Blending reality with reality television

Published 7:36 am Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spoiler alert: This column contains spoilers to HBO’s “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” which have been widely reported on in the national media.


HBO documentary miniseries “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” unequivocally proved one thing: Investigative documentaries can seamlessly blend with reality television. But it might set an engrossing, though troubling, precedent.

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First, some background is necessary. And I apologize, but spoilers to the series are coming — don’t worry, they’ve been widely discussed in the media.

To sum it up as succinctly as possible: Durst is the millionaire heir of one of Manhattan’s most prominent real estate families — the Durst Organization built the One World Trade Center (commonly called the Freedom Tower). Durst is suspected in the killing of his wife Kathie, who disappeared in 1982; he was suspected of shooting his good friend Susan Berman (just before she was to be questioned concerning his wife’s disappearance); and he was suspected of killing and dismembering his neighbor Morris Black in Galveston, Texas (Durst admitted to dismembering Black, but a jury found Durst not guilty after he claimed self defense). Whew, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“The Jinx” director Andrew Jarecki directed feature film, “All Good Things” a loosely based on Durst’s alleged crimes. When he decided to make the documentary mini series, Durst agreed to participate for some reason — much to the chagrin of his lawyers.

As you’ve heard, it didn’t go well. Durst was arrested Saturday just hours before “The Jinx” finale and presumably thanks to evidence unearthed by the series, which obviously hyped up the series. In the finale, Jarecki shows Durst a letter that appears to link Durst to Berman’s 2000 murder. The letter, sent from Durst to Berman, reveals eerily similar handwriting to a letter sent to cops that was believed to be written by Berman’s killer. Durst denies the connection, but then leaves the interview with his mic still on and mumbles to himself in the bathroom.

“There it is. You’re caught!” Durst said to himself. “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

Yes, I’ll admit I yelled out loud, “Did that really just happen?” like a teenager after watching it. Then I promptly squashed the “this has to be bogus” suspicion lurking in the back of my mind. I wanted to believe it.

Durst did gain one sure thing from this: He upped his fame. He and Jarecki were the buzz topic come Monday morning. Most major media outlets were all over the story, and Jarecki appeared on “Good Morning America” and other programs to discuss the events.

Maybe Jarecki and his crew pulled it off. Maybe everything truly fell into place perfectly: Durst agreeing to the interview, the new evidence, his on-mic confession — all of it. It’s perfect … a little too perfect.

After watching the show, I thought, “Who cares? It’s great, fascinating television.” Rebecca Mead summed up “The Jinx” and the finale as succinctly as anyone could in her review in the New Yorker: “The episode, like the rest of the series, was riveting television in the way that footage of a tsunami is riveting: horrific, inexorable, and barely watchable.” I couldn’t stop watching.

But the more I thought about the finale and how perfectly everything matched up, the doubts seeped back. Something had to be up.

The series, it’s finale and the evidence bring up a host of questions, but what most worries me is the line between fact and fiction.

Over the course of the series, the emphasis shifts from interview-based documentary to a kind of quasi-reality program — there are random shots of Durst strolling around Times Square, prolonged shots of Jarecki’s attempts to interview Durt’s brother, Douglas, who he then polity confronts at a charity event. Later, Jarecki pines about his safety and use of security guards. As the ones telling the story become the story, motives are blurred.

It feels staged like a reality TV show or professional wrestling. Where’s the moment — and presumed freak out — where Durst realizes his mic was going as he talked. Where’s his lawyer’s reactions?

What troubles me — and I’ll admit fascinates even more in a different way — is that this is far more than the storytellers becoming part of the story. As you watch, you feel this once true story is being written, for maxim effect. It’s like blending the factual documentary with the sensationalized made-for-TV movie that would usually come later. When the ones telling the story — and profiting it — start participating in the events and guiding them as they unfold, you have to question the validity of what’s happening.

In one sense, it doesn’t matter, as the overall mission was accomplished: Durst is in jail, and he’s been convicted in the court of public opinion. Filmmakers can claim closure for the families.

Now that I’m removed from the series, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. I suspect that years from now, someone will come forward and reveal Durst was in on it. For example: He wanted to confess and wanted to do it in a big way, a headline-grabbing way. After all that happened, to suspect it was staged isn’t that big of a jump.

Even if everything with “The Jinx” and Durst’s arrest is 100 percent legitimate and really did fall in line that perfectly, it’s success is sure to inspire a new wave of documentary filmmakers using the same tactics, methods and style. This will continue to blur the line between factual reality and reality TV reality.

But I return to the crux: I didn’t care when I was watching it. I wanted to believe it. With “The Jinx” and similar documentaries to follow, that’s sure to be a problem as the line between fact and fiction blurs.