I was deciding between a fruit cup and a brownie in a New York convention center on a recent Saturday afternoon when a willowy, white-haired woman in a jean skirt, bright pink tee and chunky glasses began dancing to the canned music. She eventually positioned herself near a merchandise table that was offering t-shirts for 25 bucks and bobbleheads for not much less.
It was the midway point of IDCon, a sort of Comic Con for true crime TV buffs, and the woman's pink shirt had the convention's logo emblazoned across its center. This was a real fan, I thought. I'd been talking with a bunch of these people all afternoon, trying to understand why roughly 200 of them were compelled to set aside much of their Saturday listening to B-list television personalities talk about murderous entertainment.
I introduced myself, but just when I was about to turn on my voice recorder, the woman chuckled.
"I'm Joe Kenda's wife," she said, motioning to the large screen at the front of the room. There he was, on camera, previewing season six of Homicide Hunter. Then the clip changed to a younger version of Kenda, a former detective in Colorado Springs, played by the actor Carl Marino.
"Now tell me," Kenda's wife, whose name I later learned was Mary Kathleen, continued. "Do you think that young man looks like my husband? My daughter and I think so, but Joe and our son don't at all."
I stared at the screen a few more seconds. There was definitely a hint of resemblance, but they weren't exactly lookalikes, and I said as much.
"Oh, that's so diplomatic," she replied.
By this time, the music had cut out and an announcement over the PA implored attendees to get back to their seats. I snatched one of the few remaining brownies, the fruit alternative having long since vanished.
A few minutes later, Kenda appeared on stage to whoops and hollers, ready to tell stories of long-ago homicide detective exploits in the unscripted raconteur style that catapulted him into genre celebrity. (His name was the single most frequently uttered moniker, fictional or otherwise, I heard all day.) But midway through his speech, a queasy feeling washed over me. Maybe it was fatigue from the early morning flight, or the brownie, hastily inhaled for a sugar boost.
Or maybe it was more complicated than all that.
True crime is in a strange place in American culture right now. Not so long ago, it was the bastard stepchild of storytelling, a way for people to gawk openly at the lurid entrails of murder and violence, especially when the victims were young and hot. But the fact is, it's been this way since before America's birth, with occasional blips of high culture always ready to opine on whatever case happened to bring the Trial Of The Century.
The last two years opened up mainstream true crime tales to loftier aspirations. That's how we ended up with Serial, The Jinx, Making a Murderer, and this year's double-shot of OJ Simpson on FX and ESPN. Networks like Netflix, Amazon, and Showtime garner the "high-end" stories, but there are only so many of these that qualify.
What remains for the rest are networks like Investigation Discovery.
ID, as it's abbreviated, is true crime on a 24-hour clip. The stories radiate brisk efficiency with only a sliver of highfalutin expectation. (My own favorite, A Crime to Remember, comes the closest to high(er) art in retelling midcentury crime stories with beautifully lit scenery and actors.) The natural outgrowth of channels like Court TV – once helmed by ID's Henry Schleiff – and shows like Dateline: NBC and A Current Affair, ID is less concerned with moral ambiguity than with triggering the deepest of visceral emotions, from outrage over the victims to revulsion at the murders to cheering the investigators, neatly set up as heroic avatars.
All of those emotions were present at IDCon, the network's first jump on the fan conference bandwagon. 300 people showed up to the Altman Building on 18th Street in Manhattan, according to the network publicist and the speakers, with double that many on the waiting list. (The surreptitious removal of three back rows of chairs offered a clue this might be hyperbole.)
Interactive booths beckoning comers to listen to podcast excerpts or look at the autopsy process lined the right side of the room, while the front stage featured panel after panel of network personalities talking about their work. It wasn't exactly "crime cosplay," as one puzzled attendee expected.
The room radiated sincerity. Fans are dubbed "ID Addicts" for a reason: they really do watch hours and hours of network offerings. Adrienne Miller, 53, and her daughter Stephanie, 25, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, were among the first to arrive. Adrienne beamed as she explained her love of the network: "I'm a frustrated homicide detective! I wanted to be one when I was growing up. My mom said, 'Uh, no.' This way I can live vicariously through everyone's lives. I love it!"
Robert and Robin Peterkins brought their two-year-old daughter, Emory, with them. ("She's an avid watcher but doesn't know what is going on," her father joked.) Robert singled out the superior re-enactments on ID, while Robin looked most forward to seeing Tamron Hall and praised the network's "depth"—its willingness to go beyond the immediacy of newspaper stories. She waved away thoughts of Serial, which she'd heard of but hadn't listened to. "What I've heard, [the podcast] comes from a different angle, one that's on justice and socioeconomic, and less entertaining. It seems to be enjoyable but not necessarily as juicy."
Robin's comment resonated further during the Q&A session with a panel featuring Hall, Paula Zahn, Tony Harris, and Chris Hansen discussing their TV journalism techniques and cases that haunted them. One attendee wanted to know what they thought of Making a Murderer and the Steven Avery case. Harris said he'd interviewed the filmmakers. "I thought ID would have done a better job," he added. "I was skeptical of what was edited out." (ID ultimately did broadcast their own one-hour version; a short special on Adnan Syed, whose case was the basis for Serial season one.)
For Jennifer Zilinyi, IDCon was a "childhood dream." When I asked why, her response was rooted in personal experience. "I'm getting ready to apply for forensic psychology programs," she said. "I come from a very difficult background, so I understand drug addiction, child abuse, and mental health issues. These people [on ID] are superheroes. They fight for humans other than themselves. That's incredible to me."
Investigation Discovery shows, Zilinyi pointed out, are "not about making it pretty. They get right into nitty-gritty. Some of the details are grotesque and you could do without, but it presents real life. This is really awful and need to be on guard."
They are also not so much about nuance. When an audience member asked Candice DeLong, the former FBI criminal profiler and host of Deadly Women, about the lenient sentence given to Stanford rapist Brock Turner, her response was emphatic: "I think he's a psychopath. He would be a serial sex offender if he hadn't been caught."
This may be true, and DeLong has enough experience to back up her assertion. But the resulting thunderous applause was another reminder that in this room, entertainment superseded information, catharsis overrode ambiguity, outrage overcame contemplation. We want to believe the ugliness in the world can be overcome through heroism.
Which is to say IDCon was an afternoon-long testament to why televised true crime can present, but never quite embody, real life.
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*An earlier version of this article featured a photo caption that misidentified Tony Harris as Garry McFadden, another ID host.