Forensic Files Unraveled: Series and Genre Explained

Some What’s and How’s
(Forensic Files)

This week, instead of recapping an episode of Forensic Files, I’d like to explain a bit about the series itself and the genre it inhabits.

Forensic Files executive producer Paul Dowling

Despite that the show has been around for 20 years and is broadcast in 142 countries, a lot of prospective viewers mistakenly lump it in with other TV fare related to crime.

Forensic Files is a straight-up true-crime series as opposed to the wholly fictional crime dramas (such as CSI ) that dominate network TV.

It also differs from made-for-TV movies (Like Mother Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes) that are based on real crimes but also may take dramatic license by making up dialogue and creating composite characters.

Classifying. True-crime shows feature interviews with the real-life investigators and lawyers who worked on the cases and friends and family members of the victims.

These series can’t pack in every element of the story, but they don’t fabricate any either. On the Case with Paula Zahn, 48 Hours Mystery, and certain Dateline NBC shows fall into this category.

Forensic Files belongs to the same genre, but there’s no Erin Moriarty or Keith Morrison hosting the show or appearing on camera during interviews.

Each 30-minute Forensic Files episode is a mini documentary told in a whodunit format with off-camera narration by Peter Thomas. It includes some re-creations of events, but they’re labeled as such and don’t take liberties.

Nothing tawdry. And the producers of Forensic Files have taken pains to make the shows tasteful. You won’t see any interviewees melt down and become hysterical on camera.

And the producers never make viewers wince through oversexualized reenactments with low production values.

“There’s something in TV called ‘permission to watch,'” Forensic Files executive producer Paul Dowling explained an interview with True Crime Truant. “We provide a show you can leave on if your 8-year-old daughter and her friends come in the room.”

If you’ve never seen Forensic Files, you probably haven’t been looking too hard. You can find it somewhere on any given day.

Netflix streaming, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Roku, Apple TV, HLN (which has regular marathon showings), and the Escape channel are a few of the outlets that carry the show. And most of the episodes have been uploaded to YouTube.

Media critic Robert Thompson is a Forensic Files fan

There are 400 episodes of Forensic Files produced from 1996 to 2011. The show is not going away anytime soon, in part because the producers avoided crimes involving celebrities.

“Most viewers don’t know what the cases are, so the Forensic Files episodes don’t get boring,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

And speaking of gripping content, here’s some exciting news: Next week’s post will be a Q&A drawn from an in-depth interview that Forensic Files creator Paul Dowling gave to True Crime Truant.

Dowling divulges some behind-the-scenes secrets and discusses his relationship with the great and unpretentious voice-over artist Peter Thomas.

Cautionary words. And he offers some safety tips that I’ve never heard — advice that can help you remain a fan of true-crime shows rather than the subject of one.

Until next Thursday, cheers. RR


Update: Read the Q&A with Forensic Files executive producer Paul Dowling.

6 thoughts on “Forensic Files Unraveled: Series and Genre Explained”

  1. Forensic Files is a fave, watching mostly on my new North Star, youtube. Also, must recommend Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege and Justice. Don’t think the show ran for all that long, but DD was a cool guy.

    1. I used to watch Power, Privilege, and Justice all the time when it was on TruTV (or maybe it was CourtTV then) — love the opening with the woman carrying her pocket dog and trying to cover the camera lense with her hands. I miss Dominick Dunne.

  2. Forensic Files has always been my favorite of the true crime shows. Peter Thomas’s narration was always what did it for me. He had a sort of intense urgency about his delivery, yet he still managed to avoid being over the top or melodramatic. It somehow conveyed that he felt that what he was talking about was important, not just interesting.

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