Television

What You Need to Know About Netflix’s Latest True-Crime Hit

Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel takes on one of the 2010s’ more disturbing cases.

A man sits with long stringy dark hair hanging over his goateed face
Pablo Vergara (above) is one of the players in Crime Scene’s many conspiracy theories. Netflix

Was Netflix in danger of failing to meet its weekly quota of new true-crime docuseries? That’s the best explanation I can think of for the random weekday release of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, a slick, four-part take on one of the 2010s’ more disturbing cases. And yet, despite minimal marketing and middling reviews, The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel has already shot up to the No. 1 spot on Netflix’s Top 10 chart. But then, of course it did: It’s a true-crime series. America falls head over heels for this kind of docuseries, even if this specific example is equal parts unenlightening and gross.

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What is Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel?

The docuseries tells the story of Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old woman who infamously disappeared from her room in Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel in February 2013. After a two-week search, Lam’s body was found drowned inside of a water tank on the roof of hotel. How she managed to get inside of the tank remains a mystery. Between the disturbing viral video of Lam acting strangely while exiting and entering an elevator on the night of her disappearance and her active presence on Tumblr, the story of Elisa Lam became one beloved by conspiracy theorists determined to figure out how she died.

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There’s even a big-name documentarian on board for Crime Scene, giving it some clout. Joe Berlinger, the Oscar-nominated documentarian behind the acclaimed Paradise Lost trilogy, directed and executive-produced the series, following his success with the Netflix docuseries Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.

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Ah geez, conspiracy theorists?

Yes indeed, though admittedly the line between conspiracy theorists and “true-crime fans” can be a blurry one. In the case of Elisa Lam’s death, many online sleuths have been drawn to it over the years because of that strange video and the seeming implausibility of her crawling into that water tank on her own. The show goes whole-hog into giving airtime to the idea that maybe Elisa Lam didn’t accidentally drown herself—maybe she was !!!MURDERED!!!

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Berlinger devotes plenty of time to the different theories that have swirled around Lam’s death. There are tons of haunting voiceovers from actors reading Lam’s Tumblr entries about her depression. There’s a lengthy interview with a heavy-metal singer that many people insist must have killed Lam for reasons too nonsensical to summarize here. There are myriad clips from a movie that many people (including, perhaps, Berlinger) believe Lam tried to recreate in staging her own death. This is the kind of stuff that is easy to get sucked into, and the amount of time that the series spends on all these breadcrumbs and red herrings is as alluring as scrolling through a subreddit—a visual wormhole.

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That all sounds kind of cringe.

It’s very cringe. Crime Scene suffers from many of the same failings as The Ted Bundy Tapes: It’s shamelessly exploitative, bypassing empathy for either the viewer or the victim in favor of presenting the most salacious possible version of this story. It’s uneven, with half of the show focused on the brass tacks of the story (why was Elisa staying in this hotel? what did her Tumblr reveal about her? How did she die?) and the other half giving airtime to the many YouTubers, podcasters, and, occasionally, actual forensic experts who have fantasized about the conspiracies that must have killed Lam. I can imagine this show spurring new armchair investigators to obsess over Lam, eight years after her death. The presentation is reminiscent of how The Ted Bundy Tapes ended up making many of its viewers think that this infamous serial killer was Really Hot, Actually. (January 2019, when that show premiered, was truly a dark time in our nation’s history.)

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So … is this any good, though? You said the filmmaker was once nominated for an Oscar!

It’s not the most engaging or even the most informative series, no. There are obviously tons of articles and videos about the story online, as this series makes plain. Those are way more succinct ways of learning about what happened to Lam and why it’s such a riveting case than Crime Scene. Four hours is about three-and-a-half hours too long for this story.

You don’t have to take my word for it either: A glance at Rotten Tomatoes reveals that neither critics nor audiences seem to be happy they watched it.

But is there anything in this doc that I won’t find out about online?

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Not really. There are no major revelations, and the footage of Lam is just the same video that’s viewable online. The series pulls a lot from her Tumblr, but that’s also still publicly accessible. There really isn’t much to this story that hasn’t already been reported.

Why is this show already No. 1, then?

I think the answer to that is simple: It’s par for the course to see a true-crime doc or docuseries attract a huge streaming audience. The subject matter appears to be irresistible, even if you won’t feel good about yourself after watching it. I just hope it’s not becoming par for the course that said releases are more concerned with the theories of self-appointed internet detectives than the truth. And the truth, in this case, is that a young woman died a horrifying death, one that her loved ones must mourn and relive every time we relitigate it. But then, as Crime Scene asks, where’s the fun in thinking about that?

OK, if I do end up skipping it, I still want to know: How did Lam actually die?

What we know is: Elisa Lam suffered from bipolar disorder and depression. In early 2013, she booked a room alone at the Cecil Hotel. She took a strange elevator ride in the middle of the night. Then she was found weeks later submerged in the hotel’s water tank on the roof. Maybe she slipped and fell, or maybe she drowned herself on purpose—we will likely never know.

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