Why Netflix’s ‘Crime Scene’ Docuseries Dangerously Fails Its Subject Matter

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (2021). Photograph: Cnet

Following the success of true-crime documentaries such as Making a Murderer (2015–2018) and Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019), I was keen to explore one of Netflix’s latest additions to this genre titled Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel (2021).

It’s fair to say, I was disappointed.

Background

The series revisits the disturbing disappearance of Canadian student, Elisa Lam. Authorities recovered her body from a water tank atop the infamous Cecil Hotel in Downtown LA, where she vanished just nineteen days prior on 1 February 2013.

Elisa Lam. Photograph: Biography

The LA Coroner’s Office ruled Lam’s cause of death as an accidental drowning, triggered by a psychotic episode due to Lam under medicating for severe depression and bipolar disorder.

Main Issues

The coroner’s report should have been enough to close the case. Even so, conspiracy theories continued doing the rounds online covering the mysterious circumstances of her disappearance.

This growing fascination was only fueled by the incompetence of LAPD investigators, the significant four-month delay of the autopsy report, and the release of an unsettling CCTV video to aid police inquires whilst Elisa was still presumed missing.

Elisa Lam’s last known appearance. Photograph: Business Insider

If the video seems familiar, that’s because it went viral due to the troubling and paranoid behaviour exhibited by Elisa during her last known appearance.

The footage prompted a tide of baseless accusations and theories asserted by ‘internet detectives’, all adamant that owning a YouTube channel is equivalent to obtaining a P.I. License, explaining their intrusive probing into Lam’s case.

One ‘detective’ even tasks an associate with laying flowers at Lam’s grave. The most uncomfortable and alarming moment within a series boasting plenty.

Was Elisa hiding from a pursuer? Was she drugged? Or was she possessed?

Unfortunately, these questions form the basis of Netflix’s interest in this story, contributing further speculation from keyboard warriors that anyone could obtain from a quick scroll through YouTube or Reddit if they wished.

The series devotes only its final episode to acknowledging Elisa’s struggles with mental illness. Meanwhile, the rest is dedicated to providing internet sleuths with a forum to discuss their own theories about what happened to Elisa in a way that feels insensitive and disrespectful to the memory of a troubled young woman and her surviving loved ones.

While Crime Scene features testimonies from homicide detectives and forensic experts, this begs the question of why didn’t the creators consider these testimonies enough to lead with?

One memorable account is from the former manager of the Cecil Hotel, Amy Price. Her laissez-faire policy towards the illicit activities rampant within her establishment further emphasizes how appalling this environment must have been to desensitize and resonate with her for so long.

Redeeming Features

The main redeeming feature of this series is the historical context it provides about the Cecil Hotel and its surrounding neighbourhood, which prevents it from resembling complete exploitative nonsense.

The series is set in Skid Row, an area of LA that gained notoriety as a hotbed for poverty and homelessness since the 1930s. In turn, this led to a rise in cases of violent crime, drug abuse, and mental illness which soon spilt into the Cecil Hotel. A sharp contrast with the polished Hollywood image assumed by most people.

This background helps establish the setting of this story, enabling viewers to greater empathise with Elisa who contended with her deteriorating mental health within a very isolating and hostile environment.

Skid Row, Downtown LA. Photograph: NewFinale

Verdict

Crime Scene misleads viewers by being less concerned with examining credible testimonies and concrete evidence, or even approaching the Elisa Lam case from an original angle. Instead, it resigns itself to the morbid fascination surrounding such cases prevalent within the media.

While fans of docudramas expect a certain degree of sensationalism to keep the genre fresh and entertaining, this is only palatable so long as each show stays true to its subject matter. In this case, it does not. Working with more limited material compared to similar series, here a condensed two-part docudrama would have been more adequate.

Crime Scene demonstrates how modern society continues to misconceive and mythologise mental illness at the expense of neglecting the real tragedy behind each individual struggle. In this instance, Elisa Lam was a very vulnerable person who should never have been 900 hundred miles away from home. Moreover, the programme reinforces why Netflix major broadcasters and streaming services should accept greater responsibility for what content they commission, as results risk challenging the integrity of this format on this platform moving forwards.

To remind ourselves of how capable Netflix is of producing high-quality factual entertainment, watch either of the two programmes outlined at the start of this article or view the chilling mini-series, Evil Genius (2018). Then you may realise what an outstanding piece of television Crime Scene could have been.

For free 24/7 mental health support and guidance (UK), please visit:

In a life-threatening emergency, always dial 999 first

Samaritans, call 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

Assistline, call 0800 689 5652 or email info@cspbristol.co.uk

Bipolar UK, call 0333 323 3880 or email info@bipolaruk.org (open 9am-5pm, Monday-Friday)

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Mirek Gosney

Mirek Gosney

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Writing about Film, History, Culture & Society | British-Czech | UK Based | Writer | Filmmaker | Film Teacher | BA Film and History, University of Southampton.