The first in what is sure to be a Coronavirus binge-watching series
It was the grande dame of true-crime shows: Forensic Files (originally called Medical Detectives) ran for 15 seasons, from 1996 through 2011 — the longest-running non-scripted series in TV history. Broadcast in nearly 200 countries, it was popular before “true crime” was a thing. And for many of us (ahem) die-hard fans, when we think about true-crime cases, we hear Peter Thomas’ voice in our heads.
So when HLN announced a reboot of the show to start airing in February, I was ecstatic. But also a little anxious — how much were they going to change it? And could I learn to love a voice-over that wasn’t Thomas’?
Now that I’ve watched the first six episodes, I think I have a good feel for what the new show is about. And I have some thoughts. (And yes, I know I’m behind the curve. But I’m not an “influencer” so I don’t get previews. I have to watch them when they come out just like everyone else.)
I love that it follows the old familiar format, but is updated just enough to move it into the 21st century. It uses that same oh-so-90s synth theme music (created by the Alan Ett Music Group), but it’s been re-recorded to sound a little less synth-heavy.
The new show follows the same story beats — basically, as Executive Producer Paul Dowling described it, a “whodunit,” but with real cases. It stays with the documentary format that the original show pioneered, and that now every true-crime show tries to copy, i.e., interviewing the victims’ families as well as the actual law-enforcement officials and scientists who worked on the case. The show also took great pains to show the victims as real people with families and friends who loved them — something earlier true-crime stories hadn’t done. The reboot stays true to that guiding principle.
It shares the old show’s love of scientific gadgets. And it’s still full of wonderfully geeky lingo like “polymerase chain reaction” and “gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer.” If you don’t know what those things are, go watch the show. Right. Now.
The original series wasn’t perfect by any stretch, and the reboot does share some of the same faults. It still uses those clunky, ham-handed segues like “But that was until they dug into his past…” It still stretches the narrative out a lot longer than it needs to be, mostly because the narrator keeps retelling the facts after each of the numerous commercial breaks.
Thankfully, though, the reboot isn’t just a continuation of the same exact show. It’s made some changes. For one, it changed one big aspect of the show that was something of a trademark: the campy re-enactments. Now they’re done in a very soft-focus style: no faces are visible and there’s no dialogue. I don’t think I’m the only one who has a soft spot for the original’s low-budget, pulp aesthetic. But it is, stylistically, an improvement on what was probably widely considered to be the worst part of the show.
Perhaps the change that has worked so many viewers into a lather is the new narrator, Bill Camp. It was inevitable; he had some big shoes to fill. The show has taken a lot of criticism for choosing him, with complaints that his voice is too high-pitched or his narration, too fast. Those things are true, if we’re comparing him to Thomas. But no one can sound like Thomas. In fact, it was because of his passing in 2016 that Dowling refused to consider a reboot despite multiple offers. He just didn’t think the show could work without Thomas’ voice behind it.
But once I got over the shock of hearing a different voice and gave him a fair chance, I have to say I think Camp is well suited for the show. He bestows the appropriate amount of gravitas in talking about murder (unlike some other shows — looking at you, Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry). His voice sounds a lot like the late Paul Winfield, and is pitched just fine. It’s smooth and doesn’t call attention to itself, which is really what you want in a good narrator.
But maybe the biggest change Forensic Files II made is one that the reviewers haven’t mentioned. Probably the biggest drawback of the original show was that it often portrayed sex workers in a pretty victim-blame-y kind of way (season 5, episode 19, “Deadly Knowledge,” was probably the worst offender). There was some very valid criticism of that, and I think that the new producers heard that criticism and responded to it.
In episode 2, “On the Rocks*,” the victim, Krystal Beslanowitch, was a sex worker. In this episode, the show took great pains to build empathy with her. They interviewed her friend Karen Mathis, who was also a sex worker. She was honest about the reality of that work and the lives of the women who engage in it. Even the sheriff in the case, Todd Bonner, said he didn’t judge her, and spoke with kindness about her. The writers and people involved in the case treated these women with actual dignity, and that’s a huge step forward. Regardless of what you think of the other changes, this one alone deserves kudos.
*Why they didn’t title this “Blood from a Stone” is beyond me.