Both Southern Fried Homicide and Swamp Murders bring a Southern twist to standard true crime fare. In their first two episodes, these new series offer up soap-opera style family dysfunction to the highest degree. While we might expect this from shows set in the Deep South, the campy reenactments and narration can be more distracting than enchanting.
Near the start of Southern Fried Homicide, a Southern belle (Shanna Forrestall), appears on a porch, sipping demurely from her iced tea as she describes the local social codes and expectations. She delivers her commentary in a warm accent throughout the first episode, aptly titled “Susie’s Nasty Side.” Dedicated true crime viewers may remember this episode’s first story, based on Jerry Bledsoe’s bestseller Bitter Blood and previously interpreted on an August 2012 episode of ID’s Behind Mansion Walls. Susie Newsom’s fate involves family feuds, vengeful women, and incest, repackaged here into a neat 45 minutes. Detectives, writers, and family members intimately familiar with the case provide their opinions of the case, but none is given particular weight or identified as more valid than another.
Southern Fried Homicide
Regular airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm ET
Rather than suggesting a resolution, the show uses the tragic story of the Newsom and Lynch families to characterize what might be termed “Southern” crime. Repeatedly, the narrator highlights plot elements found in a typical Southern Gothic novel, highlighting clichéd Southern codes that dictate behavior based on ethnicity, religion, and gendered expectations. It uses these codes to make viewers feel like they’ve been let in on yet another cliché, a dirty little secret, which allows us to create distance between the characters and ourselves. This distance keeps the show from becoming more tragic than it is entertaining.
It is entertaining, but Southern Friend Homicide also lurches between camp and soap opera, not always effectively. From the narrator to the reenactments to the music, “Susie’s Nasty Side” is more coy than self-aware. In one particularly silly sequence, the actress playing Susie throws herself dramatically onto her bed when something doesn’t go her way. She’s not nearly so compelling in such over-acting as Scarlett O’Hara.
“Susie’s Nasty Side” from Southern Fried Homicide
These flaws aside, Southern Fried Homicide is fun to watch and easy to follow, appropriate for summer viewing. This puts it in line with ID’s other new series, this one framed as one of those proliferating reality TV shows focused on “common people” in the Midwest and South, in particular common people who keep secrets.
And so, Swamp Murders begins by informing us that “the swamp” has secrets, and this show aims to highlight those concerning shocking crimes. The first episode gets straight to business with an exploration of the murder of Kathy Bonney. Only 19 when she was brutally killed and dumped in the Great Dismal Swamp, Kathy is the victim in a sad and twisted tale befitting a V.C. Andrews novel. Like Southern Fried Homicide, Swamp Murders relies on reenactments to fill in portions of the story that are still unclear to detectives. The show’s writers imagine how conversations between the victim and killer might have gone, allowing viewers to identify a motive and feel that the case has been or can be solved.
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET
As the story of Kathy Bonney unfolds, viewers are immersed in a tale complete with perverse family dynamics, salacious love affairs, and unhappy endings. Several of the key players aren’t available to speak on the show, so the narrative seems incomplete. And reenactments that attempt to give us a view of those characters who don’t testify for themselves suggest the show isn’t exactly unbiased. It’s also likely that most viewers will identify the killer long before the episode ends, a weakness only because the show doesn’t concede that we know who done it soon enough.
Still, many viewers will see Kathy Bonney as a likable victim, and so find the gruesome details of her murder upsetting. Moreover, the show delivers both worn-out tropes about how young Southern women should act and a case against them, as these stereotypes work against the victim. We learn that Bonney violated moral codes against adultery and premarital sex, but instead of simply presenting these clichés, the show demonstrates how they played a role in Bonney’s death. Swamp Murders helps viewers understand what roles social expectations play in even the most grizzly of interactions.