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How Pink Collar Crimes is trying to reinvent the true crime series

No one gets killed on Pink Collar Crimes, a new true-crime series debuting on CBS tomorrow night. But it has axed many of the conventions of now-ubiquitous true crime series, and the lack of murder is just the start.

This is the kind of unscripted show broadcast networks rarely attempt: reality TV without competition, without contestants. It even has a Saul Bass-inspired title sequence, set to an original song by Jane Wiedlin, from the Go-Gos. (Survivor doesn’t even have a title sequence or play its full theme song any more.)

Documentary-style true crime? On a broadcast network? Without murder? And in a show that has honesty, empathy, and humor?

Yes. And it works. In its depiction of brazen and even absurd crimes that women have committed, Pink Collar Crimes (CBS, Saturdays at 8) resists the temptation of following other true-crime shows, and instead finds the center of any great reality TV show: human stories.

The center of the show, though, is one person telling their story. Its first subject is a bank robber, and I won’t say more than that, because I don’t want to ruin the experience of watching Roxanne Pennock tell her story.

Watching is the wrong word, because she’s sharing a story with a level of intimacy unlike I’ve ever seen before: being candid and direct without being dismissive or cocky, explaining what she did without blanketing herself in excuses.

The entire time, she’s looking directly into the camera, sharing the intimate details of illegal acts with us. I was absolutely captivated.

There are recreations of the crimes, but they’re not slow-motion, shadow puppet theater. Instead, they’re scenes used to illustrate the story we’re being told—and they’re vivid, bright illustrations, using actors—and they don’t take away from the central narrative.

Pink Collar Crimes has created a fine line for itself, but balances on it effortlessly, at least in the first hour, the only episode I’ve seen so far. The choices its producers have made enhanced the viewing experience, in subtle but critical ways.

Having an interview subject look into the camera—instead look at a producer who’s sitting slightly off to the side of the camera—is unusual for unscripted TV, but seems like a simple change. Just look into the lens! But it’s not that easy.

Shooting interviews this way required attaching a device to the camera that had three mirrors, which reflected the subject and interviewers’ faces to each other, and also sent a reflection of the subject’s face into the camera lens.

The production also used three cameras, so they could have different angles—and two of those cameras moved, so they’d have five different angles to choose from in editing.

Why go to all that work? I asked producers Jon Kroll (Big Brother, Amazing Race, American Grit) and Sharon Liese (High School Confidential) about it.

Pink Collar Crimes, reenactment

On Pink Collar Crimes, actors recreate the moment after Roxanne Pennock and stood with a neighbor watching a police helicopter that was searching for her. (Screen capture by CBS)

Turning true crime from familiar to new

“Sharon and I love true crime shows, but we are more attracted to the Netflix style of true crime shows than what you would see on basic cable, just for our own personal tastes,” executive producer Jon Kroll told me. “We like how they’re shot, we like how the stories are presented, and we like how they play more mind games with the viewer at times.”

With Pink Collar Crimes, he said, “the goal for Sharon and I was to examine the true crime genre that we love so much, and dissect every aspect of it and say, How can we do this a little bit differently?” They decided to borrow techniques from the indie documentary world “and do it for a prime-time network show, where it’s never been seen.”

Executive producer Sharon Liese and Kroll have collaborated together since the 2008 WE tv series High School Confidential, which Liese filmed over four years. Kroll came on board to help with post-production.

“Where we meet is a really interesting place: he does these huge productions for Fox, and I do more documentary, intimate, first-person storytelling,” Liese told me.

She recently directed the incredible short documentary The Gnomist, which is something you should give yourself 18 minutes to watch online, especially if you need a reminder that people can be wonderful and create magic and connection.

Kroll and Liese developed the series at CBS Studios with Ghen Maynard, the executive who’d previously developed Survivor, Big Brother, Amazing Race, and Top Model, and returned to CBS in late 2016 to form an unscripted division at the studio.

Maynard “expressed a desire to get into crime, and more documentary-skewing fare,” Kroll said. The producers did research, and ended up with a show focused on “interesting cases with lots of twists and turns that involved unexpected female criminals. We wanted there to be a level of absurdity to it, so we could add a little ‘I, Tonya,’ ‘Fargo’ to it and have it not just be doom and gloom.”

The first major departure was in the subject matter. Liese said, “We didn’t want to just jump in there with a true crime series like the other ones—murder and solving the murder.”

Although it was being developed at CBS Television Studios, Kroll said, “To be honest, we never at any point felt that this was going to go to CBS.” That’s because “they make it very clear there’s very little real estate at the mothership” network. However, during a regular meeting about shows in development, CBS thought it would work well as a summer show.

“What we tried to do to make it as CBS possible were, frankly, things we would have liked to have done anyway, but we had a little bit more in the way of resources,” Kroll said. That allowed the production to spend a day interviewing someone, instead of two hours, for example.

Kroll said “the reference points for us were [documentary and documentary series such as] The Imposter, Wormwood, Voyeur, The Jinx, Making a Murderer.”

Kroll and Liese spent the winter break watching, sending links to each other, and creating a style guide that they gave to CBS. “They were very supportive of us pursuing that vision even if it was not very typical of a prime-time network show,” Kroll said.

What they wanted to avoid, Liese said, was “what you see on television typically in a true-crime series,” including the “shadowy, vague, dark b-roll where you see slow-mo of hands and things like that. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to do something where you’re watching something that’s more vibrant and more cinematic. You see actors’ faces.”

Their process of developing the look and feel included the director they hired to produce the reenactments, Ben Steinbauer. He’s based in Austin and directed Winnebago Man.

“We really liked his eye; we really liked his sense of humor,” Kroll said. “He embraced the absurdity of it all.” That was important because “we wanted our reenactments to feel totally different than anything anyone had seen.”

What Pink Collar Crimes and Game of Thrones have in common

The title sequence and theme song were especially important to the producers.

“We really wanted to package it with some strong visual elements and audible elements,” Kroll said. “Since it was going to be an anthology series and every episode was going to be different, we wanted it to all feel like Pink Collar Crimes.”

Elastic, the company that created the main titles for Westworld, The Crown, and Game of Thrones, among other series, was hired to produce the title sequence (watch above).

“They happened to have a designer, Lisa Bolan, who’s a huge true crime fan,” Kroll said. And the theme song happens to be written and performed by Jane Wiedlin, who Kroll worked with a Showtime movie 20 years ago. He asked her, “Would you do a theme song for it?” and she said yes.

This was the end result:

There are other subtle decisions that the production made that differentiate it from typical true crime stories. For example:

  • The person telling their story walks into the camera frame, and then leaves. “I have not seen this in true crime. You feel like there’s a real beginning and end,” Sharon Liese said. This “cues the viewer: now you’re going to hear their story.”
  • Interviews are filmed with “a lot of head room so it doesn’t look like a news show,” she said.
  • Sometimes the actors in recreations lip sync to the person’s actual words, so that the real person’s words “come out of the mouth of the actor.” That was accomplished by playing audio of the interview on set. “We tried it several ways, and it worked best when they heard it and could get the cadence and the pacing down,” she said.

Another example are those straight-to-camera interviews. “We’re relying on the interviews a lot, so we didn’t want to have just these boring talking head interviews, we wanted to make sure that our interviews were beautifully lit and had beautiful backgrounds—we called them environmental interviews—that reflected their story,” Liese said.

Using a system of mirrors instead of just having someone look at the camera was necessary because “the effect is so much different,” Liese said. “Because the person is imagining who they’re talking to, you don’t get facial expressions.”

Being able to see an interviewer allows for connection: “They can tell that you’re being compassionate, or that you want hear more, or that you want to move on to the next thing—there’s so much feedback that you can give to the subject nonverbally that you miss if you ask them to just talk directly into the camera,” she said.

The interviews are the critical part of the show, but they had to fit together with the reenactments. Neil DeGroot, who directed The Biggest Loser, oversaw the production and the connection between the documentary and recreation shoots.

Kroll said, “We constantly got together to make sure all these pieces were working well together.”

Another piece was the show’s expert, Marcia Clark, who’s identified as the “Pink Collar Profiler.” She’s the only person on the show not telling a story from a first-person perspective; instead, she’s commenting on the case.

“We wanted her to set up each episode and pop in three or four times to just add perspective on something where her insight could provide a unique point of view we would otherwise not have,” Kroll told me.

A ‘stereotype-busting’ version of true crime

Episode to episode, the central perspective shifts—it won’t always be the perpetrator, but will sometimes be a victim, and sometimes a member of law enforcement who worked the case.

Why not just have perpetrators tell their stories, especially considering how absolutely compelling the first episode is?

“We spent a lot of time talking about that,” Liese told me, but ultimately decided that focusing only on perpetrators meant “we’re really limiting ourselves. There are other people involved in that case who have a compelling story about what happened.”

She said that the central narrator is always someone “who had a compelling perspective on the crime.”

Kroll said that changes the nature of the episodes: “The detective-driven episodes are a little bit more like a procedural, it’s a little less emotional, but it’s still very compelling to let them tell us how the onion was unpeeled.”

The end product, Kroll said, “has [Sharon’s] traditional doc roots and my tap-dancing, entertaining storyteller component that comes from doing reality competition. We’ve been able to bring both of those to the party in a way that works as a CBS show but also gives CBS something they’ve never had before.

“For anyone who loves true crime, it is unlike any true crime show that anyone’s done before, and I think they’ll really get a kick out of seeing something that takes the genre in a different direction,” he added.

It also might challenge people’s perceptions and certain gender roles.

“These are crimes that people typically associate with men, but actually women do them too,” Sharon Liese told me. “Women can be criminals just like men can be criminals. Women who you see as a PTA mom or a soccer mom or a country club wife, you only think of them in one dimension, as someone who is just dedicated to their social life or they’re dedicated to just being a mom.”

“In some ways, it’s a little bit stereotype-busting,” she said. “In that way, I think it’s expansive about women.”

When I asked about the title and promotional photos like this, which lean on gender stereotypes, Kroll said, “Whatever gets people to watch, we’re kind of okay with, because once we do get them in the chair, the work speaks for itself. We may have an exploitive hook, but we’re really trying to tell authentic stories about women who are interesting and have stories that are interesting and worth hearing.”

About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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