the same way. Having devoured its first episode within hours of launching, I didn’t have long to be a smug early adopter before it became the most successful podcast in history. This week, before the end  of its first season, it has won an DocLab award at IDFA, for Digital Storytelling.

As a Serial fan, I find myself a mid-level obsessive – not at the level of pouring through the sprawling Reddit site, where amateur sleuths strut their stuff. But I have begun listening to Slate’s Serial Spoiler podcast, and read a score of articles dissecting its success. For me, and many of its fans, what’s mesmerizing about the storytelling is the way that producer Sarah Koenig takes listeners through a journey that is meant to mimic her own, and all the twists and turns she has undergone trying to figure out whether Adnan Syed murdered his ex-girlfriend in 1999.

More than anything, this masterful manipulation of the journey of discovery reminds me of the equally brilliant The Imposter documentary. In telling how a 20-something Frenchman impersonated a missing Texan teenager – and was accepted into the family home – the talented British production crew steers the audience through the same journey they undertook, when exploring the long ago story. The Imposter is worth buying the DVD, as it contains a thoroughly engrossing making of extra.

Both stories investigate old crimes in astonishingly innovative storytelling. As Serial approaches its first season finale, I’m looking forward to its phenomenal success kicking off a new wave of true crime investigative journalism.