The popular culture moves along in odd patterns, shifting this way and that. A format or genre is popular and then there’s a reaction against it, sometimes propelled by new technology and sometimes just by human curiosity.
When CSI: Crime Scene Investigation arrived on CBS 20 years ago, it offered something new – a procedural forensics crime drama that relied heavily on the audience’s belief that cutting-edge science took the guesswork out of crime-solving. The show, its spinoffs and shows that imitated it were often unnervingly explicit, especially in depicting sexual fetishism, but also unnervingly admiring of science-based police work.
Real crime-solving is never as cut and dried as depicted on such TV shows and the rise of the true-crime genre, first in podcasts and then in documentary series on streaming services, was the inevitable reaction to CSI-like crime-solving drama. The key ingredients for successful, gripping true-crime docuseries are a murder, a puzzle, possible miscarriage of justice and possible mistakes or bias by those in authority.
The Oland Murder (starts Wednesday, CBC, 9 p.m.) has the key ingredients by the bucketful. CBC’s four-part look at the murder of Richard Oland, of the Moosehead Breweries family, and what happened after, is terrific true-crime storytelling. CBC says, “The Oland Murder offers viewers extraordinary and unprecedented access to the accused, his legal team and their private investigators.” That’s not an idle boast. The story is both sensational and macabre, but it isn’t presented as sensationalism. It just digs deeper and deeper with impressive insider access to key players.
We are first given a portrait of “small, foggy” Saint John, New Brunswick. That’s where, on a warm July evening in 2011, Richard Oland was brutally murdered in his office. At first, the visuals seem a bit overstated, but when the brutality of the murder is made clear, they don’t seem overstated at all. Then we hear the voice of Dennis Oland saying, “A small-town police force decided that I killed my father.”
Dennis Oland immediately became the police’s only suspect. You can see why, at the beginning of this tangled tale. The story takes place at the intersection of class, money, power and tricky family dynamics. Assumptions were made on that basis. There was evidence that Dennis had visited his father at around the time of death. There was evidence that Dennis had money troubles. There was history: a successful, abrasive father having a sometimes-tense relationship with his son.
That son was convicted of second-degree murder and sent to prison. He insisted on his innocence. After he spent 10 months in prison, the original verdict was overturned, Dennis Oland was released and a new trial ordered. That’s the point at which this series really starts. Series director Deborah Wainwright persuaded Dennis Oland, his mother and other family members to participate in the project. But it’s not just that access that gives the series depth and force. CBC’s regional resources and archives are a huge part of it.
By the end of the first hour, it becomes clear that Dennis Oland’s defence team has issues with the original police investigation. An extraordinary number of people wandered through the crime scene. And that’s not the only suggestion of incompetence. As one of the defence lawyers says with contempt, “You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to think you might check the bathroom to see if the killer cleaned up.” What arises, as often happens in genuinely gripping true-crime series, is the possibility that the police had a tunnel-vision approach and could not be shifted from their first assumption, no matter how much contrary evidence piled up.
We get to see inside defence team meetings and hear from local reporters and forensic experts. We witness the arrival into the story of a woman, allegedly Richard Oland’s mistress, who was in touch with him on the day of the murder. We hear a lot about a missing cellphone and where it might have been in the hours after the crime. What we don’t get is footage from inside the courtroom. For that, the series uses animation that’s rooted in courtroom sketches. It takes a while to adapt to this technique but it works.
This is a gripping, sobering account of a grisly murder, the knotted legal case that followed and it is insightful about the social landscape of one very particular part of Canada. All four episodes are available for streaming on CBC Gem.
With that, I leave you for a few days. Enjoy what you watch, be good to each other and wash your hands often. Back next week.
Editor’s note: (March 5, 2020): Due to erroneous information from the broadcaster, a previous version of this review said all four episodes were not yet available on CBC Gem.
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