Over the past several years, as the popularity of true-crime stories has soared, certain tropes have emerged.
First, if there’s a high-profile trial that was heavily covered by the media, that media coverage may have influenced the outcome by bringing more showmanship and creative storytelling into the courtroom.
Showing how this phenomenon plays out is the mission of the new Netflix docuseries Trial by Media, in which each episode of the series looks at a different trial where these outside—and outsize—factors may have been a significant factor in the case and its ultimate resolution.
Cases covered in the series include former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s fall from grace and the murder of unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo by a police officer. The first episode addresses the 1995 Jenny Jones Show case, when a guest on Jones’s daytime talk show admitted to having a crush on his friend who later murdered him.
But there’s another novel twist in Trial by Media: The first episode’s director, Tony Yacenda, could be considered a genre expert having created and directed the critically acclaimed true-crime documentary parody series American Vandal.
But that distinct outsider’s perspective allowed him to create an unconventional true-crime documentary that transcends the usual beats one finds in these docuseries.
When Brian McGinn, best known for directing Netflix’s Amanda Knox, about the American student convicted and then acquitted of murdering her friend Meredith Kircher while studying abroad in Italy, first approached Yacenda about directing an episode, he was hesitant. “I love documentaries, but I was worried about making something with zero levity because most of what I make is comedy,” Yacenda says.
“Everyone knows about Jerry Springer and Maury, and everyone has an opinion about this type of ambush television,” Yacenda adds. “I hadn’t considered the role of the media in [the trial] before. I was interested in the idea of taking real people and putting them on television to exploit them for ratings. And we’re continuing to do that.”
Yacenda, who has also directed music videos for Lil Dicky and episodes of the FX comedy Dave, which the rapper stars in, was also concerned about sensationalizing the case further by making a documentary about it. “I was concerned that I was a cog in that same machine.”
Ultimately, he says he chose to lean into the theme, asking questions about the role of the audience and the media without coming down on one side and avoiding glamorizing the killer or erasing the victim. “I wanted to analyze how we fit into that ecosystem,” he says, “and look at why we are so drawn to tragedy or injustice, and analyze our infatuation with trashy TV.
“As far as trash TV is concerned, I think it’s pretty clear that there’s something morally bankrupt about inviting somebody onto a television show and telling them that you’ve been cheating on them for five years,” he adds, referring to The Jenny Jones Show. “We all know, deep down, that is not a good thing to be doing. But can you legislate against that? I don’t really have an answer.”
Yacenda also tried to stay away from the tired techniques and tropes—such as misdirection and unreliable narration—that he parodied in American Vandal. “If you look at horror movies, after Scream, a lot of them changed their playbook. So I’d like to think that our dick joke kind of changed the way people approach real stories.”