Bodkin, Baby Reindeer and the thorny ethics of true crime

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Bodkin was filmed on location in West Cork, Ireland.
Bodkin was filmed on location in West Cork, Ireland. Credit: Enda Bowe/Netflix

An American podcaster and an investigative journalist descend on a rural Irish town in West Cork, hoping to unearth the truth behind the mystery of a cold case.

It sounds like the logline to West Cork, the wildly popular true crime podcast about the murder of French woman Sophie Toscan du Plantier, who was killed at her Irish holiday home in 1996.

It’s not. But it’s impossible to consider Bodkin, a seven-episode comedic crime thriller from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground, without casting back to the 2018 West Cork podcast or the 2021 docuseries Sophie: A Murder in West Cork.

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The West Cork podcast was a cultural moment, a collective obsession that made armchair detectives out of its listeners fuelled by a combination of curiosity, voyeurism and judgement – there’s always an element of judgement and piousness in consuming true crime. It’s also why we love gossip – it’s part of the constant negotiation of social limits.

An infatuation with gruesome crimes is hardly new, no matter the medium in which the tale unfolds. It’s the latest form of fireside stories or the old newspaper adage of “if it bleeds, it leads”.

As we go deeper into the true crime obsession – with no sign of abatement – so too do the powers-that-be that greenlight projects. Increasingly, we’re getting stories about storytellers of true crime. What are Only Murders in the Building or Truth Be Told if not that?

Bodkin was filmed on location in West Cork, Ireland.
Bodkin is a fictional comedic drama about true crime podcasters. Credit: Enda Bowe/Netflix

So even if the fictional Bodkin has nothing to do with the West Cork podcast or the Sophie Toscan du Plantier case, it evokes them with its decision to set its story in such a culturally specific community. Is it exploitative? Only if you have the most sanctimonious view of such things.

Created by Jez Sharp, the entertaining, sharp and frequently wickedly funny series stars Will Forte as Gilbert, the American podcaster who lucked into his career, and Siobhan Cullen as Dove, an investigative journalist originally from Dublin who has a low estimation of podcasts but has been sent to accompany Gilbert as punishment.

Along with assistant Emmy (Robyn Cara), they’re looking into the two-decade old disappearance of two locals whose vanishing is far from buried history. The wounds haven’t scarred over and healed. Secrets and agendas abound, including links to the IRA and smugglers.

Just as some of the Bodkin locals are resistant to the podcasters in their midst, there criticisms of the true crime genre. At this point, it’s an industry, one accused of exploiting victims, their families and communities for the sake of entertainment and profit.

Those opinions are not without some legitimacy but the better examples of the form do what stories are meant to do, help people reckon with the past. And the way it’s packaged, sometimes dramatised, frequently entertaining is often more engaging than a documentary, a long-form feature or a police press conference.

Baby reindeer
Baby Reindeer examines how trauma can manifest in sexual assault survivors.  Credit: Netflix

The latest true crime obsession, Baby Reindeer, is going through these thorny questions because of some people’s dogged online investigations to unmask the “real” identities of creator Richard Gadd’s tormentors.

Gadd has even publicly asked for the speculation to stop.

Others have admonished him for telling the story in the first place and putting a spotlight on a woman who is clearly mentally ill.

What responsibility does he have to her, even if he obscured her identity?

But to never tell this story would mean that millions of people (Baby Reindeer has clocked up 224.2 million hours watched in the first four weeks of release to May 5) would not have been exposed to the series’ complex treatment of how trauma can manifest in sexual assault survivors.

On balance, isn’t that the more urgent purpose?

You may not be able to control people’s reactions to your work but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been made.

At its best, true crime stories are supposed to expose wrongdoing, trauma and the truth. Without an eye to the past, of restorative justice, we have little hope of a better future.

Bodkin and Baby Reindeer are streaming on Netflix

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