Ohisper it, but the true-crime documentary bubble may have burst. There are now objectively more documentaries than there are actual crimes, and this manifests itself in a particular way. In the old days (read: about 18 months ago), the best way to identify a bad true-crime documentary was to research the crime online. If you could learn more about it from a five-minute analysis on Wikipedia rather than scrolling through an entire series, that would tell you the show’s worth.
But now that the true crime genre has been overloaded, there is another way. That is, scroll down Wikipedia and see how many other shows have already been made about the same crime. You see, filmmakers are now so busy crawling on each other for crumbs that there are very few first-time crime stories being told. Maybe there was a movie about it, or a dramatization. There will almost certainly have been other documentaries made and, conservatively, around seven or eight hundred podcasts.
The same goes with Santa Claus The Serial Killer (BBC Three). The series looks at the wave of young gay men who were murdered in Toronto between 2010 and 2017. If that sounds familiar, it might be because you watched CBC’s Murder in the Village (2017). Or CBC Village of the Missing (2019). Or CBC’s The Detectives (2020). Or the movie Catching a Serial Killer: Bruce McArthur (2021). Or maybe you’ve read Missing from the Village: The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System That Failed Toronto’s Queer Community (2020) by Justin Ling. Or maybe you’re Swedish and own a radio, and you heard the Verkligheten i P3 episode about the murders (2021).
Now, you can discern two things from this glut of content. The first is that it is a truly fascinating story. The story told by Santa Claus The Serial Killer is by turns heartbreaking and infuriating. Between 2010 and 2017, eight men disappeared from Church and Wellesley, Toronto’s gay neighborhood. Eventually, a 66-year-old gardener named Bruce McArthur was arrested. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment. McArthur is thought to have been caught much quicker, but the missing men were mostly gay and dark-skinned, and many believe their cases were deprioritized by an institutionally racist and homophobic police force.
The second thing is that, however well intentioned, Santa Claus The Serial Killer is probably not going to reveal a lot of new information. That’s fine, as long as the show doesn’t go out of its way to present itself as an investigation rather than a retelling of existing information. But guess what? This is exactly what Santa Claus the serial killer does.
The story is told through the eyes of Mobeen Azhar, a reporter usually much better than that. Azhar’s nomination makes some sense – he’s gay and Muslim, which gives him a lot more authority than if it had been presented by, say, Stacey Dooley – but the sheer nerve of him claiming to solve cases himself- even is unforgivable.
As Azhar watches news reports (seen in other documentaries) and interviews talking heads (mostly in the same way), he’ll pin photos and notes to a wall, as if he were Carrie from Homeland during one of his manic episodes. The whole thing is framed as Azhar working it all out for himself, rather than absently Googling “Toronto serial killer 2010-2017” on his phone one afternoon.
There’s also a frustrating lack of insight on his part. Getting into a taxi in Toronto, he tells the taxi driver, “Canada is like America, but with less bullshit,” to a quiet but obviously hostile response. He visits a junkyard and repeatedly worries about the safety of his rental car. His final summary at the end of this three-hour series is basically Jerry’s last thought. The series also cannot escape the general loathing of the genre. At times, it feels like less of an investigation and more of a whirlwind tour of Bruce McArthur’s murderous tourism industry. These people have told their stories countless times now, and there’s something truly unedifying about Azhar’s (and the audience’s) willingness to grapple with so much well-worn trauma. If you happen to have three hours to kill, Santa Claus The Serial Killer might be worth a look. Don’t worry if that’s not the case: there will probably be a dozen more shows on the same subject by Easter.