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'Vengeance,' 'Only Murders in the Building' and the rise of true crime podcast satires

B.J. Novak's directorial debut and the Hulu comedy series both skewer the conventions of one of the most popular — and oversaturated — genres in the podcast game.
“Vengeance” and “Only Murders” satirize the macabre fixations and shopworn cliches of the true crime genre while offering their own twisty thrills.
“Vengeance” and “Only Murders” satirize the macabre fixations and shopworn cliches of the true crime genre while offering their own twisty thrills.Bea Oyster / NBC News; Hulu; Focus Features

B.J. Novak, like just about everyone else in America in 2014, devoured the first installment of the genre-defining true crime podcast “Serial.” But in recent years, as the culture’s bottomless appetite for grisly tales of real-life murders showed no signs of letting up, “The Office” alum decided that the true crime podcast boom was ripe for a feature-length parody.

The result: “Vengeance” — Novak's debut feature as a writer-director. The film is a darkly comic thriller about a shallow, self-interested New York writer (played by Novak) who journeys to deep-red West Texas to make a podcast about the mysterious death of a sex partner he barely remembers. (The film hits theaters Friday via Focus Features, a unit of NBCUniversal.)

The film comes on the heels of the second season of Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” a good-natured whodunit about another group of self-absorbed New Yorkers — a trio of nosy neighbors played by Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez — who decide to make a suspenseful audio yarn about a killing in their luxury Beaux-Arts apartment building.

“Vengeance” and “Only Murders” represent a new chapter in our true crime podcast obsession, satirizing the macabre fixations and shopworn cliches of the genre while offering their own twisty thrills.

The back-to-back arrival of the two projects also suggests a wider trend. What if pandemic-battered audiences — inundated with all-too-real images of violence and disorder both in the U.S. and around the world — feel more skeptical of all these gory audio narratives?

Or as someone tells Novak’s character in the film: “Not every white guy in America needs to have a podcast.”

Novak, best known for playing a feckless temp on “The Office,” saw his first outing as a filmmaker as a chance to look critically at one of the key storytelling formats of the age.

“The character I play is an ambitious guy, and he sees [his podcast] opportunistically,” Novak said. “He knows that people like true crime — as Issa Rae’s character says, ‘Dead white girl? The holy grail of podcasting’ — and he makes a cynical move that ends up becoming far more emotional and deep for him.”

Of course, “Vengeance” and “Only Murders” are not the first Hollywood productions to rag on the conventions of digital-era true crime.

Netflix’s mockumentary series “American Vandal” tweaked the self-seriousness of the form with an absurdist case involving graffiti shaped like male genitalia. The Onion’s “A Very Fatal Murder,” released in 2018, imitated and ridiculed familiar “murder podcast” tropes, from the quirky small town setting to the intrusive advertisements for consumer products.

“Vengeance” and “Only Murders” capitalize on our familiarity with the glut of true crime content that has only grown since those projects, perhaps doing for some of the unwritten rules of the format — precious narration, faux-literary scene-setting — what the 1980 spoof movie “Airplane!” did for bloated disaster epics like “Airport 1975.”

In the first season of “Only Murders,” the three heroes are infatuated with a fictional podcast called “All Is Not OK in Oklahoma.” John Hoffman, the co-creator of “Only Murders” (along with Martin), described the title as a “wink” at the genre.

"I think it was mostly a developing idea within the writers’ room for season one to look at the conventions, tropes and fandom around true crime podcasts," Hoffman said in an email. "Though, in the first episode, the fact that our central trio were, themselves, huge fans of the form ... it wasn’t too much of a leap to get to questions as to why do people love these stories."

“Vengeance” and “Only Murders” share certain thematic preoccupations — protagonists who view murder-themed podcasts as fast tracks to fame, podcasts as substitutes for authentic human connection — but differ wildly in execution, so to speak.

Novak’s movie is biting in both tone and nature, chewing into satirical targets such as America’s fierce culture wars, the superficiality of modern dating, the predations of the entertainment industry and the ravages of the opioid epidemic. The mood is sometimes ominous; Novak said he drew visual inspiration from the Coen brothers’ bloody “No Country for Old Men.”

“Only Murders,” in contrast, gently wraps itself around viewers in the manner of Chris Evans’ cream-colored knit sweater in “Knives Out.” The show features a handful of violent shocks, sure, but the spirit of the first two seasons is equal parts farcical and convivial. Martin and Short play characters who are more endearingly clueless than they are morally callous.

But that is not to say “Only Murders” is altogether toothless. The show makes room for a subplot involving a group of creepily devoted listeners of the podcast-within-the-show, Manhattan “stans” who seem only vaguely aware that the murder investigation documented on the eponymous audio series involves the flesh-and-blood anguish of people in their midst.

Gomez happens to be a self-proclaimed true crime aficionado, telling The New York Times in August, “In real life, if I had met two older men that were into solving mysteries, I would totally bond with them in the same manner.”

Novak, for his part, said he was a more casual consumer of the true crime genre. But he enjoyed the first season of “Serial” as well as “S-Town,” a popular investigative podcast from producers behind “This American Life.” (“S-Town,” like “Vengeance,” revolves around a New York podcast host who ventures to the American South to look into what first seems like a possible murder.) 

Short, in the same Times interview, described one of the appeals of the show in terms that might resonate with Novak — or anyone who has grown tired of podcast hosts digging into crimes like self-appointed GarageBand detectives.

“Throughout my career,” Short said, “I have satirized narcissism.”