CBS was airing the first installment in its two-part series about another killing that caused a 1990s media circus: the death of 6-year-old Colorado beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey.
If you tuned in to that CBS “investigation” — and there’s a good chance you may have since roughly 10.4 million Americans watched — then you followed along as a select team of former FBI agents, forensic pathologists, behavioral analysts, and other criminal experts hashed over evidence from the famously unsolved post-Christmas-morning murder. You also presumably witnessed one of the more ghoulish, disgusting things to recently happen on television.
As part of their attempt to determine whether Ramsey’s head trauma may have been caused by the impact of a flashlight, possibly wielded by her then-10-year-old brother Burke, investigators decided to re-create that hypothetical blow, using a skull covered with pigskin and a blonde wig as the target. Then Jim Clemente, a retired FBI profiler and one of the two lead investigators, announced: “We thought it would be good if we brought in a child who was about 10 years old, to do the demonstration with him.” Astonishingly, a young boy entered the room and hit that fake JonBenét head hard, with a flashlight like the one found in the Ramseys’ kitchen. The moment was flabbergastingly tasteless, disrespectful to both the dead and the living, and, like so much of this miniseries, which concluded Monday night, ultimately pointless. The fact that the pseudo-attack left an indentation similar to the one on Ramsey’s actual skull proves next to nothing about the crime. The real purpose of that “demonstration” was pure shock value.
There’s certainly an element of the lurid in any crime series, even the very best ones. But in its attempt to ride the wave of buzz and awards generated by The Jinx, Making a Murderer, and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey sunk to a new low for this genre and flat-out ignored the qualities that made those aforementioned shows so excellent. With more of these kinds of true-crime sagas coming to television, I worry that this signals a tipping point for the genre that, if left unchecked, could send it careening toward the totally grotesque.