A new study by a German forensic scientist claims that female murderers are “more creative” than their male counterparts – and that they pretty much have to be, because they usually kill people close to them, and those people are often men who are physically stronger. One would think that this theory would be fodder for a great documentary-style TV show, one that transports us to a different, disturbingly clever world each week. But Deadly Women, while being a true crime program about female killers, is most definitely not the show I just described. It’s lazy, formulaic and depressingly exploitative, and does its best to blunt the impact of its endlessly interesting subject matter. So why oh why do I love it so much? Here is my attempt to explain, in list form.
1. It’s camp gold.
Take re-enactments that make Rescue 911 look like Shakespeare (and are often in period settings, like the screen cap I’ve so lovingly shared here). Combine them with talking head commentary that would seem obvious to a fifth grader. Add clunky, melodramatic writing of highest order – e.g. “Nicki Reynolds saw her mother as an obstacle, on the road … to murder.” Top it off with a penchant for graphic throat-slitting that’s bound to make you wince at least once an episode. And you’ve got a viewing experience like no other – a hysterically queasy formula for a brand new genre of entertainment. We’ll call it “True Crime-edy.”
2. The lengthening shadow of Robert Stack
One source of my DW fandom is the debt it – and the entire Investigation Discovery network, for that matter – owes to Unsolved Mysteries. I’ll never forget when that show went from being a fun way to get spooked on a school night to something genuinely terrifying. It was an episode that took a break from all the hauntings and alien abductions to focus on a real-life murderer who had never been caught. During the reenactment, the show revealed the killer by having a woman glance in her medicine cabinet mirror to find the psychopath standing behind her. It’s a clichéd trick, but it worked on me like a charm. I immediately looked outside the sliding glass door in our living room, half-expecting to see the frothing maniac standing there, knife in hand. Because this wasn’t just a TV show. This was a true story. And even the husky lullabye of Mr. Stack’s voiceover couldn’t soothe my jangled nerves.
Twenty years later, I think I’m still looking for something to terrify me in a similarly cozy way – and although DW cuts every conceivable corner while turning gruesome true stories into cornball melodramas, it still has the potential to freak me out in spite of itself. It’s a watered-down cocktail at best, but I keep bellying up to the bar.
3. Bad actresses staring at the camera
Every episode of DW is structured exactly the same – three stories loosely grouped under an amazing title, opening with an over-the-top voiceover segment that teases the carnage to come. At the end of this intro, when the title is announced (in a truly horrifying font), one of the reenactment actresses is asked to stare maniacally at the camera for an uncomfortably long period of time. It’s a ridiculous moment that also acts as a threat – “What are you grinning at, shithead?” the deadly woman seems to ask, as those snarky comments dry up in your throat. I’m gonna write captions to some of these classic stares, yet I admit, I’m kinda scared to …
When my Harold proposed to me, it was everything I’d dreamed of and more. We were on a sailboat at twilight; the ring was classically beautiful, not too ostentatious; the wine left a hint of pear on my tongue; the moonlight formed a silver border around his raven hair. “A million times yes!” I exclaimed. “I adore you, Harold Murder!!!” … I should’ve seen this coming.
You could say I’m a big fan of keeping secrets. But let’s keep it a secret how much I love secrets, because it’s those very secrets that make being secretive so fun! That being said, I’ll tell anybody who wants to listen about my secret to happiness – wearing my best blazer and standing by a lake on a foggy morn in 1987.
Even though his salad days were decades in the rearview, Nikki Sixx took the stage more determined than ever.
4. Candice DeLong
DW has some exceptionally bad reenactments – but that’s pretty much par for the course for a show like this. It’s when the show gives the spotlight to its commentators that it really hits its sweet spot. Most prominent, and thoroughly fabulous, of all is Candice DeLong, a former FBI profiler with a storied resume that includes hunting down the Unabomber in 1995. On paper, DeLong is perfect for this gig – the expert who can get into the heads of these violent protagonists, both from a criminologist’s and a woman’s perspective. But on camera, her commentary is profoundly uninsightful, yet delivered so smugly, you have to wonder if it’s some kind of performance art stunt. My wife and I have had long discussions on how this could be – Is DeLong just nervous? Is the DW editor a disgruntled ex who wants to make her look as bad as possible? Did she experience some kind of trauma in the field that makes her afraid to say anything beyond the most Perd Hapley-esque observations? DeLong is surely much smarter in real life than she appears to be on DW. But whatever the reason, statements like the following are a crucial component of good True Crime-edy (the italics properly reflect DeLong’s delivery):
Candice on women who marry men for money and then kill them:
“They use sex, and seduction, to get the wedding ring of the person that has the money.”
(“Fortune Hunters,” Season 4)
Candice on a woman who kept asphyxiating her babies:
“She was actually one of the worst people that could ever raise children.”
(“Bad Medicine,” Season 2)
Candice on a police officer who was also a sadistic killer:
“Antoinette Frank was the last person any police department should have ever hired.”
(“Born Bad,” Season 3)
Candace on a serial killer who poisoned her entire family:
“She enjoyed wielding the power of life or death, over another person.”
(“Hearts of Stone,” Season 5)
Candace on some more mothers who kill their children:
“It’s very hard to understand why someone would kill their children. They’re not thinking clearly.”
(“The Sacred Bond,” Season 4)
Deadly Women is currently in the middle of its seventh season on the Investigation Discovery network; seasons 2-5 are streaming on Netflix.