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The 20 Best True-Crime Docuseries on Netflix Right Now

The true-crime docs here expose the rot at the core of many of our venerated institutions.

Photo: Netflix

The breadth of Netflix’s catalog of true-crime docuseries is deep and wide, with truly something for everyone—or at least some type of murder for everyone. The best documentaries reveal the truth about more than just their primary subjects, and the 20 true-crime series here expose the rot at the core of many of our venerated institutions.

These shows shine a light on our flawed jury and appeals processes, with a recurring theme of corruption highlighted in patterns of forced confessions, police negligence, and prosecutors withholding exculpatory evidence. Of course, while all of them attempt to locate some semblance of “the truth,” not all of them provide a truly complete or objective picture. But that doesn’t make them any less compelling or, in some cases, downright infuriating.

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on September 28, 2021.

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20. The Pharmacist

What starts out as a familiar true-crime tale about a father determined to find the drug dealer who murdered his son morphs into a chilling treatise on the corruption at the heart of the opioid crisis. Driven by guilt and grief, Dan Schneider, a small-town pharmacist in Louisiana, finds new purpose in rooting out a crooked doctor’s elaborate OxyContin distribution scheme, only to discover the complicity of both local law enforcement and the pharmaceutical industry. As the story unravels in new and unexpected ways, it’s hard not to become increasingly invested in Schneider’s seemingly futile crusade—though there are at least some glimmers of hope in the end.


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19. The Innocent Man

They say truth is stranger than fiction. To wit, John Grisham’s 2006 nonfiction book The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town was originally planned as a novel before the author deemed the real-life events of two pairs of friends in rural Oklahoma convicted of two different murders too far-fetched even for him. Based on Grisham’s book, this slickly produced docuseries exposes the corruption (or just plain incompetence) that put the men behind bars, painstakingly tracing the decades-long fight to free them.

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18. Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

You’ve likely already seen the viral video clip of Elisa Lam, seemingly possessed or disturbed, hiding from someone or something in a hotel elevator before disappearing from the frame. The 21-year-old Canadian student was later found in a water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel. Joe Berlinger’s Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel waits a bit too long to disclose that Lam had stopped taking her medication and had been moved to a private room after complaints from other guests at the hotel, but it fills in many of the blanks surrounding Lam’s death, using entries from her online journal to paint a portrait of a bright young woman struggling with mental illness. The four-episode series also details the macabre particulars about how Lam’s body was discovered and delves into the Cecil’s long, sordid history.


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17. I Just Killed My Dad

I Just Killed My Dad may lure you in with its provocative title and premise, and at times throughout its relatively succinct three episodes the series falls prey to the manipulativeness that’s often characteristic of the true-crime genre. But just like life in the seemingly typical suburban home where then-17-year-old Anthony Templet lived with his father for over a decade, it quickly becomes clear that things are not what they seem. Like the infamous case of the Menendez brothers, long-term neglect and abuse was a central factor in the killing of Anthony’s dad. In this case, though, the justice system actually doled out something resembling justice. In the first episode, Assistant D.A. Dana Cummings remarks upon Anthony’s lack of feelings, but by series’s end, it’s clear that he can barely contain them.

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16. Worst Roommate Ever

From a homicidal granny who buries her victims in her garden, to a handsome, charismatic con artist who would strangle you, wrap you in a tarp, and leave you for dead in an abandoned warehouse rather than return your deposit, the binge-worthy Worst Roommate Ever will give you plenty of reasons to think twice before posting that Craigslist ad for a new roomie. But it’s the show’s two-part finale, detailing the sordid, years-long reign of terror of hip-hop-hating, cat-stealing sociopath Jamison “Jammy” Bachman that may make you vow to live alone for the rest of your life…while you restlessly await season two.


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16. Till Murder Do Us Part: Soering vs. Haysom

A decades-long mystery with geopolitical implications, the 1985 murders of Derek and Nancy Haysom were so high-profile that they attracted the attention and involvement of novelist John Grisham and the former president of Germany. Haysom’s daughter, Elizabeth, and her college boyfriend, a German expat named Jens Soering, were convicted of the crime but both wildly changed their stories over the course of their trials, each blaming the other for the grisly murders. Till Murder Do Us Part soberly recounts their various confessions and testimonies, including lurid, obsessive love letters in which Haysom chillingly likens herself to Lady Macbeth.

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15. Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey

The fundamentalist sect of Mormonism known as FLDS believes in plural marriage, but under the auspices of its self-appointed “prophet,” Warren Jeffs, the cult infamously became one of the most elaborate child rape operations in modern history, with its leader as its sole beneficiary. As depicted in Rachel Dretzin and Grace McNally’s fearlessly but respectfully assembled Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey, the similarities between FLDS and Scientology are difficult to ignore, as both rely on extreme wealth, security, and control to survive. In the four-part series’s chilling final episode, it becomes clear that Jeffs—the runt of more than 60 children who was born two months premature and, as a young man, possessed little in the way of social skills or charm—isn’t a prophet of heaven so much as a demon from hell.


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14. The Devil Next Door

Like many of the shows on this list, The Devil Next Door is notable not just because of the gravity of its subject matter, but because of its exposure of a flawed justice system—in this case, Israel’s. John Demjanjuk, a retired autoworker from Cleveland who was accused of being the Nazi prison camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible, makes for an easy villain, smirking at the camera and toying with his supposed victims throughout the years-long ordeal, despite proclaiming his innocence. But his trial—overseen by judges who’d clearly made up their minds and a courtroom filled with boisterous spectators and Holocaust survivors hungry to watch Demjanjuk hang—speaks to not just the hazards of delayed justice, but to the extent to which vengeance can be blinding.

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13. Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes

Sourced from over 100 hours of interviews and archival footage of serial killer Ted Bundy, Joe Berlinger’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes offers a uniquely disturbing look inside the mind of one of the world’s most infamous sociopaths. Bundy is, at turns, elusive, confrontational, and charismatic. He recounts, largely in the third person, the details surrounding dozens of murders that he committed in the 1970s, resulting in a candid but detached chronicle of his crimes. Even more unsettling is footage of the public that gathered outside the prison where he would be executed in 1989, cheering and shrieking over his impending death via electric chair. What starts out as an unprecedented glimpse at a killer’s motivations ultimately becomes an indictment of an entire nation’s insatiable bloodlust.


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12. Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer

The latest installment of Netflix’s Crime Scene series isn’t just another profile of a prolific serial killer, but a primer on the history of Time Square as a place where dreams go to die. The murder of sex workers is familiar fodder for true-crime docs, but the man behind a string of gruesome murders of women in New York and northern New Jersey in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was particularly sadistic, dubbed by the media as the “torso killer.” His reign of terror is given texture and context with vivid details about the district of Manhattan known as “the Deuce” and its post-AIDS “Disneyfication.” Simultaneously, the three-episode series manages to skillfully dance through a plethora of thoughtful social commentaries on feminism, pornography, and the decriminalization of sex work.

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11. Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal

A real-life Succession meets House of Cards, the gripping Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal recounts the crimes and corruption of a wealthy dynasty in the low country of South Carolina. The three-part series is stylishly and tastefully shot and edited, initially detailing the accidental death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach at the hands of the youngest Murdaugh as a means of exposing the family’s obscene privilege and abuses of power. But the incident is quickly revealed to be the fulcrum around which a series of bizarre past and future crimes revolves, ultimately leaving five people dead—and lots of questions yet to be answered.


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10. American Nightmare

A supposed “real-life Gone Girl,” American Nightmare meticulously unspools the bizarre, unbelievable case of a young woman who was abducted from her boyfriend’s house in the middle of the night. The three-part series cleverly positions said boyfriend as the obvious suspect, making us complicit in the institutional bias that kept the case unsolved for months. An overzealous detective, an F.B.I. agent with a clear conflict of interest, and a police department that never answers the phone do little to quash the impression that the people who are tasked with serving and protecting us are often doing the exact opposite—that is, until a determined officer in a neighboring town makes it her mission to identify a strand of blond hair, singlehandedly restoring the faith of the victims and us.


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9. Sins of Our Mother

The mother in question is Lori Vallow, a Mormon doomsdayer who fell under the spell of a charlatan, Chad Daybell, who allegedly convinced her that two of her children were possessed by demons. Her myriad sins include conspiring to murder her husband and children so that she and Daybell could fulfill their destiny of building a New Jerusalem in a small town in Idaho using the payouts from their spouses’ insurance policies. The three-part series is largely told from the perspective of Lori’s eldest son, Colby, who touchingly attempts to make sense of his mother’s crimes and find solace in building a family of his own. It’s both an unsettling depiction of abuse and mental illness and a heartbreaking cautionary tale of the dangers of religious fanaticism.

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8. Waco: American Apocalypse

Tiller Russell’s Waco: American Apocalypse eschews much in the way of historical context about David Koresh and his Branch Davidian cult in favor of a detailed and even-handed account of what the mother of one of the surviving members calls “abuses of power.” The series shines a glaring light on the power struggle and breakdown in communication between hostage negotiators and the tactical team, depicting the government’s siege of Koresh’s compound as the powder keg that ignited the current militia movement. Most chilling of all are interviews with two survivors: Kathy, a mother whose devotion to Koresh remains so steadfast that she shamelessly attempts to justify his raping of children, and Heather, who’s clearly still suffering from the trauma of the neglect, abuse, and brainwashing she endured.


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7. Evil Genius

Produced by the Duplass brothers, Evil Genius fascinatingly unravels the mystery behind the infamous “Pizza Bomber” bank heist that became grist for the national media’s true-crime obsession in the early part of the 21st century. The bizarre, byzantine conspiracy—which involved an elaborate treasure hunt, a body stuffed in a freezer, and a pizza delivery man with a home-made bomb locked around his neck—was allegedly hatched by a middle-aged hoarder named Marjorie and her former boyfriend. The woman makes for a compelling antiheroine, to the point where you start to wonder if she was indeed just at the wrong place at the wrong time. But the four-part series’s real protagonist is narrator Trey Borzillieri, who befriended Marjorie over many years and whose interviews show her for the truly evil genius she was.

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6. The Staircase

About halfway through the 13-episode docuseries The Staircase, you start to question whether Michael Peterson actually killed his wife. The then-58-year-old novelist admitted to having sexual relationships with other men during his marriage, and the defense’s assertion that Kathleen Peterson died from a fall down the stairs strains credulity. But did the prosecution make their case beyond a reasonable doubt? It’s a question that looms large over many of the shows on this list. In this instance, a smug, corrupt expert witness and other glaring prosecutorial blunders—not to mention French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s humanizing, no-holds-barred approach—make it impossible not to root for a man who clearly had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to commit such a grisly murder.


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5. Murder Among the Mormons

In the 1980s, former Mormon missionary Mark Hofmann was accused of forging countless historical documents, some of which directly contradicted the teachings of the LDS Church, including one that claimed a white salamander, not an angel, led Joseph Smith to the Book of Mormon. The church teaches that God lives on a planet called Kolob, but folklore about amphibians with spiritual GPS was apparently a bridge too far, and LDS leaders began to buy Hofmann’s documents in order to keep them concealed. Murder Among the Mormons recounts the fallout of the so-called “Salamander Letter,” which shook the faith of church members and resulted in two gruesome, pointless murders. On the surface, it’s a story about greed and deception, but the series also accurately depicts Hofmann as an amoral genius who understood that, like the foundation of all organized religion, perception is reality.

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5. American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders

The so-called suicide of investigative reporter Danny Casolaro in a hotel bathtub in 1991 exposes a vast global conspiracy that involves rogue computer software, biological weapons, and the 1980 presidential campaign that put Ronald Reagan in the White House. Directed by Zachary Treitz, this four-part series is dense, cinematic, and labyrinthine, filled with shady criminals who spin far-fetched tales that somehow pan out, duplicitous government operatives, and the good-hearted investigators who get wrapped up in their tentacles. By the end, you might start to question your own sanity.


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4. Vatican Girl: The Disappearance of Emanuela Orlandi

The as-yet-unexplained disappearance of 15-year-old Emanuela Orlandi in 1983 has unearthed, over the course of four decades, a vast and complicated conspiracy involving money laundering, organized crime, the Vatican bank, and Pope John Paul II’s meddling in Eastern European politics. Written and directed by Mark Lewis, Vatican Girl artfully assembles archival footage, cinematic reenactments, and interviews with journalists, investigators, and the victim’s family to paint a portrait of sickening betrayal by one of the most secretive and corrupt institutions in human history.

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3. Don’t F**k with Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer

Don’t F**k with Cats is another docuseries about a yet another serial killer, only this one murders kittens and has a group of intrepid internet sleuths on his tail as he goes on the run across the globe. At a lean, easy-to-binge three episodes, this stylish series manages to squeeze in a tour of the dark web, a brief lesson in photo metadata, and a (as it turns out, pivotal) breakdown of the killer’s obsession with American Psycho and Basic Instinct. Evoking another Sharon Stone erotic thriller from the ‘90s, Sliver, the show’s main talking head, a Las Vegas casino number cruncher, even breaks the fourth wall at the end of the final episode to indict us in our voyeuristic complicity.


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2. The Keepers

Ryan White’s The Keepers traces the unsolved murder of a Catholic nun in Baltimore in 1969 through the perspective of the former students at the all-girls high school where the 27-year-old taught English and drama. The seven-episode series exposes a web of horrific abuse and murder that ensnares seemingly disconnected families as well as the Baltimore Police Department. It’s poetic, sprawling, and devastating, exploring not just the impact that rape has on the victims and their families, but also the deep, systemic corruption of both our religious and civil institutions.

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1. Making a Murderer

The Grand Poobah of true-crime docuseries, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’s Emmy-winning Making a Murderer follows the story of Steven Avery, who was falsely convicted of sexual assault and spent 18 years in prison before being released and subsequently charged, along with his teen nephew, with murder of another woman. The series is a captivating and infuriating examination of class and power in the United States, and a damning condemnation of what is purported to be the greatest system of justice in the world. Though Avery remains the focus throughout, the star of season two is the calm-spoken and unflappable Kathleen Zellner, the appeals attorney who slowly and methodically attempts to dismantle the prosecution’s already flimsy case.

Sal Cinquemani

Sal Cinquemani is the co-founder and co-editor of Slant Magazine. His writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Billboard, The Village Voice, and others. He is also an award-winning screenwriter/director and festival programmer.

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