Law in Popular Culture

Does MTV’s 'True Life: Crime' pass the 'true crime' test?

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scales with true and false words

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I’ve been writing this column regarding law in pop culture for the ABA Journal going on three years now. Over that time, it’s become more and more common for readers to reach out to me about topics they believe would make good fodder for an article. I love hearing from anyone who reads my work, and I love any and all suggestions for future columns.

One reader reached out to me regarding the new MTV True Life spinoff True Life: Crime. The first thing that came to mind when I read the series title was all of the ridiculous MTV True Life episodes and series that are out there.

Here are just a few:

True Life: I’m Horny in Miami

True Life: I Hate My Hair

True Life: I Have a Hot Mom

True Life: I’m an Adult Baby

True Life: I’ve Got Baby Mama Drama

And the list goes on and on.

The wild episode and series titles were a calling card of sorts for the series, but the show also tackled more substantive matters, such as drug abuse, money problems, phobias and other social issues. After all, when a documentary series runs for 21 seasons, it has to hit quite a few topics to keep its content engaging.

Exposing the truth

Regardless of the outlandish episode titles, the original series had redeeming qualities, as evidenced by a 2009 Daytime Emmy award for Outstanding Special Class Series. With that in mind, I figured I’d give the spinoff a try and see if it was up to snuff.

At its core, MTV’s True Life: Crime is quintessential MTV: It’s aimed at younger viewers, sports a relatively younger cast, and it’s headed by a familiar face (Nev Schulman of MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show fame). Production and editing are reminiscent of a music video at times, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nevertheless, the end product stands the chance of diluting the series’ credibility with some viewers who might not fit squarely into the target audience.

True Life: Crime promises to investigate “the most harrowing true crime mysteries rocking headlines and social feeds. These victims were young, the crimes against them were shocking, and haunting questions remain.” The series’ stated goal is to expose the truth behind the headlines, but the method for achieving those ends is far from flawless.

MTV Logo Image from Wikimedia Commons.

‘Tragic Accident or Calculated Murder?’

The first episode of the series begins with something very familiar to fans of the true crime genre: the disclaimer. “This program contains disturbing images. Viewer discretion is advised.” In all honesty, though, the first episode didn’t contain any imagery that I even remotely considered disturbing.

Granted, my perception may be a little skewed, as a result of the discovery I review every day in my real-life criminal cases, but even with that in mind, there wasn’t much in the form of blood and guts. The disclaimer could be there for future episodes, but it might also be an attempt at enticing those interested in the taboo.

Which, again, makes sense when one considers the target audience. The series is manufactured for young adults who have grown up with anything they could imagine available with one simple internet search. Accordingly, the series touts the power of the masses—a power that is generated when enough young adults become interested in something online.

Things go viral, and everyone puts on their amateur detective hat. Those viral stories are the series’ focus, and the first episode, titled “Tragic Accident or Calculated Murder?”, deals with the death of Kenneka Jenkins, a young woman in Chicago who was discovered dead in a hotel freezer.

Some Familiar Tools of the Trade

Like so many other true crime documentaries, True Life: Crime does its best to humanize Jenkins and create the empathy necessary for the audience to become invested in her death and mystery. The show’s first segment speaks to her family, friends and those who grew up around her in Chicago.

In keeping with the genre, archival footage is often employed to provide a better understanding of the deceased’s life and the incident in question. In an interesting deviation from the norm, quite a bit of the footage seems to be taken from social media posts.

Also, things like Facebook Live play a prominent role, as internet sleuths conducting the investigation use the videos in an attempt to re-create the events that occurred the night that the mystery began.

These “investigators” also use interviews that other people conducted, such as those compiled by ZackTV1, a YouTube channel that chronicled life on the streets of Chicago. (The YouTube channel’s founder, Zack Stoner, was shot and killed in Chicago in 2018.)

To the production team’s credit, though, they also make good use of the surveillance footage from the hotel where the girl was found dead in the hotel freezer. Law enforcement radio logs also give the series a bit more credibility and remind the viewer that this is an actual death and not merely some internet hoax gone viral.

The ‘true crime’ test

As I’ve written before, so many “true crime” series have staked their claim on the “true” aspect, using court footage or even newsreels from the time and place to offer authenticity that draws in the viewer. The first episode of True Life: Crime strayed from that standard, but I’m not sure whether the choice was intentional or by necessity, as Jenkins’ death never resulted in a criminal trial.

Some archival news footage was used, but it was sparse, at best. Instead, as noted above, the series utilized various aspects of social media to help ground the story in “reality.” While that may sound contradictory to some older readers, one has to remember that the target audience of True Life: Crime is relatively young, and social media has become its own sort of augmented reality for that demographic.

The production team does a better job of grounding the series for all viewers in the first episode’s final portions by focusing on race relationships between the black community of Chicago and law enforcement. While I applaud MTV for shedding more light on the racial tension in that area, I still don’t think it assisted the ad hoc investigative attempts that the series promised.

Regardless, fans of the true crime genre will be happy to see that the producers employed an AV Forensic analyst to review the surveillance footage and determine whether it was tampered with or altered. They also feature a crime scene investigator who concludes that he is “99% sure” Jenkins’ death was just a “tragic accident.”

Utilizing professionals and experts to assist in the “investigation” adds a sense of confidence to the conclusion. Still, viewers accustomed to stock iterations of true crime documentaries will leave the first episode feeling a bit unfulfilled. Most of that is due to the anticlimactic resolution of the “mystery”—if you can even refer to it as a resolution at all. The lead investigator sums it up best when he informs the audience: “You can decide what you believe.”

Adam Banner

Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney at the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white collar crimes.

The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.

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