Looking back at the year 2023, it’s pretty clear that it’s been a great one for viewers who enjoy being armchair investigators. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and beyond have continued to provide a steady current of true crime content to intrigue (and in many cases, disturb) the masses. As is often the case with any high volume of content and popularity, it becomes difficult to wade through all that’s available.
But don't worry, today we at The Lineup dive into some standouts of the year to help you find some gems! Here are the best true crime documentaries of 2023.
Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets
Familiar with the Duggar family? How about that TLC reality television series 19 Kids and Counting? Yeah, even if you don't really keep up with this corner of true crime, the Duggar story spread across all media channels to become something with some pretty heavy buzz.
The short version is this: Jim and Michelle Duggar have 19 children and live a very rigid and devout Baptist lifestyle; this includes not believing in birth control and having limited access to the outside world (pop culture and all). After a few seasons of the show, the horrors happening around the family began bubbling to the surface, and this documentary series goes into depth on everything, including the family’s ties to the Institute of Basic Life Principles and more.
Web of Death
The ABC News series Web of Death seemingly came out of nowhere, and though it likely had some veteran true crime viewers hesitant, the response was resoundingly positive. What’s so effective and alluring about this series is how it prioritizes modern digital footprints, including social media, databases, and other technologies, to help investigate unsolved cases. The online sleuths prove to be quite deft at their investigations, as you’ll see in all six episodes of the series. And if you like having a little meta in your documentaries, the irony is not lost here: The series owns the armchair investigator stance and showcases how powerful and effective online sleuths using modern technologies can be in even the coldest of cases.
The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker
With a title like that, how could you not be hooked? A video went viral brandishing the title “Kai the Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker,” where a charismatic drifter speaks to a local news anchor shortly after coming to the defense of someone being attacked. He claims to have taken his hatchet to the assailant, but of course, reality isn’t what it seems.
At the center of the story surrounding “Kai,” whose real name is Caleb Lawrence McGillvary, is a crucial ingredient to any irresistible true crime story: misdirection. The best true crime stories almost always appear one way, yet when seen from different angles, the facts change shape, peeling away or evolving to reveal a deeper, completely unforeseen truth. The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is an excellent example of true crime at its best.
How to Become a Cult Leader
Some love it and others hate it, but the Netflix series How to Become a Cult Leader takes some of the most serious and traumatizing subject material—the cult and its leader—and decides to take a lighter, darkly humorous approach. With narration from Peter Dinklage, the series reminds me of the 2012 documentary, How to Make Money Selling Drugs, in that it explores the depths of the cult by way of Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and more through itemizing and providing a pseudo how-to structure. The series effectively breaks down the traits of a cult leader and the power they inflict upon their audience and the cult members themselves.
The tedium of desk work, the cubicle farms, the stranglehold of quotas, the strain of hierarchical interoffice politics: We're all familiar with the darkness of the “desk job,” with its tendency to wear away at even the most ambitious of employees. In Telemarketers, Adam Bhala Lough and Sam Lipman-Stern tell the true story of a grade-A morally corrupt scam job. Upstanding telemarketer employees work tirelessly on their quotas, believing they are raising funds for charity when really the money is being funneled directly to their bosses.
The series exposes the entire scam from the ground up from the perspective of two ex-employees who were caught in the middle of the mess. Telemarketers is highly bingeable and extremely effective at skewing viewers’ own standards for the height of real-world office absurdity.
Stolen Youth: Inside the Cult at Sarah Lawrence
Hulu’s series blows open the case surrounding a sex cult at Sarah Lawrence college. A master con artist and pathological liar, Larry Ray moved into his daughter’s dorm room after being released from prison. It didn’t take long for him to begin luring his daughter’s friends into a psychologically manipulative hold where he proceeded to sexually abuse the students for years.
The case is horrific and disturbing, something many wouldn’t believe was fact. Stolen Youth systematically unfolds what happened at the college, complete with unabashed interviews with both Ray and the victims.
Amityville: An Origin Story
Considered to be a classic staple of paranormal horror, the 1979 film The Amityville Horror (itself an adaptation of Jay Anson’s 1974 novel of the same name) tells the brutal tale of the family that moves into 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, NY. It becomes a place of anger and rage, a decimating atmosphere that causes husband George Lutz to go mad, similar to how Ronald DeFeo Jr. did in the same house before the family moved in.
Part of what made the film so effective and horrifying is the “true story” component, tantamount to any modern-day true crime aficionado’s siren call. In Amityville: An Origin Story, the “truth” is given the full documentary treatment. The series is effective in its examination of the fact and fiction involving the events, and as strange as it is to say, it’s also got a bit of fan service, creating that uncanny devotion for the horror genre in part due to the series treatment of the history of the film franchise. A must-watch, especially for fans of the film.