Discovery’s new true-crime series, Killing Fields, unfolds in the picturesque bayous of Louisiana, where dragonflies buzz around swamps in the drowsy sun. But the loveliness of the landscape hides a terrible reality, as a local warns in the pilot episode: Thanks to the decomposing effects of heat, humidity, and fauna, the wetlands are a well-known dumping ground for dead bodies.
Hence the show’s title. Killing Fields follows an active homicide investigation unfolding amid the sinister terrain of the Creole State, most recently romanticized by the first season of True Detective. The six-episode documentary series revolves around Detective Rodie Sanchez, who’s come out of retirement to work a cold case he failed to solve back in 1997: A young woman named Eugenie Boisfontaine had been missing for three months before her body was found in a bayou with signs of blunt-force trauma to the head. In August last year, her case was reopened, and Sanchez, with the help of a younger detective, Aubrey St. Angelo, is hoping to keep the promise he made to Boisfontaine’s mother to find her killer. The people are real, the case is real, the place is real, and yet Killing Fields has the veneer of fiction to it—partly due to the natural tendency of human beings to view themselves as characters in their own stories, but also due to some unfortunately heavy-handed production choices.
For one thing, it’s hard not to notice how characterly the two leads are. Much of the first two episodes is spent painting a picture of Sanchez’s devotion to the case—he explains how his career cost him five marriages, he wipes tears from his face when he revisits the place where Boisfontaine’s body was discovered, and he rails frequently against the “son of a bitch” who killed her. His dynamic with St. Angelo is that of the gruff veteran cop trying to teach the young hotshot (the actual word the show uses) a thing or two about how police work used to be. Jokes about their age difference ensue. “I never thought I’d be partnering up with somebody who got an AARP card,” St. Angelo tells the camera. And later: “He’s Yellow Pages, and I’m Google.”
And then there’s the investigation itself, helped by a team of detectives from Iberville Parish. Old leads are chased down, suspect profiles considered, criminal informants summoned, DNA submitted for testing, flyers posted, and sonar testing conducted. At face value, it’s compelling stuff, offering a behind-the-scenes look at how cops do their jobs. Plus there’s a solid justification for reopening the case now, with all the advancements in technology since the ’90s . But the show’s “real-time” nature has its drawbacks. Good police work takes time, meaning Killing Fields doesn’t have many new details. So it resorts to somewhat repetitive filler scenes where Sanchez sits outside at night with a drink in his hand, speculating about the murder, or working through his feelings about the case.
It’s tempting to lump the show in with pop culture’s recent crop of true-crime entries. But Killing Fields isn’t quite like the first season of the podcast Serial, HBO’s The Jinx, or Netflix’s Making a Murderer. For one thing, it doesn’t have the same highbrow feel, despite its preoccupation with stylish visuals. It’s hard to get lost in the story when the music—shimmering cymbals, booming percussion, atmospheric strings—crashes in every 30 seconds or so to underpin the Dramatic Stakes. There’s no narrator, and the dialogue often feels unnatural. A sample voicemail left for Sanchez: “Hey, the sheriff gave us the go ahead to reopen the Boisfontaine case, buddy. He’s going to reinstate your ass to work it, too. I’m going to need you at the office tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. Hope you got one more in you, baby.”
Meanwhile, anyone who’s even remotely familiar with True Detective’s first season will recognize parallels: the buddy-ish partnering of two cops on the hunt for a young woman’s killer, the curious locals they encounter along the way, the weighty pontificating about what it means to be law enforcement, the exhilarating aerial shots of a car racing down a dirt road. But the heavily fictionalized aesthetic of the show makes it that much more difficult to connect with Killing Fields as reality. Though the Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (Diner; Good Morning, Vietnam) and the Emmy-winner Tom Fontana (Oz) are on board as executive producers, it’s notable that the show doesn’t have much in the way of journalistic or documentary credentials. As Matt Brennan aptly noted at Indiewire of true crime’s surge in popularity:
What was once a fixture of arthouse cinemas and public television is now a lucrative pop-culture phenomenon, and with this transformation may come increasing pressure to “compete” in the “marketplace,” to “stick the landing,” to satisfy audience expectations. To treat docuseries as prestige dramas, however, as in the case of The Jinx, is to ask more of the truth than it can bear.
Discovery says the show will be filming until the finale, meaning no neat ending is guaranteed. But Killing Fields would have done well to let its raw material shine through without the help of melodramatic camera zoom, or moody, moonlit monologues about the “animal” who left Boisfontaine in a “raggedy-ass ditch.” Midway through the first episode, there’s a moment where the show temporarily escapes its own theatricality, when Sanchez and St. Angelo interview “Ms. Elizabeth,” who discovered Boisfontaine’s body 18 years ago. “She smelled really sweet,” is how the woman describes encountering the corpse. “God just made us smell a little sweeter, animals smell a bit muskier. It’s an ugly smell but it’s sweet.” It’s a scene Killing Fields should have more of; where the darkness of the details doesn’t need to be announced, because it speaks for itself.