True Crime Docuseries Review: The Sons of Sam: A Descent into Darkness

 When it comes to serial killers, the name Son of Sam is one that has lived on for decades.  There are many who had more victims than David Berkowitz, but his case was one that dominated the media.  Apparent random shootings of young people in 'lovers lane' areas gripped New York City as the authorities scrambled to quickly find the perpetrator.

Berkowitz, when caught, claimed that he had been following the orders of a thousand year old demon dog, which was own by his neighbour named Sam.  After he was arrested and being escorted by police, he smiled at the television cameras, an image that I believe cemented his status as one of the most notorious American serial killers.

The Sons of Sam, a Netflix original docuseries, follows the independent investigation into the case by self described investigative journalist, Maury Terry.  Initially working as an editor for IBM's in-house publications, he became obsessed with the Son of Sam killings.  His belief was that a satanic cult was at the heart of this case, and that Berkowitz had not acted alone.

Throughout the series, the words of Terry are read by Paul Giamatti.  I always find myself having a difficult time with techniques like re-enactments or dramatic readings of material, and this narration by Giamatti was a big struggle for me.  I do believe that what Terry had written was important and relevant to the series, but the actual application came off as cheesy and distracting.  The problem isn't with Giamatti, the guy is great, but more with the concept as a whole.

While watching, I also struggled with how Terry was being presented.  The first three episodes made it seem like he was the brilliant person who was the beacon of truth, and I had a hard time with this.  A lot of what is revealed made me view Terry as a wannabe journalist who only ever saw and acknowledged information that suited him and his theories.  He even believed that holding a century old occult image to a mirror declared the name of a possible killer, a journalistic low that is beyond laughable.

However, there is a lot of intriguing information that Terry uncovers.  The hard part is balancing what seems plausible against some of the very outlandish theories, such as the Son of Sam Killings being linked with The Manson Family.  It is these absurd sounding beliefs that makes listening to Terry difficult, especially when he he's doing things like holding occult images up to a mirror.

Another issue here is that sometimes director Joshua Zeman is relying on information that is coming from interviews with people who are nowhere near authorities on the topic.  A friend or brother-in-law of Terry isn't a suitable interview for anything outside of commenting on the character of Terry, and they shouldn't be all of a sudden 'experts' on different matters.

Zeman has another true crime docuseries on Netflix, Murder Mountain.  I feel as though Sons of Sam is a much better and more concise offering, as Murder Mountain felt incredibly bloated and meandering.  This is a solid evolution for Zeman, and the subject matter is incredibly compelling, with almost no rabbit trails.

I really didn't know how to feel about The Sons of Sam as I was watching it.  Terry, while uncovering some very impressive evidence, felt like he was obsessive and not able to view all of the material with objectivity.  He had two televised interviews with Berkowitz, and he was asking leading questions and forcing the interviews to head to exactly what he wanted to hear.  Terry was being put on a pedestal that I didn't believe he deserved to be on.

Thankfully, it was fourth episode that addressed my concerns, at least in its final moments.  Zeman starts deviating from focusing on the case to looking deeper at Terry and his obsession.  The image of Terry that is portrayed as a person who had certain views that he was determined to prove, even if it meant ignoring certain facts.  He was a person who was not a trained investigative journalist, and his desire to be right interfered with providing credible evidence.

I think that the way the first three and a half episodes portray Terry makes the viewing of The Sons of Sam a little difficult.  What we are seeing from him can make us sceptical, and Zeman waits too long to address it.  As a whole, it is an interesting experience.  There may be some very outlandish ideas, but there is enough that Terry uncovered to make us think twice about some of his theories.  For a fan of true crime, this is a series that should be checked out.

Rating - 3 out of 4 stars