Family secrets, tumult and trauma are at the heart of so many — if not most — true crime stories, and breed some of the most bizarre betrayals. Here are four picks including podcasts, television and films that explore unforgettable crimes involving families, all of whom prided themselves on presenting a perfect image until the truth came crashing through the facade.
“Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal”
Watching a true crime documentary that is following events that are presently unfolding — where those telling the tale also have no idea of what’s to come — is particularly gripping. And this tale of greed, corruption, outlandish cover-ups and murder in the lowcountry region of South Carolina is a doozy. It is, as the New York Times television critic Mike Hale put it, an “unbeatable crime story.”
The first three-episode season, on Netflix, premiered midway through the trial of the family’s patriarch, Alex Murdaugh: the disgraced personal injury attorney and an heir to the area’s legal dynasty, who was accused of killing his wife, Maggie, and son Paul in 2021. The second season picks up from there, covering the march to the verdict. Both seasons were released this year.
The series incorporates interviews with friends, employees and acquaintances of the Murdaughs as well as with police, and incorporates a lot of home video footage of the family. Prepare to be stunned by how brazenly they move through their community, and the shamelessness with which they wield their power.
There are other deaths, surrounding the family that are hard to shake: that of Mallory Beach, who perished in a boating accident in 2019, while a drunken Paul was behind the wheel; Stephen Smith, a teenager who was found dead in 2015 along a road about 10 miles from the Murdaugh home; and Gloria Satterfield, the Murdaugh’s longtime housekeeper who fell at their home in 2018 and died shortly after from her injuries. But perhaps it is technology’s undeniable influence on the outcome of Alex Murdaugh’s trial that is the most jaw-dropping — for now.
“American Scandal” Season 44:
“The Kidnapping of Patty Hearst”
What “American Scandal,” from Wondery, does best is to give every story it tackles the time it needs for a full telling with the required context. Until I listened to this season, every revelation I’d learned over the years about what happened to Patty Hearst — an heiress to the William Randolph Hearst media empire, who, in 1974, at age 19, was kidnapped from her home by a radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army — left me more bewildered than I’d been before.
It’s an involved, twisty American story that spiraled into a national spectacle. And members of the tremendously influential Hearst family are found everywhere, starting with their influence on Patty, who moved to strike out on her own after growing disillusioned with their wealth and lifestyle, to the family’s public negotiations with her captors.
“American Murder: The Family Next Door”
Not unlike the Murdaugh series, this heartbreaking film, from the director Jenny Popplewell, uses home videos, text messages, law enforcement recordings and police body-cam footage to profound effect. In fact, this documentary is constructed nearly entirely out of archival footage, and the horrors that unfold are presented without much influence or input from others.
In 2018, a pregnant Shanann Watts, 34, and her two young daughters seemingly vanished from their home in Frederick, Colo. — though her purse, keys and phone were found there. Her husband, Chris, tried to spin their sudden disappearance into something it wasn’t. There is much to be sad about here, starting with the opening scene: a joyful video Shanann had posted on Facebook of herself with her girls and their dog. Through the awfulness of what comes to light, bigger questions are probed. As a film critic for The Times put it: “It is a thematic film about marriage and the deception of social media, as well as a piercing examination of domestic violence constructed with care and undeniable craft.”
“Mommy Dead and Dearest”
I was unable to finish Hulu’s Emmy-winning mini-series “The Act,” a dramatized version of the strange, disturbing story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and her mother, Dee Dee Blanchard. Perhaps because I’d already seen this 2017 documentary from Erin Lee Carr, which uses home video, news clips and interviews to tell the story of how the elder Blanchard inflicted mental and physical distress on her daughter for most of her life — seemingly to gain sympathy, as well as money and gifts, from strangers. It was labeled a case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a mental disorder in which a parent or caregiver induces an illness in a child to get attention.
But the plot here gets much more complicated when Dee Dee is killed in 2015 in Springfield, Mo., and her daughter and daughter’s boyfriend at the time, Nicholas Godejohn, are suspected.
“Things are not always as they appear,” we hear Jim Arnott, the sheriff of Greene County, Mo., say early in the documentary. As The Times’s film critic said in his review of “Mommy Dead and Dearest,” that assertion is “a candidate for understatement of the year.”