BJ Novak, like almost everyone else in America in 2014, devoured the first episode of genre-defining true-crime podcast Serial. But in recent years, as the culture’s boundless appetite for grisly stories about real-life murders hasn’t waned, the former The Office podcast decided the true crime podcast boom was ripe for a feature-length parody.
The result: Vengeance – Novak’s debut film as a writer and director. The film is a darkly funny thriller about a shallow, self-serving New York writer (played by Novak) who travels to red west Texas to podcast about the mysterious death of a sex partner he barely remembers. (The film hits theaters Friday through Focus Features, a unit of NBCUniversal.)
The film follows the second season of Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, a good-natured crime thriller about a different group of self-absorbed New Yorkers — a trio of nosy neighbors played by Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez — who decide to weave an intriguing audio thread about filming a murder in her luxurious Beaux-Arts style mansion.
Vengeance and Only Murders mark a new chapter in our obsession with true crime podcasts, perpetuating the genre’s macabre fixations and hackneyed clichés while offering their own twisted thrills.
The clash of the two projects also hints at a broader trend. What if pandemic-stricken audiences — inundated with all-too-real images of violence and disorder both in the US and around the world — were more skeptical of all these gory audio narratives?
Or as someone says of Novak’s character in the film, “Not every white person in America needs to have a podcast.”
Best known for playing a helpless gambler on The Office, Novak saw his debut as a filmmaker as an opportunity to critically examine one of the most important storytelling formats of the era.
“The character I play is an ambitious guy and he sees [his podcast] opportunistic,” Novak said. “He knows people like true crime — like Issa Rae’s character says, ‘Dead white girl? The holy grail of podcasting’ – and he makes a cynical move that ends up being much more emotional and profound for him.”
Of course, Vengeance and Only Murders aren’t the first Hollywood productions to challenge the conventions of true crime in the digital age.
The Netflix mockumentary series American Vandal tweaked the form’s self-seriousness with an absurd case of male genitalia graffiti. The Onion’s “A Very Fatal Murder,” released in 2018, mimicked and satirized well-known “murder podcast” tropes, from the quirky small-town setting to intrusive advertisements for consumer products.
“Vengeance” and “Only Murders” capitalize on our familiarity with the wealth of true-crime content that has only grown since those projects, and perhaps do some of the format’s unwritten rules — valuable narrative, faux-literary settings — what the parody film 1980’s “Airplane!” did for bloated disaster epics like “Airport 1975.”
In the first season of Only Murders, the three heroes are infatuated with a fictional podcast called All Is Not OK in Oklahoma. Only Murders co-creator (along with Martin) John Hoffman described the track as “a tongue-in-cheek” of the genre.
“I think it was mostly an evolving idea in the writers room for season one to look at the conventions, tropes and fandom surrounding true crime podcasts,” Hoffman said in an email. “Although in the first episode, the fact that our central trio were huge fans of the form themselves … it wasn’t too much of a leap to get into why people love these stories.”
“Vengeance” and “Only Murders” share certain thematic focuses – protagonists who see murder-themed podcasts as a fast track to fame, podcasts as a substitute for authentic human relationships – but differ greatly in execution, so to speak.
Snappy in both tone and style, Novak’s film gnaws at satirical targets such as America’s bitter culture wars, the shallowness of modern dating, the rapes of the entertainment industry, and the ravages of the opioid epidemic. The mood is ominous at times; Novak said he took visual inspiration from the Coen brothers’ gory “No Country for Old Men.”
“Only Murders,” on the other hand, gently wraps itself around the viewer in the manner of Chris Evans’ cream knit sweater in “Knives Out”. While the show offers a handful of violent shocks, the spirit of the first two seasons is equal parts ridiculous and gregarious. Martin and Short play characters who are endearingly clueless rather than morally callous.
But that doesn’t mean “Only Murders” is completely toothless. The show makes way for a subplot involving a group of incredibly devoted listeners of the on-show podcast, Manhattan “stans,” who seem only vaguely aware that the murder investigations documented in the audio series of the same name are flesh-and-blood fear of the people in their midst.
Gomez happens to be a self-proclaimed true crime lover, told the New York Times in August: “If I had met two older men in real life who enjoy solving puzzles, I would connect with them in the same way.”
For his part, Novak said he’s a more casual consumer of the true crime genre. But he did enjoy the first season of Serial, as well as S-Town, a popular investigative podcast from the producers behind This American Life. (“S-Town,” like “Vengeance,” revolves around a New York City podcast host who ventures into the American South to investigate what initially looks like a possible murder.)
In the same Times interview, Short described one of the show’s charms in terms that might resonate with Novak — or anyone tired of podcast hosts delving into crime like self-proclaimed GarageBand detectives.
“Throughout my career,” Short said, “I’ve scoffed at narcissism.”
https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/tv/vengeance-only-murders-building-rise-true-crime-podcast-satires-rcna40111 “Vengeance”, “Only Murders in the Building” and the rise of true crime podcast satires