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Orbit of Evil

The new HBO true crime series “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” should make your television list.



With so many people stuck indoors, finding new obsessions on television has become its own sport – especially considering there is little real sport to be had.

True crime fans should be engrossed by HBO’s new six-part documentary series, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” which is part murder mystery, part meditation on grieving and part tribute to pioneering true crime blogger and author Michelle McNamara.

Based on the gripping book of the same name, the series follows McNamara’s hunt for the killer and serial rapist originally known as the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker, or “Ear/Ons” – later dubbed by McNamara as the Golden State Killer.

A brutal and calculating criminal, he killed 13 people and raped at least 50 women in California in the 1970s and ’80s – often physically and mentally torturing his victims in front of their children. Before McNamara became interested in him, he evaded multiple police investigations and was one of the country’s least known serial killers – though one of its creepiest. He would call and taunt victims over the phone years after the attacks, and often bound his victims’ partners face-down, with dinner plates or glasses balanced on their backs, saying if he heard one fall he would kill everyone in the house. His goal was to instill fear and he did so on a wide scale, over many years.

Directed by Emmy winner Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”), the series is haunting and artfully done, as well as tempered with human kindness. She chooses not to linger on gruesome details or cheesy re-enactments, instead keeping a healthy focus on the victims, their loved ones, and McNamara, whom one could argue was a victim herself due to her obsession, which led to her downing multiple pills to combat the sleepless nights. Tragically, she died in her sleep in 2016, before her book was published and the killer she did so much to illuminate was revealed.

Two years ago, a gruff-looking elderly man was tracked down via DNA evidence from a family member who used a public online ancestry-type service (you may remember stories about privacy concerns at the time). Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, a former police officer and Navy veteran, pleaded guilty to multiple counts of murder June 29 in a bid to escape the death penalty.

But this series is more than just your typical hunt for a psycho who evaded authorities for four decades. In the background is the loving relationship between McNamara and her husband, famous comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. I would’ve asked him questions about it when I interviewed him months ago, but his publicist said the topic was off limits. As with the book, the personal details of McNamara’s life add a depth and complexity to her crusade that lift this above the average true crime series.

Often when the crime details become too much to handle, we shift gears and learn about McNamara’s personal life, her troubled relationship with her mother, or how she felt guilty for not spending enough time with her infant daughter. She did much of her work late at night on her computer as her family slept, but also traveled extensively, chasing down every lead and meeting with detectives, unfailingly earning their trust with her encyclopedic knowledge of the killer. McNamara would’ve made a great journalist: She was a strong writer, fastidious about details and had a classic shoe-leather approach, refusing to be denied while always digging for missed connections.

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is aiming for a new hybrid of crime storytelling, one that focuses not just on the hunt but the traumatic repercussions for all swept into the cruel orbit of unsolved killings, which makes it as impactful in its own way as Truman Capote’s classic “In Cold Blood.”

While I would recommend her classic book over the bittersweet television series, both provide the joy of watching a smart and passionate writer find her voice and her calling. And even though McNamara's life was cut short at 46, she made an impact and seemingly inspired everyone she met, even while chasing demons.

“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” airs Sundays on HBO at 10 p.m.

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