Making an Appeal: The critical crime and culture takes of Aja Romano

This post is a little different from my usual “Making an Appeal” posts. Instead of pointing to a publication venue or organization that is circulating fresh and critical takes on crime and crime media, I want to single out a particular culture writer who is logging cultural criticism that is well-researched and attuned to the quickly changing cultural moment(s).

Aja Romano writes for Vox. Officially, she’s their “Internet Culture Reporter,” but I’ve been following her analysis of true crime and crime drama and culture, which she’s clearly a critical fan of. This makes her a pretty nice fit for this blog’s appreciation — and I often find myself agreeing with her perspectives.

Recently, for example, she wrote about the Danish drama series about the 2017 gruesome murder of journalist Kim Hall. She points out that the 6-part series, streaming on HBO in the U.S. as The Investigation, is a hybrid production: it combines the generic characteristics of true crime, police procedural drama, and, given its setting, cast, and cinematic textures, Nordic Noir.

She discusses the difficult balancing act this series attempts, noting that it might not satisfy viewers because it doesn’t completely deliver in any one of these popular genres. Instead, it teases and frustrates all of them, and it produces something completely unique, fitting for the shocking crime itself:

You’ll be frustrated that so little is happening. You’ll be frustrated that the steps of this investigation are so painstaking yet slow. You’ll be frustrated that unlike every other crime show in existence, The Investigation forces you to sit through episode after episode of non-development, with every minor development rapidly leading to a setback rather than a gain. It’s the dramatic equivalent of watching Sisyphus lose his footing or a football team winding up at fourth down — forever.

[…] Throughout The Investigation, there’s never any question that the pursuit of justice for Kim Wall is worth the effort. In most crime dramas, and even in most true crime narratives, justice is about retribution and reparations. In The Investigation, pursuing justice is a communal act of faith that ultimately becomes catharsis: a reminder of why justice is necessary, why it’s worth committing to — and why it’s worth every labored, excruciating second of our time.

She also has her finger on the changing trends in True Crime, and has been a long-time fan of the emerging critical true crime fans and documentaries, from podcast series to mainstream productions on Netflix and HBO.

Earlier this year, she profiled a British podcast duo who (should) rival the fame of U.S.-based My Favorite Murder co-hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. The London-based podcast RedHanded is the creation of Hannah Maguire and Suruthi Bala. Romano describes their podcast, and the true crime trend:

They began RedHanded in 2017 with the intent to frame cases within a broad sociocultural and political context — focusing on the causes, victimology, and psychology of crime rather than just the criminals. Their approach fit right into a shifting narrative trend that many true crime podcasts have spearheaded and one that many documentary filmmakers have embraced in recent years, especially as part of the Me Too movement — but it’s still a rarity.

She also provided a helpful round-up of “The 11 best true crime series on Netflix” last month, which applies her culturally-critical frame to selecting and assessing these series. If you’re interested in the topic of crime as a cultural narrative, then her round-up is a good place to find some recommendations.

In short, check out Aja Romano’s crime+culture writing.

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