Why you should care
Because doesn’t a violently funny slasher parody sound fun?
Like crime itself, true crime shows seem to come in waves. A major true crime wave spread across American TV during the 1990s with popular shows like America’s Most Wanted. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before the genre took over our earbuds with the outbreak of the true crime podcast.
The popularity of true crime in the wake of hits like Serial and S-Town means that it sometimes feels like everyone with a fascination with murder and access to Wikipedia now has the motive and opportunity to be a copycat Serial podcaster. Indeed, given the declining homicide rate in America over the past half-century, it may not be long before the number of true crime podcasts about murder outstrips the number of actual murders.
Unless, of course, some violently funny slasher parodies help kill them off first.
Following in the footsteps of last year’s hit Netflix TV parody American Vandal, true crime parody podcasts, including the Onion’s A Very Fatal Murder and Castbox’s This Sounds Serious, take aim at our violent obsession. So what makes a good parody version? Here are some key ingredients:
True crime podcasts are not for the faint of heart, or for the faint of sincerity. Starting with true crime podcasting’s patient zero, Serial’s Sarah Koenig, there’s a public-radio inquisitiveness to the endeavor — an overly earnest ambition to speak to larger truths — that A Very Fatal Murder (AVFM) nails from the very start. Directed by Ryan Natoli and Fran Hoepfner, the Onion Public Radio’s first podcast follows David Pascall (voiced by comedy writer David Sidorov) as he searches — with the help of a computer algorithm — for the perfect murder, namely one that involves the unsolved death of “a really hot white girl.” Pascall alights on the mysterious death of a fictional prom queen “with big dreams and clear skin” named Hayley Price. “So what happened to Hayley Price?” he wonders in the first episode. “And how can I get in on it?”
Pascall’s quest for a “culturally relevant” murder and an award-winning podcast lands the New York reporter (S-Town style) in a small Midwestern town in Nebraska. He hopes both to say something about “the fabric of America” through his interactions with the inhabitants of Bluff Springs — “a town where neighbors stand in their yards talking and no one has HBO” — and to solve a cold murder case that has eluded far more seasoned investigators. The sterling detective prowess of someone with sufficient crime enthusiasm is also the starting point for This Sounds Serious, a true crime parody out of Canada written and developed by Pat Kelly, Chris Kelly, Peter Oldring and Dave Shumka. After the show’s deadpan narrator, reporter Gwen Radford (actress Carly Pope) discovers an intriguing 911 call made from the deathbed of a popular TV weatherman, Chuck Bronstadt, she steers the listener down the rabbit hole of the victim’s life and relationship with his twin brother, Daniel, the primary suspect. “I don’t consider myself obsessed,” Radford confesses. “It’s just how my brain works.”
AVFM and This Sounds Serious sometimes move beyond parody into absurdity. Pascall’s exploitation of Hayley Price’s bereaved parents in AVFM does not stop at probing their dead daughter’s story: In one deftly insensitive moment, he even asks Hayley’s mother to help him deliver the mid-episode sponsor advertisement. But where AVFM ably skewers the tropes of the true crime genre, This Sounds Serious manages to also transcend its target, creating a broader comedic tale that lampoons a range of topics and genres, including boy bands, cults, local TV news and celebrity trials in Radford’s quest to understand the Brondstadt brothers. The podcast focuses not just on media mimicry but on creating a compelling underlying story, says writer and producer Pat Kelly — so much so that many true crime fans don’t realize it is fake at first.
So do the arrival of these parodies signify a turning point for the true crime genre? Kelly thinks we have yet to reach a saturation point because the stories are so inherently listenable, the perfect tales for podcasting. So perhaps this particular crime wave will continue, which means there’s still time for you to create your own award-winning podcast to get in on it.