True crime reality television continues to escalate its attacks on our attention. There are two cable networks entirely devoted to it, Oxygen and ID, and streaming services—Netflix especially—are pumping out new series and specials all the time.
It’s cheap, easy, and compelling, keeping us subscribed and watching. So many of these true crime series and specials, though, are made with indifference toward both craft and consequences.
A show doesn’t have to explicitly point fingers at alleged suspects to give fuel for their theories, their Internet searches, their accusations. A red herring here or there is a real person, a real life that can be ruined by a product. Most shows, however, don’t invite their viewers to become judge, jury, or doxxer.
ABC and Hulu’s new show (Tuesdays at 10) does. Who Do You Believe? asks the title, making the subtext text, and its marketing is even more explicit: “You be the judge,” the poster says. The narrator tells us, “It’s up to you to decide.”
Why is that a good idea? What makes me qualified to make that determination after watching 43 minutes of television? I was prepared to be apoplectic about the show’s irresponsibility.
Yet I was surprised, at least by the first episode, the only one ABC made available for review. It’s basically Judge Judy without Judge Judy, a case stretched out over 43 minutes instead of three.
Who Do You Believe?’s strength is in its simplicity: two people telling one story.
Instead of a director or editors making accusations with their questions or editing, two people essentially just accuse the other. Each has volunteered to participate, which makes this whole exercise far less ethically problematic than typical true crime.
At times their narratives overlap, and at other times, they diverge in small and large ways, inviting us to answer the title’s question, and accuse one or both of them of lying.
The first story, “Overwhelming Charity,” is about a couple who met online. He pays her rent because she doesn’t have a job; she says it was his idea for her not to work. She says he gave her $10,000 cash to hold, he says that never happened. He pays $26,000 for her to get breast reduction surgery; she says he insisted she then get breast implants. He says “I still to this day don’t know what happened”; she says “I think he tried to kill me.”
Each person has a chance to tell their story and defend themselves against accusations from the other. (“If that’s what was said, that’s a lie.”)
Of course, it’s possible that the editing has left things out, and the subjects may or may not think the show is fair to their story. But what’s on screen feels balanced, even for accusations of attempted murder.
(The second episode, “Protector vs. Predator,” focuses on Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols, whose “son and her new manager” have a “vicious and public battle for conservatorship,” ABC says, asking, “who is the real protector and who is the predator?” That’s a very different kind of case!)
Showrunner Alex Weresow has worked on Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath and Wife Swap, and the sensibility here is somewhere in-between. This isn’t an in-depth, emotional portrait of a survivor, but it’s also not a made-for-TV charade.
Most of the story is told this through these dueling perspectives, and it’s here where Who Do You Believe? introduces its most-creative element.
The two subjects’ stories are occasionally illustrated with actual photographs or documentary evidence, but mostly with rather generic-looking reenactments.
The most visually spectacular trick is the set design and framing of the interviews: Each of the two subjects are in what appear to be living rooms, but seated far off to one side. In the first episode, Mark is in a chair to the far left of the room, and Charity is on a couch that’s on the right.
They’re on literal opposite sides of their respective rooms, just like in their stories. But it gets better: When we see the wide shot of each room, there’s a fireplace in the center, and it took me a moment to realize the fireplaces were exactly the same shape.
That matters because, when the image dissolves, shifting from one interview to the other, it feels like the room is changing its details—styles and colors, textures and furnishings—but keeping the same underlying structure, just like the stories we’re hearing.
Because these interview sets are also used for the reenactments, sometimes those recreated scenes overlap with the interview footage, as if memories are coming to life. It’s subtle but very effective.
The writing is less artful, as the narration can be jarringly simplistic in its summaries: “Mark learns his wife is a convicted felon. And Charity believes Mark is a poisoning murderer,” the narrator says.
The narrator can also exaggerate Bachelor-style. “Who will be exposed as the criminal? What the police uncover is perhaps the most shocking part yet.” (It wasn’t.)
At the end, the narrator says, “now you’ve heard both sides, and both claims. But who is guilty?” I expected a clear resolution here, to learn some key fact that made the whole thing obvious. ABC says these are all “adjudicated cases”; they’ve been tried and resolved in court. Of course, so was Steven Avery’s case before Making A Murderer; so was Adnan Syed’s before Serial.
In Who Do You Believe?’s first story, at least, there is not a definitive answer, which is perhaps why the narrator adds later, “Who is the predator, and who is the con? It all depends on who you believe.” Can both stories be true, or both stories be embellished? Must we choose one or the other?
This format, no doubt, will still encourage people to question, to decide which person is lying and which is telling the truth in moments where their stories contradict. It may inspired them to label or judge or worse.
Does the show help in any way? Is this the best way for wronged parties to get justice or relief? Should we be making accusations about strangers from a single episode of reality TV? I guess that depends on what you believe.
Who Do You Believe?
A visually interesting approach to true-crime storytelling and accusations. B
What works for me:
- The visuals: set design, cinematography, and editing
- Letting the two subjects tell their stories
- A relatively low-stakes case
What could be better:
- The reenactments are generic
- The music is also both generic and overly aggressive
- Back off of the false dichotomy