We’re at about the middle point of the true crime wave. Serial, Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and the two excellent entries into the OJ Simpson canon reinvigorated a passion for true crime in popular culture. Now that the first wave has proved successful, other outlets have gotten into the game. Netflix will try to recapture Making a Murderer magic by updating the series. CBS will dive deep the JonBenet Ramsey case. Law & Order, that bastion of only semi-true crime, will do a season on the Menendez brothers. And now MTV enters the fray with Unlocking The Truth, a true crime series with a twist — it’s hosted by a man wrongfully convicted of a crime.
When host Ryan Ferguson was 19, he was convicted of killing Kent Heitholt, a sports editor in Columbia, Mo., based on the testimony of Ferguson’s friend Charles Erickson, who later said he was coerced by police to confess to a crime that neither he nor Ferguson committed. Ferguson spent 10 years in prison, but after recanted testimony and countless appeals, he was released. He’s making the most of his newfound freedom by investigating cases of incarcerated people who claim they are innocent. In Unlocking The Truth, he says he wants to investigate these crimes so the 10 years he spent behind bars has meaning.
Details from Ferguson’s own case are summarized and murky, perhaps because his story has already been told in the doc Dream/Killer, which recently aired on Investigation Discovery. But Ferguson is the poster child for why some of the most recent examples of true crime — particularly Making a Murderer and Serial — have hit so hard, and perhaps why Unlocking The Truth is the MTV version of true crime: This could happen to you. Ferguson is an affluent, good-looking young guy who wears those collared sweaters that seem to only really be worn in J. Crew catalogues. But 11 years ago, he was just a 19 year old college student who got pulled over by the cops and told he murdered a man. He didn’t think he would actually get convicted. Until he was.
Unlocking The Truth follows Ferguson as he and the Exoneration Project’s Eva Nagoa investigate two cases. The first episode focuses on Michael Politte who was convicted of bludgeoning his mother and then setting her body on fire. As Politte’s sisters, both of whom stand by their younger brother say, Politte could have been out of prison by now if he had taken a plea deal, but he refused, maintaining his innocence. (The other case will focus on Kalvin Michael Smith, who was convicted of assaulting a pregnant woman to the point where she suffered permanent brain damage. Smith was only mentioned briefly in the premiere episode.)
At one point, Nagao and Ferguson make a point of telling Politte that they’re not his advocates, they’re simply investigators looking to move the investigation into his mother’s death forward. If that means exonerating him, then so be it. But the show also doesn’t feel like straight journalism either. In the same way that Serial could feel like advocacy by nature of humanizing a convicted — wrongfully or not — killer, Unlocking The Truth is propelled by Ferguson’s passion for truth and desire to aid those in prison for the wrong reasons, like he was. He’s choosing these peoples’ stories to tell and there’s a reason he is specifically telling them. That by nature feels like he’s fighting for them, if only in the premiere episode.
The best true crime tends to exist without many bells and whistles, letting its story speak for itself. Making a Murderer had little visual flare. Neither did pillars of the genre, like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line (although, it’s use of recreation was part of its success) and the Paradise Lost trilogy. These works exist because of their stories are so incredible that they can hold interest. That’s where Unlocking The Truth is at its best, when it let’s Politte’s story speak for itself. “I can still smell it,” Politte, now in his thirties, says about his mother’s burning body. The realities of Politte’s life are stark enough.
But it’s MTV, so there needs to be a bit of razzle-dazzle that tends to make Unlocking The Truth more like The Hills than True Life. The staged bits are not a huge part of the proceedings. n the beginning, Ferguson wheels out white boards like he’s going to Olivia Pope his way through the show. In another scene, Nagao backstory is awkwardly shoehorned in while she and Ferguson drink cocktails and seemingly flirt. It’s not like these bits dominate Unlocking The Truth, but it they ruin the show’s momentum and muddle its tone. Are these serious investigations or an excuse of homemade drama that only the real can provide?