How does one define a ‘good’ true crime documentary? Is it one that depicts all the facts just as they happened? Is it an entertaining one? Is it one that tries its best to be ethical in its depiction of a tragic event that often still impacts people to this day? Is it all of these things at once? Is that even possible?
The concept of Worst Roommate Ever is a simple one. So far, the Blumhouse mini-series counts five episodes, each detailing a new case of murder, theft or violence caused by an evil roommate crossing the path of a decent person. Each story is framed by interviews and archive footage, with some animated sequences to fill in parts lacking in visuals.
The show’s biggest appeal is an obvious one: it is extremely entertaining. A very real fear makes the show hard to look away from, as we are forced to reconsider that not only do monsters live amongst us, but one of them may very well live under your roof. Told by those closest to the victims and various law figures who worked on each case, every story is captivating in its oddness.
Yet the more Worst Roommate Ever goes on, the more superficial it feels. It feels uneasy to watch an apparently traumatized victim retelling the story of their assault, clearly on the verge of tears, while the screen shows us a dramatized and arguably tasteless animated version of their suffering. The few words heard from the team behind the camera are enough to be questionable. ‘That’s devastating’, says the interviewer when a woman finishes recounting how she lost her own home to her aggressor. “Yeah, I know”, she replies, anger and sadness coming out at once. ‘You don’t have to remind me.’ The anger may be directed at the past, but the intention behind making it come out again in the present is hard to justify.
A quick Google search of the names of any of the ‘evil roommates’ directly leads to long investigative journalism pieces or old news articles reporting on their court proceedings. While there is no doubt that Netflix and Blumhouse had the consent of the original authors to use their work as a basis for the show, the merits of these adaptations are hard to find.
The show’s title even comes from an in-depth 2018 article by William Brennan published in New York Magazine, which is the basis for the finale of the season. It is only one example, but all of these articles give much more insight about the people they depict than the short episodes ever do, making the format of the show seem inappropriate for the emotional amplitude of its subject. The question ‘why did they turn out this way?’ is a valid one to have about any person who committed an act that is hard to justify, although often an impossible one to answer. The articles offer complex background information about traumatic childhoods, untreated mental illness and how ill-intentioned people take advantage of a system that is often too easy to exploit. But a multi-dimensional, incomplete answer is most likely not entertaining enough for a show such as Worst Roommate Ever, where depicting people as evil in the flesh with no discernible reason gathers much stronger reactions from an audience.
The dissonance between the format of the show and its content gets more and more obvious with every new episode, making the show a hard watch at times. As hard as the show tries to make it seem right, ominous music and cheap cliffhangers don’t mix well with grieving family members and people forced into homelessness. At no point does the show redirect to ways to help those who lost their homes or offer any bigger insight on the way the housing market is regulated. Although easy to watch and without a doubt choosing the right stories for what it attempts to do, Worst Roommate Ever is cheap entertainment at the price of ethics with the aesthetic value of a clickbait YouTube video, and there are few excuses explaining why Netflix and Blumhouse couldn’t do better.
Worst Roommate Ever begins streaming on Netflix starting March 1
by Callie Hardy
Callie (she/her) is a Belgian New Media student currently living in Dublin. She enjoys female-fronted horror, nostalgic adaptations of childhood classics and every outfit Blake Lively wears in A Simple Favor. She’s usually pretty honest, but if you catch her saying that her favourite film is anything other than Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events, you should know that she’s lying. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Letterboxd.