A reason for coming to the TV Critics Press Tour is to get a handle on what's happening in TV for the next several months. To see, in advance, some productions, and listen to the pitch from the producers and participants.
So I'll tell you now – HBO's got a big one coming. It's not a drama or a comedy. It's a true-crime documentary. The six-part miniseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (starts Sunday, Feb. 8) gives us the most intriguing character in midseason TV. And he's real. You couldn't dream up Robert Durst and not meet a skeptical audience. But he's absolutely real, he's rich and he's linked to three murders.
How it all began is as bizarre as the tale told. A portion of Durst's story, and the legends around him, was the basis for the movie All Good Things, released in 2010. In it, Ryan Gosling plays a Durst-like man and Kirsten Dunst plays his wife, a woman who disappears and her husband is the suspect. According to director Andrew Jarecki, a few weeks before the film opened he heard from Durst himself who said he wanted to chat. Previously, Durst had declined to talk to any media about his life and the accusations against him.
Durst, now 71, is the heir to a Manhattan real estate fortune. In 2001, in Galveston, Tex., Durst admitted to the murder and dismemberment of neighbour Morris Black. He dumped the body parts in Galveston Bay. That's how the series opens. Galveston cops, still awed by the strangeness of the case, talk about their investigation. What they discovered was beyond bizarre. Their suspect was a rich New Yorker who had a cross-dressing alter ego under the name Dorothy Ciner. The suspect fled but was arrested for shoplifting in Pennsylvania. He stole a sandwich, some Band-Aids and a newspaper while having more than $500 cash in his pocket and $30,000 in his car.
Durst was acquitted after a bizarre trial, although he did jail time for other charges. The Galveston case was the third time that he had been linked to a serious crime. He was questioned but never charged in the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen McCormack, and in the killing of his friend Susan Berman.
What makes the HBO series a must-see is Durst himself. He's a mesmerizing oddball, and Jarecki, who made the classic documentary Capturing the Friedmans, has spent four years talking to him and scrutinizing his life. "Bob Durst knows where you're going with your questions about a dozen questions in advance," Jarecki told the TV critics. "He's uncannily bright."
He added: "When you shake hands with him, you can't shake the feeling that this was a guy who admitted to dismembering his neighbour. You can't not feel that when you're touching his hand."
A good deal of the series is about Durst's relationship with the rest of his family, most of whom have restraining orders against him. Durst agreed to give up any claim to the fortune he might inherit several years ago, in return for a one-time payout of $65-million.
His brother, Douglas, who now runs the family real estate company, declined to participate in The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. But he made his feelings known recently, in anticipation of the series airing. He told The New York Times that his brother is "incapable of telling the truth. He is a true psychopath, beyond any emotions. That's why he does things, so he can experience the emotions that other people have vicariously. Because he has absolutely none of his own."
Jarecki shrugged off the remarks when asked about them, saying: "I'll be interested to see if they decide to sue us." He also said he's dubious about Douglas's analysis of his brother.
What viewers will see in Robert Durst is someone who cannot be categorized. At first, there is the temptation to view him as a clever psychopath who happens to have the wealth to dodge the law. But Durst transcends that. And the tangled tale of his involvement with various murders beggars easy explanation.
HBO has lots of fiction on its schedule, from the upcoming and demented satire The Brink (about geopolitics, spies and terrorists) to Game of Thrones. But none of its shows has a character as idiosyncratic as Durst.
Here at the press tour there's a consensus that true-crime storytelling is this year's fad. There's a lot of it coming to cable channels. And then there's Robert Durst, as charming as he is grotesque, and the man you will really want to watch and analyze as he casts his spell on you.