Note: This story contains spoilers for the Netflix series "The Keepers."
True crime fans cleared their schedules for a Netflix binge last weekend when the streaming service dropped the nonfiction cold case investigation "The Keepers," a seven-part series about the 1969 disappearance and murder of a young nun in Baltimore. Comparisons to Netflix's 2015 sensation "Making a Murderer" were unavoidable — another fascinatingly ambiguous criminal case for fans to get lost in, debate with fellow fans, and maybe even engage in some amateur sleuthing of their own.
Once upon a time — as recent as two years ago, a lifetime in Peak TV years — new seasons of fictional prestige dramas like "House of Cards" were awaited breathlessly. True crime was more the domain of documentary features and magazine shows like "Dateline" or "The First 48," those nonfiction procedural counterparts to the "CSI" and "Law & Order" franchises. But three influential shows paved the way for true crime stories to claim a solid berth in the prestige tier of mass entertainment. Of course networks are now looking for the next story that could stretch into a multi-part binge-worthy series rather than a one-and-done feature film.
Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder of "This American Life" launched their blockbuster podcast “Serial” in 2014 with an investigation into the conviction of Baltimore teen Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee at the urging of Syed family friend Rabia Chaudry (an attorney who now leads the “Undisclosed” investigative podcast), who was convinced that key evidence, including a witness, had been omitted wrongfully from Syed’s trial. Koenig, who covered the trial as a reporter in Baltimore, painstakingly went through the evidence as it was presented then and known now, and conducted extensive interviews with Syed and interviews with two other people who claim to know where he had been the day Lee was murdered. Though Koenig’s conclusion was far from certain, doubts were raised about Syed’s conviction. He is slated to receive a new trial.
Crime podcasts now abound, but the popularity of “Serial,” begat from the highbrow DNA of public radio's “This American Life,” made the act of devouring and recapping the story of a real-life murder no longer solely the domain of the Casey Anthony/Nancy Grace tabloid fan, but a staple of the NPR demographic media diet as well.
That was followed by “The Jinx,” the 2015 HBO documentary miniseries focused on Robert Durst, a real estate heir suspected of committing or being involved in the murders of at least three people, including his first wife. Durst made himself available to the filmmakers, and in a wild hot-mic moment, the filmmakers captured audio of Durst talking to himself in what appears to be a confession in the series finale: “There it is. You’re caught! What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” After the episode aired, Durst was arrested in March 2015 on a first-degree murder warrant for the killing of Susan Berman, a friend who was said to have knowledge of the death of his first wife.
Then Netflix dropped “Making a Murderer” in December 2015, and it quickly became the binge-watch sensation of that holiday break. The series pitted two members of a family from wrong side of the tracks, Steven Avery and his teenage nephew Brendan Dassey, against the possibly corrupt Manitowoc, Wisconsin, criminal justice system in the case of the murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach. Avery, who had been exonerated after being imprisoned for 20 years for a different crime he didn’t commit, became a compelling figure to follow when he was arrested for Halbach’s murder. Did he do it, or was he framed by the sheriff’s department? Was this an act of revenge on the part of the police? Was Dassey collateral damage in a feud between local officials and the Avery family? Millions of viewers later, the Midwest Innocence Project is involved in seeking Avery’s exoneration, and Dassey’s conviction was overturned. Avery's attorneys Jerry Buting and Dean Strang even became unlikely sex symbols — nerdcore pinups for the cord-cutting set.
Basic cable followed when Ryan Murphy added “American Crime Story” to his portfolio of campy anthologies in 2016. His first outing, “The People v. O.J.,” a high-end re-enactment of the case against O.J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, captivated audiences. Other networks rushed to bring their own ripped-from-the-'90s-headlines shows to the screen.
While coverage of the prestige true crime boom acknowledges the role “Serial” played in priming the market, the second season of the podcast demonstrates that a show needs more than a smart investigation to become a sensation. “Serial” focused its follow-up in late 2015 on the circumstances of U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl’s disappearance in Afghanistan and his capture by the Taliban. Bergdahl, who was released back to the United States in a prisoner exchange in 2014, currently awaits court-martial for desertion.
The second season was met with considerably less fanfare than the first, which is not to say the case of Bergdahl isn’t deeply interesting or culturally significant. As it turns out, though, prerequisites for a buzzworthy prestige true crime aren’t substantively different from that of lurid tabloid crime coverage. (Remember, the mass media told the O.J. story in excruciating detail first.) The runaway hit stories appear to share these elements in common: A woman or girl murdered, with some element of sex, sexuality, or sexual assault involved, and enough twists and turns in the case to justify stretching the narrative out over multiple episodes in pursuit of the answer to the big question: “Did he really do it?”
And so Netflix’s new engrossing documentary series “The Keepers,” as a network executive might say, has it all: the 1969 disappearance and murder of a young nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, whose story remains entwined with that of explosive allegations of sexual abuse at the Baltimore Catholic high school where she taught. The murder case was never solved, but the narrative of the show returns again and again to Father A. Joseph Maskell, a priest accused of raping and sexually abusing dozens of girls during his brief time as chaplain and counselor at Archbishop Keough High School. (Since the 1990s, the Archdiocese of Baltimore has paid out more than half a million dollars in settlements and counseling funds to women in response to complaints about Maskell.)
As survivors recount in “The Keepers,” Cesnik, a favorite of her students, had promised to those who confided in her to put a stop to the alleged abuse in 1969. The following fall she was gone from Keough and teaching at a public school. One November night, she went out shopping and never returned. In February, her body was found outdoors in a secluded area. She died of blunt force trauma to the head.
The crusaders for answers and justice in “The Keepers” — the Buting and Strang, if you will — are two of Cesnik’s former students who now, in their retirement, remain haunted by Sister Cathy’s unsolved murder and dedicated to finding closure for her family, their fellow alumni, and themselves (for what it's worth, they say they were not abused at the school). Tireless amateur investigators Gemma Hoskins (a charismatic extrovert who can get people talking) and Abbie Schaub (the diligent and skeptical FOIA queen) pursue any lead they can, continuing to circle back to the question of whether or not Maskell, or anyone else in the Church, was involved in Sister Cathy’s death, and whether or not Baltimore city or county police helped cover it up.
Viewers looking for a Robert Durst moment of revelation will come away disappointed: Maskell is dead; he can't be questioned. The police investigation continues to this day, with a recent exhumation of Cesnik’s body to examine found DNA not returning a match to Maskell. The Archdiocese, for its part, comes off looking as bad as most Archdioceses have in the wake of priest abuse scandals; when the show debuted, the Church mounted a defensive PR campaign on Twitter that can only be described as ill-advised. The virtues of the investigations by both police departments and the state's attorney's office remain ambiguous as depicted.
Netflix presents “The Keepers” with all the hallmarks of a true crime show: solemn vintage-styled re-enactments in black and white, road trips to interview potential witnesses and suspects, exhaustive record keeping and sourcing, and even a homemade map of potential suspects with their names written on coffee filters. The case itself ticks off all of the tantalizing boxes for TV true crime: an unsolved mystery involving a dead nun, sexual abuse in a Catholic girls’ school, and the suspicion of conspiracies — or one big connected conspiracy — to cover both up. The smoking gun, if you will, of witness testimony comes from one of Maskell’s alleged victims, who claims Maskell personally brought her to see Sister Cathy’s dead body in the woods while the nun was still missing and threatened her: “This is what happens when you say bad things about people.”
The Netflix format demands many hours of story from its producers, and so the series stretches across seven hours. About half of them are revelatory and gutting; the remainder are frustrating digressions. The series devotes significant time to two other potential suspects that appear to be dead ends, though the filmmakers and investigators take pains not to say that outright. The first episode also centers around another unsolved case of a young woman, Joyce Malecki, who went missing and was found dead around the same time, and then the show drops her and her family, only to circle back in the final episode to tie her very loosely to Maskell and the Archdiocese — she lived near and attended the church where the priest served as associate pastor before he was transferred to Keough, after the mother of a male student allegedly informed the Archdiocese that Maskell had abused her son, prompting his transfer to the girls’ school. (The Archdiocese denies any complaints were made against Maskell at that time.) Years after filing a FOIA request, Schaub is still waiting for the FBI to release files on the investigation into Malecki’s death, which apparently went nowhere.
In "Making a Murderer," the villain is the criminal justice system. In "Serial" season 1, it's an inept defense attorney. In "The Jinx," it's the alleged murderer sitting in front of the camera. In "The Keepers," director Ryan White takes pains to not fall into the trap of advocating too strongly for a conclusion the film can’t prove, thereby avoiding the criticisms levied at the makers of “Making a Murderer.” If you believe the former Keough students' stories of horrific sexual abuse, you believe Maskell had Sister Cathy killed because she was going to blow the whistle on the abuse. But the filmmakers don’t go deep into details on how the methods of recovered memory that were discredited in the 1980s differ from those of the Keough alumni — which are haunting and incredibly persuasive — thereby eliminating an easy out for skeptics. The series doesn’t explicitly address parallels between Maskell’s career path and those of priests proven to have been moved around by the Church in the wake of abuse. And a startling detail about a late menstrual period in a letter Sister Cathy wrote to a young priest with whom she shared an allegedly quasi-romantic relationship — and who was a prime suspect of the police investigation before (as an officer now claims) cops were told to leave him alone — goes pretty much unremarked upon. Hoskins and Schaub are passionate and relentless in their pursuit of justice, but unlike Buting and Strang, they're not portrayed as fighting for a specific outcome throughout the series, only for answers and closure.
This is not to say that the filmmakers have failed in any way by not tying up these narrative ends in their series. True crime is real life — as we fans can too easily forget — and real stories are rarely as neat as fiction. But the Netflix true-crime packaging of the story sets up expectations that the series isn't always able to deliver. Formulaic storytelling isn’t necessarily a bad thing — a format functions like a pact with the audience. That’s what keeps viewers binging on shows like “The Keepers,” obsessively churning through hour after hour to get the answers the show promises. But just because a story appears to have all of the elements to fit a certain format doesn’t mean it is served by that style of telling.
An instructive example is another “Serial” podcast project, the novel-esque “S-Town.” “This American Life” producer Brian Reed enters what appears to be a true crime investigation story — a man alleges that a local conspiracy has covered up a murder in his rural hometown — but becomes something richer and deeper as Reed tells the real, complicated, human story of John B. McLemore’s relationship to Woodstock, Alabama.
Reed employs the rigorous investigative reporting techniques that are a hallmark of “Serial,” but once the facts come to light — we learn early in the season that the murdered man in question is very much alive — the path opens for the truth of a man and a place to emerge through storytelling.
Another recent true-crime prestige story that's garnered its share of attention is HBO's documentary feature "Mommy Dead and Dearest," which tells the story of why a young woman and her boyfriend murdered her mother after a lifetime of being subjected to the mother's Munchausen by Proxy abuse. Just as the story of Sister Cathy had been reported on in other media — extensively through the years by the Baltimore Sun, of course, and recently in 2015 by HuffPo — the Gypsy Blanchard case had already been the focus of a fascinating Buzzfeed story. What the documentary added was Gypsy, who told her side of the story, illuminating many angles of the narrative as only a first-person account can. The result — a compact, feature-length documentary — tells the beginning, middle and end of the tragic story that ended in a woman's murder and a young woman's sentencing to prison.
Perhaps "The Keepers" story couldn't be contained in a single two-hour episode — although I would argue that with a focus solely on the Keough community, it could — but if it had broken free of the true crime format, the series could have been free to open up into an "S-Town"-esque portrayal of one Catholic community and the role a young nun who met a tragic early end played in the lives of these teen girls who are now retirement age and looking back at their lives, trying to make some sense of how they got to where they are. In its best, most important moments — and there are many in this heartbreaking story — that is what "The Keepers" does.
"S-Town" succeeded wildly because it didn't try to replicate the lightning-in-a-bottle formula of its producers' first runaway hit; instead, Reed and his team recognized that while formats and genres can inform storytelling, every narrative is going to have its own needs, and they honored that. Netflix — and other networks and producers — shouldn't try to keep making "the next 'Making a Murderer.'" The heartbreaking truth of the murder of Cathy Cesnik is that it might never be definitively solved, though I hope for the sake of all involved it is. But that's just the beginning of this story, the entirety of which is still out there to tell.