The addition of streaming services to the television landscape ushered in a larger wave of serialized programming, offering viewers the chance to binge a longer form story all in one setting. For a time, many believed the days of old-fashioned procedurals or sitcoms, of which you could watch episodes in any order because each one stood alone, was on its way out. That didn’t fully prove to be true, as the anthological storytelling structure was leaned into, creating standalone stories that all felt of one larger piece due to theme. And now, as these new platforms are in increasing competition with each other for consumers given the steady increase in content (more than 500 scripted series available per year alone), those two ideas have been melded together for one interactive drama: CBS All Access’s “Interrogation,” a 10-episode fictionalization of a true crime that the audience can watch in any episode order.
“The multi-linear structure, as it turns out, is how real cold case detectives approach an old case,” says co-creator John Mankiewicz. “They throw out the original linear narrative because it was wrong and just follow the evidence. In our case, the evidence is episodes.”
The conceit seems quite simple (and co-creator and executive producer Anders Weidemann tells Variety that “keeping it simple” was a refrain in the writers’ room when it came to story): follow the investigation of a brutal murder of a woman in her own home, in broad daylight. But because each episode couldn’t follow a traditional narrative structure of “setup and payoff” and instead just needed to find “strife in contrasts and contradicting contrasts,” notes Weidemann, the process to write a show that would be satisfying no matter in what order the story unfolded became quite complicated.
Weideman and Mankiewicz say it was a three-year process to bring “Interrogation” to life. They had “a bunch of different cases from the LAPD,” Weidemann shares, but they settled on this one because it felt like “a rabbit hole.”
The case by which “Interrogation” is inspired is that of Bruce Lisker, a Southern California man who was arrested, tried and convicted at age 17 of the murder of his mother in their own home. He maintained his innocence and served 26 years in prison before his conviction was overturned in 2009 and he was subsequently freed.
In the series, Kyle Gallner portrays Eric Fisher, a young man who is arrested, tried and convicted of the murder of his stepmother in her home. He, too, maintains his innocence and serves many years in prison. The non-linear story technically “starts” with Eric in a season premiere episode titled for his character, which shows his version of events as he arrived at the house to find his mother on the floor, beaten and barely breathing, only to call for help and end up in the back of a squad car.
Each episode of the show is named for a major player in the investigation or the family, which expands the perspective on such a brutal crime out like a spider web, Weidemann points out. Ultimately, the act or aftermath of the murder is shown multiple times as multiple characters offer their memories or opinions about what took place, with scenes unfolding in their individual points of view, always subjective if not downright biased.
“We were very careful to keep judgement out of it. What we really didn’t want to do was a crime recreation. So the difference is we expand on character and context,” says Mankiewicz. “Is he innocent or not is the engine, but the larger debate is memory. My sister and I grew up in the same house, but we have completely different memories. She’s right and I’m right but they can’t both be right — but I believe it, she believes it. That’s the narrative construction of our lives. We just put the pressure of a case on it.”
The case intrigued Weidemann and Mankiewicz, in large part, because it was not based on an infamous case. “I like that it’s relatively unknown in that way,” Weidemann admits. “You can’t Google the finale. It’s not possible to spoil it, so I like that.”
Fictionalizing, Mankiewicz says, came because there are still “complicated legal issues” around the case. As the writers played detective digging into the evidence to create varying versions of what could have happened based on different characters’ stories and beliefs, they also wanted to be careful to keep private citizens’ lives private. Some of the characters, he says, went through multiple name changes throughout the process of working on the show.
In reconstructing the evidence, Weidemann says, “we’ve spoken to the detectives and we have had our theories, and they’ve gone like, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure I thought about that.’ But then again, that might just be something that they say.” The “epiphanies” they had in the writers’ room culminated in pieces of story such as one character’s “rant about what kind of a fluke it would be that Eric would show up at the house in the minutes before she was dead. That was an argument that is not in the case files but an argument that we ourselves came to the conclusion of.”
At the end of the season finale episode, there are end cards that explain what happened to many of the characters beyond where the 10 episodes took them. These details, Weidermann says, are based in the reality of the real-life Lisker case.
“This is a little bit of a Pandora’s box. Maybe we will find out more things about the case that we didn’t know before — but then, can we trust them?” Weidemann says. “What the show is really about is, what is the truth, and how do we create the truth that we believe in, what informs those truths?”
As the writers were working on the show, with a room that included “a former U.S. attorney, a guy who was framed and did 26 years in Joliet and consultants [such as] an Innocence Project lawyer,” says Mankiewicz, they created boards for individual episodes as well as “one huge board with it all,” says Weidemann. “We went back and forth” between looking at episodes on the individual level and looking a the season overall, he admits, in order to move the pieces of story around to where they would be the most compelling. The goal was to create a sense of contrast for the viewer watching the show in what he or she believed about Eric — as well as other suspects (including one played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), Eric’s father (David Strathairn) and the police officers (Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio) investigating that get explored along the way.
“We actually decided that the opening episode was going to be the opening episode quite late in the creative process,” Weidemann admits. “We had 10 episodes, and then we thought [about] which one would be the perfect pilot afterwards. So we became detectives with the material the same way we hope that the audience will feel like they’re detectives into the story. It sort of redefined writing.”
The show was block shot, with Gallner often having to switch between 17-year-old Eric, 40-year-old Eric and then back again over the course of one production day, so there is no “production order” of episodes to consider when viewing. The audience is free to watch episodes in any order, although Weidemann says there is an order viewers will be forced into if they are watching one episode, it ends, and they don’t actively engage with their CBS All Access app to choose what to watch next. That “forced” order is one Weidemann and Mankiewicz chose for “as much emotions as possible and as much jumps in time and jumps in what you think about the character,” Weidemann says.
But, part of what Weidemann and Mankiewicz hope the audience is intrigued by with this show is the ability to truly play armchair detective and choose what story to investigate next, rather than just let a pre-selected narrative wash over them.
“Maybe there is a version that is better,” Weidemann says of a viewer’s choice of episode order over the one he made. “My wife watched a version where she didn’t even see [suspect] Chris Keller for like three episodes. Everybody was talking about him [in the story] and he became this mythical person.”
Assuming a viewer at least watches the episodes marked season premiere and season finale (“Trey Carano”) as bookends, there are 40,320 different ways the story can unfold by watching the other eight episodes in varying orders. If a viewer doesn’t actually care about watching ANY episode in order, including the season premiere and finale, then the number of options increases to more than three million.
Only the woman who was murdered and the person who did it truly knows what the “absolute truth” is, Weidemann points out. But her perspective is not one the show offers in a definitive, omniscient way. The finale episode does include a “dying man’s truth, and why would he have reason to lie?” he says, quickly adding, “but what if he does?”
Both Weidemann nor Mankiewicz say they feel that it is the debate and conversation that “Interrogation” will spark among viewers who come to different conclusions about what really happened to Mary Fisher (Joanna Going) that will be most satisfying because it is a more active experience than other crime dramas.
“If you try to find the truth, then suddenly the material starts to come alive by itself. You have these art by accident moments,” says Weidemann.
“Interrogation” streams Feb. 6 on CBS All Access.