BJ Novak, like just about everyone else in America in 2014, devoured the first episode of the genre-defining true-crime podcast “Serial.” But in recent years, with the culture’s bottomless appetite for grisly tales of real-life murders showing no signs of letting up, the ‘The Office’ alum decided the true crime podcast boom was ripe. for a feature film parody.
The result: “Vengeance” — Novak’s feature debut as a writer-director. The film is a dark, comedic thriller about a superficial and self-interested New York writer (played by Novak) who travels to dark red West Texas to do a podcast about the mysterious death of a sexual partner he remembers. barely. (The film hits theaters Friday through Focus Features, a unit of NBCUniversal.)
The film follows the second season of Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” a good-natured thriller about another group of self-absorbed New Yorkers — a trio of nosy neighbors played by Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez — who decide to make a suspenseful audio thread about a murder in their luxury Beaux-Arts building.
“Vengeance” and “Only Murders” represent a new chapter in our true crime podcast obsession, satirizing the gruesome fixations and worn-out clichés of the genre while delivering their own thrills.
The consecutive arrival of the two projects also suggests a larger trend. What if pandemic-battered audiences — inundated with all-too-real images of violence and disorder in the United States and around the world — felt more skeptical of all those gory audio accounts?
Or as someone put it to Novak’s character in the movie, “Not every white guy in America needs to have a podcast.”
Novak, best known for playing a surefire acting in “The Office,” saw his first outing as a filmmaker as a chance to take a critical look at one of the era’s major storytelling formats.
“The character I play is an ambitious guy, and he sees [his podcast] opportunistically,” Novak said. “He knows people love true crime – as Issa Rae’s character says, ‘Dead white girl? The holy grail of podcasting’ – and he makes a cynical move that ends up getting a lot more emotional and deep for him. .
Of course, “Vengeance” and “Only Murders” aren’t the first Hollywood productions to break digital age true-crime conventions.
Netflix’s mockumentary series “American Vandal” polished the seriousness of the form with an absurd case involving graffiti in the shape of male genitalia. The Onion’s “A Very Fatal Murder,” released in 2018, emulated and ridiculed familiar “murder podcast” tropes, from the eccentric small-town setting to intrusive advertisements for consumer products.
“Vengeance” and “Only Murders” capitalize on our familiarity with the glut of real crime content that has only grown since those projects, perhaps making up for some of the format’s unwritten rules – valuable storytelling, deceptively directing. literary – what the 1980 parody film “Avion!” did for bloated disaster epics like “Airport 1975”.
In the first season of “Only Murders,” the three heroes are smitten with a fictional podcast called “All Is Not OK in Oklahoma.” John Hoffman, the co-creator of “Only Murders” (with Martin), described the track as a “nod” to the genre.
“I think it was mostly a developing idea in the writers room for the first season to examine the conventions, tropes and fandom around true crime podcasts,” Hoffman said in an email. “Although, in the first episode, the fact that our central trio were big fans of the form themselves…it wasn’t too hard to wonder why people love these stories.”
“Vengeance” and “Only Murders” share some thematic concerns — protagonists who see murder-themed podcasts as fast-tracks to fame, podcasts as substitutes for authentic human connection — but differ wildly in execution. , therefore, to say.
Novak’s film bites in both tone and nature, chewing satirical targets such as America’s fierce culture wars, the superficiality of modern dating, the predations of the entertainment industry and the ravages of the coronavirus epidemic. opioids. The atmosphere is sometimes disturbing; Novak said he was visually inspired by the Coen brothers’ bloody “No Country for Old Men.”
“Only Murders,” on the other hand, gently wraps around viewers much like Chris Evans’ cream-colored knit sweater in “Knives Out.” The show features a handful of heavy hitters, sure, but the spirit of the first two seasons is equal parts slapstick and friendly. Martin and Short play characters who are more endearing and ignorant than they are morally insensitive.
But that doesn’t mean “Only Murders” is totally toothless. The show makes way for a subplot involving a creepy and devoted group of listeners to the podcast on the show, Manhattan “stans” who seem only dimly aware that the murder investigation documented in the self-titled audio series involves flesh and blood the anguish of the people in their midst.
Gomez happens to be a true self-proclaimed crime aficionado, telling the New York Times in August, “In real life, if I had met two older men who were out to solve mysteries, I would totally bond with them in the same way. way.
Novak, for his part, said he was a more casual consumer of the true crime genre. But he enjoyed the first season of “Serial” as well as “S-Town,” a popular investigative podcast from the producers behind “This American Life.” (“S-Town,” like “Vengeance,” revolves around a New York podcast host who ventures into the American South to investigate what at first appears to be a possible murder.)
Short, in the same Times interview, described one of the show’s draws in terms that might resonate with Novak — or anyone who’s had enough of crime-digging podcast hosts like GarageBand’s self-proclaimed detectives. .
“Throughout my career,” Short said, “I’ve satirized narcissism.”