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Cristin Milioti as Emma staring at an old Razr; she’s lying on the ground and there’s a dutch angle on her as she looks kind of sweaty and bloody Image: Peacock

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Peacock’s The Resort gives true-crime enthusiasts what they need: a mirror

The show is part of the next evolution for true-crime mysteries and its fans

The Resort begins, as so many good things do, with a cocktail. The dark comedy has its protagonist step out of her cab from the airport to a luxury Yucatán resort and down a complimentary drink with the sort of fevered intensity that suggests this vacation is sorely needed. Emma, played by the always excellent Cristin Milioti, is a woman in need of distraction, and finding the mobile phone of a young man who has been missing for 15 years proves just the trick.

There’s much to admire in The Resort — unexpected twists happen in every episode, building to the sort of high-concept time-bending premise seen most widely in the works of Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan. But beyond a cast with impeccable comic timing and impressively realized concept, The Resort is perhaps the best example of “true-crime brain” adapted to screen.

True crime is a complicated phenomenon. Its early iterations were more niche concerns, with enthusiasts dissecting the Victorian slaughters of Jack the Ripper and the butchery of Ed Gein that would go on to inspire Hitchcock. Then as the 24-hour news cycle emerged in the 1990s, mainstream audiences watched each day of the O.J. Simpson case, and Court TV began broadcasting trials live on television. But the pre-internet public feedback loop was contained, and dissection by non-experts was limited to the water cooler. In the years since, with social media in full force and podcasts becoming an increasingly popular medium, the role of the amateur detective has snowballed into something insidious.

At first the modern wave of true crime took on a prestige sheen: The podcast behemoth Serial was an impeccably researched and produced dissection of the tragic murder of Hae Min Lee, while television series like The Jinx and Making a Murderer saw deep dives into the murky waters of the American justice system. In fictionalized television, Ryan Murphy caught on to the trend and made what is arguably his finest television with American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace, both of which received armfuls of glittering statues come awards season. Many of these properties succeeded because they never strayed too far from the humanity of their subjects, with both victim and perpetrator portrayed as complex human beings that have lives that extend beyond the inciting incident.

O.J. Simpson and his defense team stand to enter a plea of “100 percent not guilty” Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FX
Anna walking past a coworker at a desk on the phone in Inventing Anna Photo: Nicole Rivelli/Netflix
Emma standing in the woods with her hands on her hips looking sweaty and dirty Image: Peacock

As the true-crime bubble grew, viewers got thirstier for content and a shift occurred. Podcasts became hits despite avoiding the meticulous research of their forebears; instead they could succeed with recapping episodes of I Survived… with very little further insight. The tone became more glib with names like Drunk Women Solving Crime and slogans like “Stay sexy and don’t get murdered,” and the genre grew increasingly gendered. The medium focused on female, often suburban, victims and preyed on women’s darkest fears while stoking the moral panic around the “other.” The market target audience resembled The Resort’s Emma, middle-class white women in need of a distraction.

Where the streaming services and podcast networks started churning out low-quality fare, prestige broadcasting took a pivot. For those not enticed by salacious, shallow content treating graphic murders like soap operas, that itch was scratched by scammer stories, with adaptations like Inventing Anna, The Dropout, Fyre Fraud, WeCrashed and Hustlers taking up prestige space true crime had previously occupied. These shows and films were an equally compelling look at injustice and the seeming psychopathy of its perpetrators, but the victims weren’t dehumanized and lying six feet under. For many it became far more palatable to see people conned out of their money than mutilated.

But the true-crime brain needed to be satiated and the content, even with its dip in quality, came thick and fast. Netflix’s true-crime library continued to grow and everyone from Ted Bundy to Charles Manson got hunky makeovers in dramatic reimaginings of the events. Even when these stories become familiar parts of the cultural zeitgeist, we return to our true-crime boogeymen searching for a new or simpler answer. Despite violent crime levels steadily dropping, particularly during the pandemic, statistics from a study at the University of Pennsylvania would show that people, particularly women, were feeling that they were at increasing risk of violence. That hypervigilance can be a trauma response, but in the case of true crime it came from absorbing the traumas of others.

Social media only fed the true-crime brain. When Gabby Petito went missing or Amber Heard took the stand against Johnny Depp, Twitter and Tik Tok became filled by true-crime aficionados posting theories, and gotcha moments ripped from everything from a woman crying about a sexual assault by a man with a storied history of violence to the viewing history of Petito’s fiance’s Netflix account. Theories across the internet posited Gone Girl levels of conspiracy and the (usually female) victims were often blamed, as if the solution for safety is to live one’s life in a state of perpetual paranoia.

William Jackson Harper as Noah standing in an overgrown abandoned hotel room, silhouetted against the light, in The Resort Image: Peacock
Sam looking shocked on a plane while his girlfriend sleeps on his shoulder in The Resort Photo: Marisol Pesquera/Peacock
two characters in The Resort sitting on an outdoor couch leaning on each other Photo: Luis Vidal/Peacock

The Resort speaks to a new era of true-crime brain rot, but it’s not the first production to notice its effect on our wider culture. Only Murders in the Building, Halloween, and Trial & Error all have a true-crime podcaster being layered into the crimes they are investigating (and in each case bungling the crime in question). More recently there’s the strange wish fulfillment of the Alison Brie episode of Roar titled “The Woman Who Solved Her Own Murder.” That neat narrative, of waking up to find your own corpse and then proving the only person with the talent and insight to solve it, seems the ultimate fulfillment of the true-crime brain: both proving that we were right all along to be afraid but also proving to be capable of seeing a truth beyond the unimaginative doldrum of police procedure.

When Emma discovers the phone in The Resort, it is that state of paranoia that engulfs her. Innocuous messages between the missing young man, Sam (Skyler Gisondo), and Violet (Nina Bloomgarden), the girl he went missing alongside, are picked over with intensity normally reserved for the lower bowels of Reddit. The show, with its use of flashback, plays with how true-crime brain has distorted Emma’s sense of the world, the text messages read as sexier than they were in reality. Meaningless jokes sent after a few drinks now unlock the secrets to an entire person’s psyche. Like so many, she bases her assumptions entirely from the stereotypes that true crime plays in. Luis Gerardo Méndez plays the resort’s security manager, Baltasar Frías, a man with complex and often bizarre motives — but to Emma, he’s an archetype whose family connections and demeanor can only mean one, highly inaccurate thing.

Frías himself has always dreamed of becoming a detective. He spent his life reading detective novels, and though he was raised to take over his wealthy and well-connected family’s business, he longed for a different path: a world where hard work, thorough investigation, and methodical detective work will eventually lead to the right answer. He is, rightly, incredulous at Emma’s approach, where passion overrides logic — appalled that upon finding the phone she wouldn’t bother searching the area for more clues, instead content to spin a fantasy based on a few ambiguous text messages.

An overhead shot of Emma and Noah in intertubes in a lazy river in The Resort Image: Peacock

Even when poring over the most innocuous of clues as she spirals, Milioti brings so much depth to Emma, a woman who is in desperate need of meaning, unable to sit with the loss that she has suffered. Equally compelling is William Jackson Harper, who, after showing his range on The Good Place, The Underground Railroad, and season 2 of Love Life, is proving to be one of television’s most compelling romantic leads. He longs to connect with his wife, who can only focus on the tragic events of 15 years prior, gently asking her, “What if there aren’t any answers?” only to be met with a determined, “Well, there have to be. Otherwise what else is the fucking point?”

To go into much more of the twists and turns of The Resort would be a disservice to an excellent program, but suffice to say it’s one of the most unpredictable shows on television, both in plot and tone. But what grounds the show is the journey through Emma’s unrelenting obsession, that perhaps if she can find these answers, it will make the world make sense again. And who cannot relate to coping with the chaos by delving into the world of stories, focusing on the tragedies of others rather than confronting our own grief? For Emma it could actually lead to answers, a happy ending, and bringing closure to those who desperately need it. Whatever the outcome, true crime, from Dateline to amateur podcasts, is morphing the way its aficionados engage with the world. You aren’t a reckless simpleton if you extend a modicum of trust toward your fellow human beings, walk home without your keys forming a Wolverine-style claw between your fingers, or don’t try to leave DNA evidence in the back of every cab. Life isn’t divided into good guys and bad guys, it’s complicated and messy and scary and joyful. Just try to enjoy your cocktail.