My column in the print TIME this week is about HBO’s true crime documentary The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. If you haven’t seen the show, don’t read it–catch up on the series (only five episodes so far) and experience it for yourself first. If you have seen the show, don’t worry about spoilers in my review; I haven’t seen the finale, and will be watching anxiously on Sunday right along with you.
In the column, I write about how the show–along with the inevitable comparison, the Serial podcast–uses the tools of crime-show storytelling, but at the same time it rebuts many of the expectations those shows create. It’s not just that The Jinx and Serial don’t promise neat answer by the time they finish. (Although the latest episode of The Jinx produced a genuine bombshell, a letter that appeared to connect real-estate scion Robert Durst to an unsolved 2000 murder.) They also show that the actual process of investigation and trial are much more messy and complicated in real life; memories prove fuzzy, evidence can be inconclusive, and trials can come down to chance and bad legal strategies.
Another aspect of The Jinx that I didn’t have room to discuss in the column is how it contrasts with a TV-drama type that’s become overfamiliar lately: the charming, brilliant villain.
We see him everywhere lately (and it’s usually him): the suave, cerebral, disarming, witty antagonist on Hannibal, The Following and The Blacklist (whose Red may be a charming villain who’s made himself useful to the good guys, but fits the type nonetheless). We see it in the hypercompetent, murderous antiheroes of Breaking Bad and Dexter. We see it in supporting characters like The Good Wife‘s Colin Sweeney (Dylan Baker), the decadent sexual sadist represented by Alicia Florrick’s firm, who like Durst has been suspected, but thanks to a crack legal defense never convicted, of killing his wife. (His latest appearance, in fact, involved a lawsuit against a fictional TV show that based a character on him.)
It’s an idea as old as Lucifer in Paradise Lost. The bad guys may be loathsome, they may be corrupt, they may be terrifying, but they are also somehow more evolved. In their refinement, charm and genius, they are simply fascinating.
Durst, on the other hand, is a striking character, but mostly for his utter charmlessness. He’s brusque, he’s blunt, he’s cold and irritable. He may be wealthy, but he’s not in the least debonair; he seems to lack the tools for smoothing over human interaction or for even feigning empathy. He remains unconvicted of the allegations against him, but what he does admit to–hitting his wife Kathleen, for instance–is the work of a bully, not a mastermind. His peevishness is open and unguarded–which may well be a masterstroke in itself, making him seem more authentic. Then again, the fact that he seems to feel no need to even playact the same niceties that the little people do is that much more unsettling.
The Jinx shows other sides to Durst. In the most recent episode, for instance, he seems less terrifying than pathetic as he and filmmaker Andrew Jarecki try to chase down the brother who took over the family business in his place. But always the interviews return to that cold absence in Durst’s core. When he describes hacking apart the body of his friend, whom he says he killed in self-defense, he’s weirdly matter-of-fact, as if describing doing some home repair–“primarily with the axe but some with the bow saw and another saw.”
We’ll see after Sunday where The Jinx‘s investigation ends up, and whether it has any real-world effect, as suggested by the reported reopening of the Susan Berman murder case. But one thing The Jinx hasn’t done, refreshingly, is to glamorize its subject. It makes him not a superhuman, but simply a human–flawed, deficient and chilling. The Jinx may or may not end up revealing Robert Durst as a devil. But he is not a smooth-talking one.
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