The title “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” Netflix’s new four-part documentary series launching Jan. 24, is slightly misleading. Not about its subject, Bundy, the infamous serial killer who finally confessed to some 30 murders before his 1989 death in the electric chair. The misnomer is “Conversations.” While we hear Bundy’s voice on tape, it’s narrating a looping mélange of hypothetical reality and fact, pseudo-philosophy and angry denial. His conversation partners can hardly get through to a man so lost inside his own mind. That fundamental fact — the degree to which Bundy is at best an unpleasant companion through four long episodes, and at worst repellent — makes “Conversations With a Killer” a must only for true-crime completists.
There’s an achievement here, if a dubious one: The series surfaces tapes not previously heard by the public, a sample of some 100 hours of interviews conducted by two journalists working together on a book. Those journos, Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, appear separately in the documentary, and both seem sorrowful at their experience with Bundy. “I thought that if Ted was telling the truth — that he had been set up — that it was a hell of a story,” Michaud recalls in the first episode in rueful tones. “If it wasn’t the truth, then it was also a hell of a story.” Later in the episode, we hear Bundy nattering on about his childhood aptitude for catching animals: “First grade, I was somewhat of a champion frog catcher. I was a frog man. Prided myself on my ability to spot that pair of bulging eyes, which would bob just above the surface of a murky pond.” Does this give a sense of the quirks that over time may have compounded into criminal pathology? Sure, why not? Does it give a larger and more urgent sense of just how annoying it is to spend time with Bundy, a braggart who’ll discuss anything except his culpability in the deaths of untold numbers of innocents? That too.
Moments of the documentary spark interest. Footage of his trial, in which Bundy’s relentless self-regard and penchant for bloviating on his own behalf were for once constrained, provide a portrait of the man more revealing than his untrammelled audio ramblings. But the focus of “Conversations With a Killer” is those vexed tapes, in which Bundy’s inability to accept blame never lets up. The interviewers don’t get a confession, of course — strikingly, they don’t even gain an inch.
Speaking seemingly about himself in the third person, Bundy dictates that “a person of this type” would be fueled by “the obviously irrational belief that if the next time he did it, he would be fulfilled. And the next time he did it he would be fulfilled. Or the next time he did it he would be fulfilled.” As his voice, nasal and self-possessed, drones on, images of his victims play across the screen. It’s a classic example of trying to have it both ways, presenting the loss of life as tragic while putting forward anything the agent of death has to say as inherently newsworthy simply because he said it. After all, the idea that a serial killer kills because he wants to fulfill an appetite sounds profound until one realizes that’s the only reason anyone does anything. And Bundy won’t even ascribe the motivation to anyone but some hypothetical person. It’s not impossible to imagine a series that is worth dredging up the horrors Bundy wrought. But it isn’t one this credulous.
Elsewhere, the documentary makes vague points about Bundy representing the paranoid air of Richard Nixon’s 1970s, but commits to them only insofar as it wishes to justify the project. “Conversations With a Killer” wants mainly to provide thrills and chills and doesn’t care much how it gets you there. That Bundy had already been convicted and would later confess at the time these tapes were recorded makes the device of hypothetical confession pointless, and makes this a spectacle even less tasteful than O.J. Simpson’s similar apologia for the killing of Nicole Brown Simpson: the book “If I Did It.” Back in 2006, Simpson’s half-confession, half-justification, all presented as a what-if scenario, was at the center of a planned Fox TV special; the show was canceled and its ringleader, publishing impresario Judith Regan, fired.
Now, the increasing coarseness of culture — around true crime in particular — combines with the lack of real responsibility on the part of brands. Fox aired that Simpson special last year; the public taste for grisly and gruesome content makes not airing it seem like the irresponsible choice from a corporate perspective. And Netflix (which, to its credit, has recently streamed thoughtful and worthy genre entries in “The Keepers” and “Wild Wild Country”) doesn’t risk a thing by putting out a show that blandly and mindlessly broadcasts Bundy. There’s too much else on the service, all of it defined not by sensibility but by availability; the absence of a curatorial hand means that no artistic failure can really stick, as long as viewers at home like it.
And there are surely enough fans of true crime to turn “Conversations With a Killer” into a hit. For the uninitiated, though, the film takes the form of the banal audio footage at its core. Director Joe Berlinger isn’t done with the story — his feature film about Bundy, starring Zac Efron, is headed to this year’s Sundance festival. But he never proves why Bundy matters as anything other than a case study in narcissism. “Ted endures, in the hearts and minds of those who knew him, like a bad cold,” journalist Michaud says to the camera at series’ end. “There’s kind of a taint that I can’t get rid of.” Bundy endures less because of any cultural resonance than because of a perverse human interest in evil. But his is not a hell of a story; it’s just hell. By the end of this extended romp through the worst of humanity, viewers will feel pretty rotten too.
CREDITS: Executive producers: Joe Berlinger, Justin Wilkes, Jon Doran, Jon Kamen. 60 MIN.