Humans enjoy the macabre. Our voyeuristic interest can be piqued by films or television shows, but when the stories being related to us are preceded by the disclosure that what we’re about to watch is based on a true story, our level of fascination jumps upwards.
“Killing Fields,” Discovery’s new true-crime documentary series shot in real time, relies on this natural morbid curiosity. The pilot, “A Body in the Bayou” (a title strangely reminiscent of “Bones”) opens with beautiful shots of the Louisiana bayous. The camera then cuts to a man wearing a wifebeater, only partially lit, explaining that people talk about beautiful the scenic land is, but they don’t know “it’s nothin’ but killin’ fields.”
The show follows this man, Detective Rodie Sanchez, as he comes out of retirement to work a cold case he hasn’t been able to put to rest in his mind: the unsolved homicide of young Eugenie Boisfontaine, whose body was found three months after her disappearance in 1997 in Iberville Parish, LA. Throughout the episode, more evidence comes to light, like indications of blunt force trauma to the head and rape. The episode ends with the startling and grim reveal that the DNA found on Boisfontaine’s underclothes comes from two or possibly three different males.
Sanchez teams up with a younger detective, Aubrey St. Angelo, to work the case. While the two seem to work well together, bringing different perspectives to the case, the show emphasizes the old cop/young cop dichotomy more than is needed — it’s already obvious. This slightly forced dynamic culminates in a conversation that sounds straight out of a campy ’80s detective movie. As they’re sitting in a car waiting for someone, Sanchez, after posing personal questions that Det. Angelo deflects, says, “You don’t wanna make conversation with me? You act like I’m your wife, or your girlfriend or something, you know, like we out on a date — ” before Angelo cuts him off, having seen the person for whom they’re waiting.
Some aspects of “Killing Fields” feel jarringly staged, even though it doesn’t exploit the victim’s story or her family’s pain. Sanchez’s gravelly voiceover generally works, but though his sentiments read realistically, some of his lines sound contrived, like “The cases you don’t solve will haunt you until the day you die,” and “I think the killer’s still out there.” This is partially due to the dramatic drumbeats that accompany almost every single minute; meant to emphasize dramatic reveals or discoveries, the score only works against the veracity of the moment. The people in the show are always uncomfortably aware of the camera, especially when they’re trying their hardest not to be — like a scene in which the detectives’ silhouettes are outlined by the light of a fire, crackling in slow motion, or the scene where they go to talk to the woman who originally found Boisfontaine’s body — the framing of which feels like it could have been lifted out of “Law and Order: SVU.”
“Killing Fields” relies on our curiosity about true horror stories, but it also attempts to escalate the tension through these kinds of transparent and unnecessary stylistic choices. The true story of the show — an unsolved murder, a killer possibly still on the loose and the dark irony of beautiful land shrouding the bodies of people who met untimely deaths — is intriguing, depressing and haunting. But this televised account of it? Not so much.