THE BEST SELLERS’ LIST- Real Scare: Ranking the best true-crime programs to ever grace television

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By Thomas Sellers Jr.

Well into the third year of composing The Best Sellers’ List, when October rolls around I normally write about candy, horror icons and terrifying movies. 

Actually I don’t author much about scary movies because they are so lame, predictable and cheesy. So you won’t be getting a top 10 of best horror flicks of all time. Instead I will write about something I know very well and has given me chills at night when I was a child. 

This week’s Best Sellers’ List will focus on the best true crime TV series ever. Going along with my life as usual and doing things a normal 7-year old does, a visit over to my Aunt Liza’s house introduced me to a form of entertainment and information I would never let go. 

Sitting in a pitch-black living room, the only light came from her 20-inch television. Then I heard him for the first time. Robert Stack’s voice, the reenactments and circumstances of the terrible acts terrified me. But I couldn’t turn away. I was hooked on real-life crime shows. 

My nightmares ranged from murders on the loose coming to kill me because I was being nosey to them sitting our house on fire to get rid of evidence because somehow we had the next clue to break the case. 

From Spike TV, to Court TV to my new favorite channel I.D., I will stop what I am doing for a good case being narrated and broken down step by step. Give me both sides of the situation and I love a good twist. 

Check my search history on YouTube, I look up classic cases to what’s in the news today. These other shows have given me hours of suspense: “Homicide Hunter,” “The First 48,” “48 Hours,” “A Crime to Remember,” “The FBI Files,” “Nightmare Next Door,” “For My Man,” “Cold Case Files,” “Evil Lives Here,” and “True Crime with Aphrodite Jones.”

10. Web of Lies (2014)

When I was a child, there was no internet, world-wide web a click away or social media. Our kidnappers had to use old-fashioned methods like driving a dirty van, employing enticing candy and simply snatching a child out of the park. 

To form a relationship or start dating, you actually had to physically meet the other person. Fast forward to the digital age, luring a child for abduction is as easy as creating a fake page. And that same fake profile can bring you the person of your dreams to murder. 

“Web of Lies” depicts real-life cases illustrating most of the dangers of being online. The hour long format breaks down the tragic stories of deception and manipulation triggered by online interactions. This is the perfect show to watch with your teenager and pre-teen so they won’t become a victim and realize others are battling the same anxieties. 

9. 20/20 (1978)

Since the days of Hugh Downs and Barbara Walters, I’ve loved this show. If my sister was on the phone, mother watching TV in the back, I would plop in front of our floor-model television in the den on a Friday night to see the stories of 20/20. The ABC News program is now anchored by David Muir and Amy Robach. 

20/20 is award-winning because for more than 40 years the show has profiled celebrities, shined a spotlight on trends, did undercover investigations and hit the hot topics. 20/20 is a newsmagazine but it will venture over to the true-crime genre. Besides just murder and the classic “Who done it?” 20/20 will outline others like sexual assault, fraud and drugs. 

8. It Takes A Killer (2016)

The United States might do the most killing, but there are other murders around the world worth at least 30 minutes of focus. Enter “It Takes a Killer.” From Scotland to England back to the good ole U.S.A., notorious murders are the subjects of `It Takes a Killer.’ 

Some of the best from the FBI and physiologists discuss the case in the episode. Then they give some background on the killer being profiled. They don’t justify the murders but try to give the viewers an in depth look at what might have pushed the person to kill. 

7. Snapped (2004)

About 10 years ago, this show would have been my No. 1. But the romance with “Snapped” has died down since I got married in 2017. Now I use the past episodes as a how-to… not make my wife mad. And I look for warning signs if I will be the next case to be profiled in the future. 

I’ve always joked the name of the show needs to be changed to “Premeditated.” Most of the episodes depict a woman who simply killed for the two oldest reasons in the world: money and sex. 

It’s cool to have a show that focuses on women doing the killing. But it needs to be more transparent on the reasons. These women didn’t snap, they planned these homicides. 

This show is the flagship program for the Oxygen Network and has spinoff series like “Snapped: Killer Couples” and “Snapped: She Made Me Do It.”

6. America’s Most Wanted (1988)

This TV program is more than just a true-crime series. It became a way to fight back and take back some control from those predators roaming out there. Started by victims’ rights and missing-children advocate John Walsh, “America’s Most Wanted” lived up to its name. And it captured hundreds of criminals. 

Debuting on FOX in 1988, the young network had nothing to lose broadcasting a show expecting viewers to call in with clues and information. But it worked and FOX had an iconic program. 

The show was briefly canceled by FOX in 1996 before being brought back, and retitled “America’s Most Wanted: America Fights Back.” By this time I was old enough to watch the show and not be terrified. I used to think once they plastered the wanted on my TV scene, that person was formulating a plan to kill me to stop me from calling 9-1-1. 

This show will always be needed because I don’t see crime stopping anytime soon. Let’s hope I stay mature enough to view the program and not have nightmares anymore. 

5. American Justice (1992)

The A&E Network had a show better than “First 48” Gen-Zers. “American Justice’’ was hosted by the smooth talking Bill Kurtis. The program was strictly for those high-profiled, groundbreaking criminal cases. With all the facts, “American Justice gave us viewers a piece by piece breakdown of what took place. We got an inside look at murders, serial killers, organized crime and more. 

Those who were directly involved took us through the case from their point of view. 

4. Deadly Women (2005)

About 2015 I discovered “Deadly Women.” I was like, “Now this is a good title for those murderous females throughout history.” 

And this beloved show goes back to the 1800s, all over the world and breaks down homicidal women with categories. Using dramatic reenactments, “Deadly Women” takes historic documents, police records, expert opinions and those directly involved to profile four women pre episode. 

This show has ranged from profiling the case of Andrea Yates to going back in the day to the `baby farmer’ Sarah Makin in 1890s Australia. Yates killed her own children in a single day and Makin is known for killing illegitimate infants left in her care.

From guns to pills, these women have used multiple methods to dispose of those who were in their way. All can enjoy “Deadly Women” unless you’re in their line of fire. 

3. Dateline NBC (1992)

Spooky host- Keith Morrison… check.

Entertaining categories- “To Catch a Predator,” “Mystery” and “Investigation”… check.

Who done it element- Dateline NBC is the master of the real-life plot twist. 

First coming into my living room almost 30 years ago were Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley. They were like a cooler Downs and Walters. And the style of delivery of the real-life crime was better. 

I’ve been hooked for 28 years and love to hear my boy Keith Morrison narrate a case. The team at Dateline NBC are great at investigative journalism and providing timely information as a newsmagazine. 

But the show’s meat and potatoes are the trio of Predator, Mystery and Investigation. Predator has been retired but lives on through YouTube. Mystery is awesome with the twist ending and Investigates gives you 30 minutes of one side and the next half hour for the defense. Dateline has earned all those Emmy Awards. 

2. Unsolved Mysteries (1987)

The show that started it all for me was “Unsolved Mysteries.” To a young child, this program was pure horror. The program used reenactments and interviews to retell the circumstances of certain crimes. Other subjects of “Unsolved Mysteries” were tales of lost love, unexplained history and paranormal events. Viewers are encouraged to call in with information to help solve cases.

This show was one of the original stars of this format and genre. 

Did you know Raymond Burr, Karl Malden, Virginia Madsen and Dennis Farina all host a form of Unsolved Mysteries. 

But the Greatest Of All Time is Robert Stack. The two things I’ve grown to adore about this show used to terrify me 30 years ago. Stack’s ghostly presence and erie voice makes him the best host to ever do it. 

The next key factor was getting the real-life people to do the reenactments. They were bad actors but it gave it an element of realism. 

Oh I almost forgot, the best theme song in the genre ever and one of the best instrumentals ever composed. 

1. Forensic Files (1996)

The one show that stops me and many others from trying to commit the perfect murder was first known as “Medical Detectives.” Now known to millions as “Forensic Files” this program rose to prominence in the early 2000s with the ideal voice of Peter Thomas. 

“Forensic Files” employs the twist early in each episode. Once we’re misled by the first suspect, science starts to point us in the right direction. By the end of the show we get a “what happened” scene that is backed up by the forensics. 

Each episode, the technical experts prove there is no such thing as a perfect crime. And with the reenactments, the casting is spot-on. There goes that element of realism a true-crime needs. 

And I will conclude this countdown giving the legend Peter Thomas some love. On April 30, 2016 he passed away after a 70-year career of narration. 

Because of so many people’s need to harm others and take life, Thomas’ voice will live forever through the recordings of “Forensic Files.” 

THOMAS SELLERS JR. is the editor of The Millington Star and both the sports editor and a weekly personal columnist for West 10 Media/Magic Valley Publishing. Contact him by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to thomas@magicvalleypublishing.com.