Television’s fascination with crime stories dates back decades, but in order to capture an audience’s attention today, when it is pulled in multiple directions by 500 scripted series alone, a deeper dive inside the mind of those who do wrong has proven to be a recipe for successful storytelling. More specifically, there has been an uptick in digging into the psychology of female culpability and full-on criminology through limited series such as “Escape at Dannemora,” “Sharp Objects” and “The Act.”
“You want to create characters that are just mesmerizing — that are so complicated and alive and credible that you find yourself identifying with them and then are thrilled to go through those emotions without having to do that in your own life,” says Michael Tolkin, executive producer of “Escape at Dannemora.”
While “Escape at Dannemora” told the true story of a prison break, much of the story was seen through the lens of Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), the prison worker who developed personal relationships with the two inmates she then helped escape.
Executive producer Brett Johnson says he and Tolkin were working on the story in 2015, when the escape was first reported, but the “electric moment” that truly sparked the complicated profile of their protagonist occurred while watching an interview Tilly gave Matt Lauer.
“He was pressing her, saying, ‘You’re bringing home all of these gifts, didn’t [your husband] Lyle know anything was going on?’ And she smiles, and she says, ‘There’s a lot Lyle doesn’t know about.’ And Matt says, ‘Why did you smile?’ And she catches herself and says, ‘I didn’t smile.’ And that is the only moment that we have as real hard evidence of what became her entire other character,” Johnson recalls. “That just opened up an entire imagination for us about who she was before she was caught.”
Research into human behavior becomes a big part of the writing process for such projects. Johnson and Tolkin worked with a woman who “does these great analyses” to determine that “Tilly’s got some version of love addiction,” which informed why a “51-year-old grandmother in these cat sweaters” would effectively throw away her comfortable married life, Johnson says.
Meanwhile, for “Sharp Objects” showrunner Marti Noxon, reading up on Munchausen syndrome by proxy was essential.
Noxon’s series was based on Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name, but because the story was stretched across eight hours, it spent a lot of quiet time with characters living with trauma and mental illness. She wanted to be sure to ground her work of fiction in reality to immerse the viewers in understanding why a mother would effectively poison her child and that child would then kill other children.
“There’s connections now between these impulses and not really understanding the results are real,” Noxon says. “For each of these women, they had their own relationships to violence, and you can find real parallels in true crime stories and journalism, but you can also look to other things to see this paradigm of violence. There was a lot of talk about making them feel authentic to themselves.”
Even the first season of anthology true crime tale “Dirty John” examined Debra Newell’s (played by Connie Britton) part in excusing and allowing John Meehan’s (Eric Bana) con to continue. For showrunner Alexandra Cunningham, the draw was “the story about Debra’s mother and message, consciously and unconsciously, that had been put in Debra’s mind about who she is and how valued she was and what is really important in relationships.”
Cunningham relied on “extensive on-the-record” accounts from the people in Newell’s life, and Newell herself, to flesh out her motivations and mindset. Nick Antosca and Michelle Dean’s approach was similar for “The Act,” which focused on Dee Dee Blanchard (played by Arquette) manipulating the world into thinking her daughter Gypsy (Joey King) was gravely ill, only for Gypsy to manipulate someone into killing Dee Dee.
What becomes integral in telling stories about women who have been victims but then turn to victimize others, Johnson believes, is to find “layers underneath who these people are to tell as vivid and three-dimensional a picture as possible about who these people are with no rules about good or bad behavior.” This keeps judgment of the characters out of the room when writing the story but also, he hopes, keeps the audience from judging as well.
Noxon, too, believes it’s more about relatability than likability that makes such characters compelling.
“At times we can feel pretty out of control. There are times when we wonder, ‘Could I or would I ever?’ And you get the catharsis of living through the worst possible day and not actually having to go through it,” she says. “There’s also something about these times that feel pretty unhinged, so to see a representation of that, it’s like, ‘That feels about right.’”
Marisa Roffman contributed to this report.