Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The true-crime docs that show Maria Thayer’s dark side

Photo: Rebecca Sanabria

The internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.

The fan: Maria Thayer has come full circle: From playing a high school student in Strangers With Candy to a college freshman in Accepted, she now plays a teacher in TruTV’s Those Who Can’t. Thayer certainly can; she played up her endearing naïveté to be the straight woman to Amy Sedaris’ 40-year-old high school dropout in Strangers With Candy, and Those Who Can’t sees her signature comedy given a strong showcase playing a librarian forever erasing penises out of books. Thayer talked with The A.V. Club about her obsession with true-crime documentaries, the dark roads they take her down, and charting her top-five must-sees.

The A.V. Club: Do you have a single favorite true-crime documentary?

Maria Thayer: There’s the old school Thin Blue Line, the Errol Morris documentary. There weren’t Reddit boards back when I watched it, and it’s probably the documentary I’ve watched the most often.


AVC: Do you go on Reddit for more recent ones?

MT: Yes. I’ve never gone to the Reddit board for anything else—I don’t really quite understand Reddit, to tell you the truth. But I did go on a Reddit board for Making A Murderer.

It started maybe seven years ago—I was living in New York and Paul F. Tompkins, the comedian, and his wife, Janie [Haddad Tompkins], and our friend, Phil [Morrison]—we were all in this club where we’d get together to watch this documentary called The Staircase. That’s about a guy named Michael Peterson who is on trial for murdering his wife who fell down the staircase, and it’s really long. Now, it doesn’t seem it because Making A Murderer was 10 episodes, but then it was like eight hours. I watched it by myself once and that month, for some reason, we started this club where we’d watch an episode of The Staircase. And this has been seven years and we still send pictures to each other. One of theories is he killed his wife with a blow poke, which is something you use to start a fire. So we send pictures of blow pokes, and Phil once took pictures in South Carolina or North Carolina—I can’t remember—where it takes place and we’re still sort of somewhat involved in our little club we started. I’m also the only person in that club—actually out of everyone I’ve ever met, I’m the only one that thinks Michael Peterson is not guilty.

AVC: Why do you think that?

MT: I don’t know. He seems too chill to be guilty, but everyone else says that’s what psychopaths are always like. [Laughs.] So I don’t know.


You’ve heard of Serial?

AVC: Oh yes.

MT: I don’t think it’s really the best thing to be as obsessed about these things as I am, because we’re sort of looking at them as a form of gossip and entertainment in your life. And I mentioned Serial because the brother of the young woman that was killed in Serial—he was on the Reddit boards for Serial. I did go on the Reddit board for Serial and he said, “I’m not going to answer any questions because to you it’s a crime drama, but to me, it’s real life.” And I try to keep that in mind.


AVC: It’s so hard.

MT: I have work to do as a human being.

AVC: Reading about the brother in Serial does make you question why this is really entertaining, and is that okay? We have our own podcast here at The A.V. Club that’s just talking about Serial, where we’d grapple with questions like that, but we don’t really come to any easy conclusions.


MT: No, me neither, and I don’t feel like… is it terrible that I want to watch the Republican debate because I want to see Trump? If someone is doing something crazy—or what I think is crazy—I’m watching, but also am I keeping the actual seriousness of someone actually running for president in my mind all the time? There are moments and it’s like, “Oh that would be, wow, this is a serious thing to run for president and choose someone who is going to lead our country,” and then I’m like, “Oh, this is so fun to watch.” All them calling each other liars and whatever and fighting like kids.

You guys were obsessed with Serial, too?

AVC: We were so obsessed with Serial. It played every Thursday morning and everyone would listen to it on the way into work, and it felt like every single person in the office would discuss immediately coming in. And we wouldn’t get any work done Thursday morning because we couldn’t stop talking about it.


MT: [Laughs.] I know. My friend Janie, Paul’s wife, she had a little group that would meet for drinks every week and talk about it.

AVC: For Serial?

MT: Over Serial. I think I’m always the person that, I don’t know if it’s part of my nature or if… I don’t know the word. I don’t know if it’s a rabble rouser—that’s not the word I’m looking for—whatever everyone else thought, I thought the opposite.


AVC: You like playing devil’s advocate?

MT: Sort of. If people were like “he’s guilty!” I’d think he’s not guilty.

AVC: Oh, you think he’s not guilty?

MT: I don’t know! [Laughs.] That one, secretly, I think he is, but I don’t know. That one, I don’t know with that one; I don’t know with any of them, obviously. And The Jinx.


AVC: Another good, recent one.

MT: Yeah. That one is fun because he’s so obviously guilty that there’s no thinking about it. What’s interesting to me about that one is it seemed like he wanted to go to jail.


AVC: Right.

MT: And it seemed to me like he was off, and he invited this camera crew into his life to talk about it, and from the way he talked about it, it seemed, on some level, he wanted to get caught.


AVC: It does seem like that. And like you said, that one is a little nicer because it seems so cut and dry. Robert Durst is clearly a horrible guy, which is kind of refreshing in this day and age.

MT: [Laughs.] It’s certain before he goes in the bathroom and says, “Killed them all, of course” and, already, that’s almost too much. It’s like gilding the lily—it’s exciting, but I didn’t even need that. I already knew that he accidentally got off killing his friend. His story was accidentally shooting his friend and the next thing he did was dismember. That’s horrible.


AVC: Do you have strong opinions about Steven Avery after Making A Murderer?

MT: Well my little group of me, Paul, Janie, and Phil—we were on a text chain for Making A Murderer, too, and I had more strong feelings about the evidence that didn’t make it into the show that, ultimately, weakened Avery’s case, at least with the public, because you felt duped a little bit by the documentary; if he was so innocent, why wasn’t that stuff brought into the trial? I definitely think the police force did some bad stuff; Steven Avery’s lawyer says, at one point, that the police thought he did it, so they framed him. It wasn’t like they were trying to frame him; they were trying to make sure he got convicted, and I think that’s true. They planted those keys, but what was the worst part when I watched that—I did love watching it—but I had to get up every 15 minutes because it was so stressful.

Particularly Brendan, the kid. Who I don’t think had anything to do with it. If he did, I think his story is such a tragedy. All of those interrogation video tapes—there was an article in The New Yorker that someone sent me about how the interrogations are about getting convictions because you might get a confession, but their focus is not about getting the truth. The Jinx, in some way—definitely Making A Murderer—there are stories that have a gruesome center and you get to meet all these people, but it’s a good story, but also a lot of them highlight how things can go wrong in an investigation. Even The Jinx, that letter that misspelled Beverly—the second one—that the police didn’t try to go through the woman that Durst killed to find that seems like an oversight. But I also really love the O.J. trial, which isn’t really a true-crime documentary.


And also, I don’t know if you know this, but You Must Remember This. Do you know that podcast?

AVC: Oh, yeah.

MT: She has a really great 11-part Manson family thing. It’s incredible what [creator and host] Karina Longworth does. I took a road trip with my friend and we listened to it the whole way to San Francisco and back. She’s a really good storyteller and she really delves into the main characters of the story and she’ll sort of deviate from the crime of the main story and talk about what the political atmosphere was then and what was happening in the country, what was happening artistically; it was a really satisfying experience.


AVC: With the recent burgeoning of true-crime stuff—Making A Murderer, The Jinx, Serial—do you feel like you find yourself pointing out what came before? A lot of people who loved Making A Murderer haven’t seen The Thin Blue Line, which is so much its forbearer.

MT: Oh, now that it’s a popular thing to go back and watch the older stuff? Yeah, I feel like I am constantly recommending The Thin Blue Line. It’s probably the one movie where when people haven’t seen it, I’m like, “What?!”


AVC: That’s the one you freak out over?

MT: [Laughs.] I get aggressive. So when people do it to me, I’m like, “Yeah, I haven’t seen everything that’s out.” But The Thin Blue Line—I probably recommend it a decent amount. I love Errol Morris so much; he’s one of my heroes.

But there’s some stuff I can’t watch; I can’t watch Paradise Lost, that’s an old one. I can’t watch that one. It’s not quite true crime, but it is about a possible murder, so I guess it is.


AVC: About the second-graders who were murdered?

MT: Yeah. I tried to watch it, but I mostly, for someone who makes a lot of their living in comedy—and even for someone who doesn’t make their living in comedy—I don’t watch a lot of comedy.


AVC: Oh, really?

MT: Yeah. Documentaries are my favorite thing, and the more depressing, the better.


AVC: Well that’s great, because so many documentaries are depressing.

MT: Sure, it’s great; I have a great life. [Laughs.]

AVC: That’s so interesting because I feel like you’re so like bubbly and smiley, and it’s so funny to hear that you’re into this depressing sort of documentary genre.


MT: Yeah. I love not serious documentaries, too, but I love seeing people at their wits’ end, I guess.


AVC: Do you ever watch the trashier TV true-crime stuff where there are like bad re-enactors and that sort of thing, or are you strictly a movie person?

MT: I’m strictly a movie person. I mean, I watch the HBO documentaries and Netflix, but like Dateline—I haven’t. I haven’t watched that. Not with the same fervor.


I think part of watching it is also being a part of a conversation. Thin Blue Line is different because it’s so old, but part of the excitement of Serial—a lot of the excitement about Serial, The Jinx, Making A Murderer—was, definitely, everybody talking about it. Social media was talking about it, you saw a lot on the internet talking about it, so you were part of this conversation with everybody.

AVC: That’s a good way to put it.

MT: I have a good friend right now who just—he’s always behind—and he watched The Jinx last week and he’s talking about it and it’s sort of fun to, like, go back in time when he’s like, “I can’t believe this!” and he does his Robert Durst impression and I had totally forgotten about Robert Durst, and now I get to revisit Robert Durst.

AVC: Have you listened to the new Serial yet?

MT: I don’t even remember what it’s about now. I listened to the first episode and I don’t know. I don’t know why… I wonder if it had had something to do with Serial… I don’t remember, were people sort of annoyed that Serial didn’t have more of an ending?


AVC: Yeah.

MT: Instead of saying, “He did it and this is what I think.”

AVC: There was no definitive ending, which is something people really crave.

MT: And I feel like that—and I can’t remember, I think it was the AMC show The Killing, which isn’t a true crime show—but I sort of felt the same way about it. I was really into that TV show and at the end of it, you were supposed to know something and they didn’t do that—they didn’t fulfill that promise. So I soured on it and felt like Serial did that, too.


AVC: Yeah, that’s true.

MT: Not that you expected them to say, like, “This is what happened.”

AVC: It definitely challenge what we want out of a story, which is one of the reasons Serial is so interesting because it provide closure. Now, whenever Adnan Syed has court proceedings, it makes news because we really want to know if he did it or if he’ll get out of jail.


MT: Yeah, I think he just had a hearing, didn’t he?

AVC: Yeah, a hearing for a retrial.

MT: But I don’t know how it went. I’ll have to go on Reddit. [Laughs.]

AVC: If you had to recommend your top five true-crime docs, what would they be?

MT: The Staircase, definitely.

See, here’s the thing about The Staircase: You watch it with a group of people or at a time where a group of people are watching it, and I watched The Staircase seven years ago and I remember talking to Paul, Janie, and Phil about it, and stuff is still happening with the case. There was a theory in The Staircase that Michael Peterson didn’t kill his wife and this crazy owl did.


AVC: That’s right!

MT: Because there’s so much blood and there was a problem with the blood and a problem that there was so much blood and how could it be all that blood spatter and they thought maybe some insane owl got it.


And then Michael Peterson fell in love with the editor of that movie.

AVC: Really?

MT: Yeah, so there are all of these stories underneath the story and then he got a new trial, so, anyway, The Staircase is great, The Thin Blue Line is great. I found The Jinx really super entertaining. And that podcast You Must Remember This—Karina Longworth talks a lot about Hollywood in addition to the Manson family, and it’s really amazing. And then, I don’t know what else. My Brother’s Keeper, Crazy Love, did you see that one? It’s the one where a guy gets mad at his girlfriend and throws acid on her face.


AVC: And then they get back together, right?

MT: Yeah. It’s crazy. Also Dear ZacharyI watched that one for the second time the other day. It’s about, basically, this crazy woman and, I don’t know, it’s very fascinating.


I hope I don’t sound like a total creep in this. [Laughs.]

AVC: [Laughs.] Not at all. After obsessing over Serial and Making A Murderer it no longer feels weird or wrong to obsess over this material.


MT: It just sounds like this interview is going to end up in an evidence locker or something. [Laughs.] I can only hope this case would make a great TruTv or true crime. [Laughs.]

AVC: Would you ever want to act in one of these true-crime documentaries as a re-enactor? I guess that’s mostly the sort of TV crime stuff you’re not into, although The Thin Blue Line has a lot of re-enactors.


MT: It does. Yes; of course I would. [Laughs.] First of all, as an actor, I’ll take any job. Yeah, I don’t get to do anything like that. I also want to be in a horror movie.

AVC: You would be a great final girl.

MT: That sounds fun. Even to play a dead body; that’d be an easy gig. [Laughs.] Even though I did almost have to die one time on camera in an episode of Gotham and—I was surprised how much it scared me.


AVC: Really?

MT: Yeah. I had to pretend to drown. I was underwater, which is scary, and I’m not afraid of water, but people do die underwater.


AVC: Right.

MT: But anyway, it did surprise me how I almost couldn’t do it. The director wanted me to go limp under water and it was scary.


AVC: I’ve always heard that actors—and I guess I can ask you this—I’ve always heard that actors like to die on screen.

MT: I didn’t like it; maybe better actors than me.

AVC: Do you think it was because you were drowning? Like, if you died from getting shot, it might be more fun, because it’s not as real as going underwater and pretending to die.


MT: I do think that was part of it. I did Eagleheart on Adult Swim and I got shot a ton and I don’t think I ever died. I do like the squibs.

AVC: The blood things?

MT: Yeah. So maybe that’s my problem. I need something fun to get my mind off of pretending to die and I didn’t have any squibs under water.


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