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American Nightmare may keep you up nights

American Nightmare may keep you up nights
Netflix's American Nightmare focuses on the kidnapping of Denise Huskins (Image via Netflix)

The crime // Aaron Quinn contacted Vallejo, CA police on March 23, 2015 to report that his then-girlfriend Denise Huskins had been kidnapped after a baroque-sounding home invasion.

Police immediately suspected Quinn, and then, after Huskins was released seemingly unharmed in her hometown of Huntington Beach two days later, began suspecting Huskins herself, too — and threatening them both with legal action for perpetrating a hoax and wasting municipal resources. The media, unable to resist the parallels to Gone Girl, ran with law enforcement’s version.

[Spoilers ahead, so if you don’t know the case and haven’t watched, skip to my last graf.]

A person stands with their back to us, looking out over big waves on the ocean
Denise Huskins in episode three of Netflix’s American Nightmare (Image via Netflix)

The story // New Netflix three-parter American Nightmare has a decidedly different version of the story, namely Quinn’s and Huskins’s side — which is somewhat ironic, given that the structure of the docuseries is garden-variety Netflix: cliffhanger reveals to guide you on to the next ep; three 45-minute episodes where a single 110-minute feature would have done just as well.

At the same time, though, that structure is sneakily effective; like me, you may get halfway through before you realize how subtly producer-directors Felicity Morris and Bernadette Higgins have set the table they’re about to flip. This isn’t surprising — Morris and Higgins made The Tinder Swindler and Fear City, both of which I really liked — and the conclusions Nightmare leads us to aren’t either, especially.

A red-tinted image of a woman from behind; her hair is blowing in the wind and the words AMERICAN NIGHTMARE appear at the bottom
(Netflix)

But the series knows how to make those conclusions indelible, in a way that sets it apart even if Nightmare’s build seems conventional at first glance.

Huskins’s testimony in the second episode, as she recounts (read: “painfully relives”) her abduction, is riveting, her emotion and her recollection of details relatable…but then Nightmare threads in Huskins, Quinn, and other survivors repeating variations on their trust in law enforcement, and their need to appear trusty and true to cops and the FBI.

“I needed them to believe me,” “I wanted to help them find the guy” — it’s an almost childlike belief in the police and their motives, and it makes you realize just how conditioned we’ve become by scripted entertainment, documentary projects that take cops’ word in talking-head interviews, etc. to think that this blue father knows best.

The ensuing montages of local and national coverage of the case illustrate the conditioning of the media along the same lines (although the fact that Matt goddamned Lauer is still showing up in these docu collages is just straight unacceptable, even as a sardonic comment on compromised commentators; you literally never need him unless the doc is about him, people! gah!).

The Gone Girl alliteration is just too tempting, especially for the hornier badge-humpers in the group,

A screenshot of a TV show, with a host in a box on the left and a still image on the right. Text says "Real Life 'Gone Girl'" and the Nancy Grace logo is in the corner

and if it’s a choice between interrogating a lazy homicide dick for failing to investigate thoroughly and falling back on a bunch of misogynistic nonsense he saw in a Criminal Minds marathon, or piling on an attractive woman who had the gall to survive in her own crime story? Basic cable’s takin’ the pile-on every time, believe it.

You know how this works: basic cable picks the pile-on because that’s where the money is, and the money’s there because consumers are — and Nightmare is hanging a light on the conditioning of those consumers, too. It’s introducing us to Huskins and Quinn; it’s introducing us to cops who don’t follow leads, don’t tell the truth about polygraph results, and try to short-circuit a request for an attorney; and then it’s reminding us that, um, we probably did usually think a victim who’s suspicious of police, or who thinks they need a lawyer, is hiding something or involved somehow.

Because that’s what police, police procedurals, and docuseries about or featuring police have conditioned us to think.

(Eve’s piece on Nightmare in Vanity Fair yesterday got into these ideas with the filmmakers; for the record, I didn’t read it before writing my review — but you can! Spoiler warning still applies, though.)

A lot of American Nightmare is uncomfortable. Huskins’s trauma, and re-traumatization when nobody believed her (not for the first time), is difficult to see. It’s difficult to admit how many times I’ve knee-jerked to “boyfriend did it” and turned most of my attention back to my knitting.

But that’s what makes Nightmare worth your time. It’s not difficult for the sake of it, it’s very watchable, and you’ll learn something — about the case, but also about what we mean when we say “the case,” how cases get built, and who gets to build them.

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