While shows like Unsolved Mysteries and America's Most Wanted stand out as hallmarks of true crime's former hold on the small screen, more recent projects like HBO's The Jinx and Netflix's Making a Murderer (and the podcast Serial, by association) have offered new and narratively profound ways of presenting audiences with obsession-worthy crimes, punishments, and the trials in between. It's impossible to deny the seriousness of the murders at the heart of those and similar projects, but it's also impossible to deny that they all felt like popcorn cinema in comparison to the hard-hitting power of Netflix's newest docu-series, The Keepers.
In this brilliant exposé of a mountainous cover-up at a Baltimore Catholic high school, documentarian Ryan White (The Case Against 8) peels back the layers of a still-unsolved 1970 murder case and reveals a dark web of power-mongering debauchery and sexual abuse. And in case The Keepers has managed to slip below your radar in the weeks leading up to its release, let us give you a mostly spoiler-free look at why this chilling series is better than just about every true crime series that has come before it.
The Keepers Is Way Bigger Than One Murder
The relatively light marketing campaign behind The Keepers has tethered everything to the disappearance-turned-murder of 26-year-old nun and high school teacher Cathy Cesnik, which is possibly best, since her tragic death is the easier-to-market entry point to a much deeper, much darker and much more collaterally damaging series of crimes that (allegedly) happened between and around the walls of what was then Baltimore's Archbishop Keough High School. Many true crime projects involving murders will take a whodunnit angle on the suspects, they'll focus specifically on the deviousness or depravity of the murder(s), or in the case of the aforementioned Murderer, Jinx and Serial, it's about figuring out whether a suspected and/or convicted person is indeed guilty of said crimes. At just seven episodes, The Keepers can't afford to focus on just Sister Cathy, because too many other damning details need unpacking.
The Victims Get To Tell Their Stories
In so many true crime stories, the victims are usually the ones who are physically unable to add anything to their side of the story. And The Keepers sadly can't provide Sister Cathy Cesnik a renewed voice some 47 years after her death, but the Netflix docu-series does introduce the world to "Jane Doe," who serves as the catalyst and backbone for The Keepers' heartbreaking tales. Her involvement goes back to the same timespan as the initial murder, but while she lived to tell about it, her stories about her years at Archbishop Keough High School are the stuff of dominant nightmares; that said, "Jane Doe" is one of the warmest and endearing personalities that you'll see on screen this year. Unfortunately, she is just one of too, too many with horror stories to tell about that school and members of its rape-fueled faculty.
The Villains Are Obvious
As half-stated earlier, true crime shows usually need to keep a semblance of mystery and intrigue involved where the perpetrator is concerned. The Keepers, on the other hand, takes little time in letting viewers know that there are zero questions involved when it comes to the antagonists in this ugly slice of Baltimore's history. The alleged ringleader was Father A. Joseph Maskell, and viewers will get to hear a lot of unsavory things about Maskell and several others, both within and out of the school's administration, and even though none of these people were ever convicted of rape or sexual assault, there's never a sliver of doubt that they're the ones worthy of the Big Bad label in these episodes. Of course, it's ostensibly about more than just what one man or set of men can do alone, and the whole system gets pulled into it.
The Potential For Real World Justice
After Making a Murderer came out, many headlines were dedicated to the further progress made with one of the accused once viewers stepped in to lead the charge. The Jinx subject Robert Durst was arrested just before HBO aired the finale. And so on. If The Keepers manages to ignite a similar flurry of viewer-led inquiries into the many allegations and accusations made during its seven episodes, and if those inquiries lead to irrefutable answers, then documentarian Ryan White and producer Jessica Hargrave could and should be lauded for shining a big angry light on the frighteningly underreported string of rape cases that likely plagued Baltimore for so many years. Equally championable are the wonderful duo of Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, two of Sister Cathy's former students who started an online community dedicated to bringing justice to Cathy and other victims. Let's get this story going, people.
The Keepers is currently available to stream in its seven-episode entirety on Netflix. If you're wondering what else the streaming service has coming, check out our Netflix 2017 schedule, and then head to our summer TV guide to take note of all the new and returning shows hitting the small screen in the coming months.