Put on your comfy pajamas and grab a glass of wine. It's time to solve a fictional murder.
Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Our culture is obsessed when it comes to true crime, unsolved mysteries, and our innate desire to find answers to important questions. It’s a fascination that has bled into our TV and captured our attention week after week.
With the rise of premium streaming mysteries like The Afterparty, Mare of Easttown, The Flight Attendant, Only Murders in the Building, and The White Lotus, it’s hard to not notice how these shows have updated the genre while staying true to their film roots.
So how do these murder mystery shows thrive on streaming platforms, and what can they teach us about writing suspense and mystery for TV?
Why Streaming Is the Best Place for Murder Mysteries
Let’s talk about the first on-screen death that needs to be addressed—the end of binging.
While binge-watching is probably always an option for Netflix original shows and completed seasons of TV series, audiences have embraced and celebrated the weekly release model.
“The binge model squelches conversation rather than fosters it, while the weekly model encourages people to guess and talk about clues and debate with each other because everyone’s in the same place,” The Afterparty creator, Christ Miller, told Variety.
The gap of time between each episode allows for anticipation. The mystery builds each week as little details are released, and that growing question of “Whodunnit?” drives the audience’s curiosity and need to know.
But Erica Saleh, showrunner of One of Us Is Lying, credits the “move toward short seasons” for the murder mystery boom. Popular network series no longer have to have enough story to fill 22 episodes per season. Instead, streaming has encouraged more focused, concise installments of seven- to 12-episode seasons. These short seasons give writers enough time to develop the characters and provide a satisfying number of twists and turns without relying on red herrings or manufacturing secondary plots.
What Can We Learn from These Murder Mystery Series?
Many of these murder mystery series almost feel like a parody of themselves, never taking the murder as seriously as the other issues within the story. That, to me, is what is so compelling about this recent boom in the genre.
Like any good mystery, the audience is suspicious of everyone, but we also care so much about each character's motive and well-written development that we start to find empathy for whoever committed the crime before they are revealed.
I like to think of this as suspension of belief. We think the characters we have grown fond of could not have done wrong. It also helps that the stars of many of these murder mystery series are recognizable faces with whom audiences already have a pre-determined, mostly positive relationship.
But recognizable faces can’t make an audience care about a character. Instead, focusing on what makes our characters capable of being the killer or not being the killer adds to the series’ suspense.
In Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven, Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield) is trying to solve the murder within his LDS community, and the justification behind the murder leads to a conflict of interest and a conflict of faith. This internal conflict with the external conflict creates a complex narrative about justice.
While plot twists will always be an important element in writing a murder mystery story (you can check out how to write fantastic plot twists here), it’s just as important to remember to build suspense.
There are several ways to build suspense through the story, but the best murder mysteries build the suspense through the characters’ subjective perspectives on events rather than what is really happening. Between each episode, the viewers will take the information presented to them and create a narrative that other viewers might agree or disagree with, creating a discussion.
Just like films, TV series shouldn’t treat the audience like a spectator behind the yellow caution tape. Engaging with the audience will create the much-desired suspense murder mysteries need.
These murder mystery series are not going anywhere soon. Many of them have been renewed. Although all these series follow a similar structure, their tone and approach to solving the murder are wildly different. Whether it's through humor, gender-bending, family dramas, or deep character studies, audiences love to engage with the dark escapism of solving a murder.
What has been your favorite murder mystery show recently? Let us know why you love it in the comments!