True Crime Docuseries Review: Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel

 I have so far reviewed a few docuseries directed by Joe Berlinger, and all of them were easy to recommend, even if they had some issues.  Berlinger is generally a consistent contributor to true crime content.  He likes to focus on facts.  He gets very interesting interview subjects.  While some times his projects veer into side issues, everything is relatively tight and dedicated to the story being told.

With Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, it feels as though he has thrown all of those qualities out the window and decided to create something that is sadly more in line with a number of sensationalist entries in true crime.  This docuseries was vastly different from what I have normally seen from him, and it wasn't different in any good ways.

The four part series, released on Netflix in February 2021, investigates the disappearance of Elisa Lam.  Staying at the Cecil Hotel in 2013, Lam was a Canadian tourist travelling on her own before vanishing on January 31 of that year.  The story made headlines, and lead to a wave of 'web sleuths' working to solve the crime.

Unfortunately, a great deal of this series focuses on these 'web sleuths' and the online community.  There are some interviews with police, Los Angeles historians, and forensic professionals, but the majority of the run time is dedicated to the online community.  This is a group that offer absolutely nothing of substance to the case of Elisa Lam.  They are so far from having a professional understanding of crime investigation that they conclude she was killed by a musician who had stayed at the Cecil Hotel and had violence in his music videos.  

Forget the fact that he was clearly at the hotel a full year before Lam checked in and was in Mexico recording music at the time of her disappearance, he must be the killer because he had once travelled there and had a reference to dying in the ocean in one of his songs.  Since Lam was later found to have drowned in a roof top water tank at the hotel, the fact that he references water means he is the criminal.

I have a feeling that Berlinger has a soft spot for these 'web sleuths,' because he never paints them as being inept and having no understanding of what they are talking about.  The truth of these 'web sleuths' is that they don't have anywhere near the amount of facts needed, and they have a belief that their own hunches hold more weight than law enforcement.  One says, "I've spent hours and hours investigating this, and I completely disagree with the coroner," a sad example of their inflated belief in their skills.

If the intention was to show these people in a good light, it failed for me.  All it does is expose just how fallible these people are, with not a single one coming to a conclusion that even remotely ended up being true.  If the intention was to show that these people are misguided, then it was also a massive failure.  There are a few statements made from 'web sleuths' that they got caught up in the story and went down erroneous paths, but it never comes across as the point of why so much time was spent on these people.

Should the entire 'web sleuth' angle be eliminated, this would be a much better, more concise series.  It would also be about seventy five percent shorter.  It would focus only on facts, which doesn't seem to be anywhere near a priority for Berlinger.

What is really odd is the fact that every reference to the the online community, regardless of who is talking, refers to them as 'web sleuths.'  I have never seen a series or documentary when there is a specific term used by the vast spectrum of interviewees.  When it comes to online community investigators, the police usually don't refer to them in any good ways.  The poor musician who lost his career and almost took his life from the online bullying that came from the assumption he was the killer even uses the term 'web sleuth.'  

When something like that is so consistent across the board, it comes across as coaching.  I get the feeling that Berlinger wanted this, that he desired to keep the online content creators shown in a positive light.  This may seem like a small thing, but it is more in line with corporate branding than it is with sincere interviews.  This sort of consistency of terminology just does not happen naturally.

On top of all of the time wasted on people who had no intelligent input to the story, there are some really bizarre reenactments, and horribly cheesy readings of written online content.  I did not expect this from Berlinger, but considering just how misjudged the bulk of this series is, I guess I shouldn't be surprised.  This is just a massive mess, and was a pain for someone like me that just wants to learn the facts.

There will be some people who enjoy this docuseries, but if you are like me, this is one that should be skipped.  The base story is interesting, but the lack of dedication to presenting only facts muddles the entire project.  Some of the conspiracy theories entertained within only strengthen my belief that those 'web sleuths' as so incompetent that they should have never been involved. The stage that is given to them is so far from interesting or digestible that I cannot recommend this series in any way.

Rating - 1 out of 4 stars