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.

Opening Statement

Welcome to a new blog devoted to true-crime entertainment — starting with my favorite TV series, Forensic Files.

Since it began in 1996, Forensic Files has rendered me helpless to hit the off button, even during four-hour marathons of episodes I’ve already seen three times.

But why? I have only a marginal interest in the likes of mitochondrial DNA and medium-velocity blood splatter — the scientific content that is the reason for the show’s existence.

The first reason I like the show is structure. The writers and editors tell the story in a compact way in 30 minutes, without the pre-commercial teasers and other repetition that network true-crime shows use to pad themselves into an hour or two.

Next, it fascinates me that people who look and act like PTA moms and dads — the kind of folks who would feel guilty about grabbing the last cupcake in the office break-room — can dial down their consciences enough to murder their spouses and make their own children half-orphans.

I guess the series’ No. 1 attraction is the biographical element of the stories. The late narrator Peter Thomas told the show’s tales compassionately yet without exploiting the victims or manipulating viewers’ emotions.

But what about what happens after the closing music? The sentence-long epilogues that the producers have started adding to the closing credits are great — but I want more. I need more.

What happened to Pearl Cruz, the 15-year-old whose father used her as an accomplice to murder a beloved teacher (“Transaction Failed”)? How is Deborah Pignataro — who survived her husband’s attempt to kill her via massive doses of arsenic (“Bad Medicine”) — getting along today?

And I have a few legal questions, too. How did Ron Gillette, who murdered his wife by pressing her face into a plastic bag (“Strong Impressions”), get out of jail after only 15 years? Why did Clay Daniels — before he made headlines by plotting with his wife, Molly Daniels, to fake his own death (“Grave Danger”) — receive a sentence of only 30 days for molesting his 7-year-old cousin?

With this blog, I hope to answer those types of questions and invite queries and perspective from other fans of Forensic Files and, in time, explore true-crime movies and books as well. Please come along with me for our own investigation.RR

The first True Crime Truant post: Q&A with former JAG attorney Mark F. Renner, who defended Ron Gillette.