Errol Morris… in front of the camera? The jarring sight of the iconic documentarian sitting for an interview is the first hint that FX’s A Wilderness of Error isn’t typical true-crime fare.
The next clue is that the series revisits the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, a former Army physician convicted in the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters. One of the toughest homicide cases in history, it has preoccupied such A-list writers as Joe McGinniss, whose 1983 best seller Fatal Vision was adapted into a hit miniseries, and Janet Malcolm—who, in The Journalist and the Murderer, used McGinniss’ close relationship with MacDonald as Exhibit A in a moral indictment of journalism. Morris wrote his 2012 book, also titled A Wilderness of Error, after his obsession with the case failed to yield funding for a movie.
That was before HBO’s The Jinx—produced by Error director Marc Smerling—made true crime TV’s most bankable genre. Now, Smerling can justify updating Morris’ investigation in a five-part series that borrows the filmmaker’s cinematic re-enactment style and audio from his interviews, as well as incorporating his funny, profound voice. Like Malcolm, Morris mistrusts McGinniss’ influential reporting. “What happens when a narrative takes the place of reality?” he asks. And like Morris, Smerling probes a counternarrative: What if MacDonald’s wild claim that his family was slaughtered by a Manson-like band of hippies were true? A teen named Helena Stoeckley did, after all, repeatedly confess to being in his home that night.
Smerling’s haunting film-noir visual style succeeds at reinvigorating an old story. His messy conclusion isn’t necessarily a problem. Still, I wish his Error engaged in earnest with the question of why so many great minds have spent so much time on these murders. Might the polite white doctor and Princeton alum have activated their empathy to an extent that most alleged killers do not? Of course, if this case has taught us anything, it’s that lingering questions are bound to reappear in the inevitable next round of inquiry.
A Wilderness of Error premieres Sept. 25 on FX
This appears in the September 21, 2020 issue of TIME.
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