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9 of the Best Crime Dramas Based on True Events

Based on true crimes, these captivating dramas deliver compelling storytelling.

When They See Us, a crime drama
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  • Photo Credit: Netflix

Thanks to podcasts and documentaries, the true crime genre has exploded in popularity recently. But filmmakers, writers, and directors have been bringing the captivating drama of true crime to live on both big and small screens for decades. Most of the stories behind these real-life events are shocking on their own, but add in powerful acting, razor-sharp cinematography, and riveting dialogue, and they are transformed into addictive narratives you simply can’t look away from. We’ve gathered nine of the best true crime dramas that you can binge right now.

Related: 10 Must-Watch Crime Shows to Binge This Mystery Month on BritBox

The Serpent

The Sepent, a crime drama
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  • Photo Credit: BBC One

Set in the mid-1970’s, The Serpent brings to life the thirty-year investigation that eventually brought the serial killer known as “the Serpent” to justice. Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) and his girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) drugged and robbed Western backpackers as they made their way traveled through Bangkok. But when two Dutch tourists end up murdered, diplomat (Billy Howle) embarks on an obsessive crusade to investigate the crime and hunt down the killers.

Related: 8 Mysteries and Thrillers Based on True Events 

Mindhunter

Mindhunter television show
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  • Photo Credit: Netflix

Most true crime aficionado’s are familiar with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. Mindhunter follows FBI Agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany), who along with psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) begin interviewing convicted serial killers in order to understand how to use their psychology to catch future criminals. Though the three main characters are only based on real people, the killers and their crimes are portrayed accurately, with many of the dialogue lifted straight from the real interviews.

Related: 10 Bingeable Shows to Keep the Holidays Weird 

When They See Us

When They See Us, a crime drama
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  • Photo Credit: Netflix

In 1989, the Central Park jogger case became the most publicized case (at the time) and divided not just New York City, but the nation. We now know that the five teenagers accused, arrested, and convicted of the crime are innocent and has become one of the most famous examples of racial profiling and how individuals can be unfairly discriminated against and targeted by the legal system and the media. 

Related: 15 Must-Read Mysteries and Thrillers by Diverse Authors

Director Ava DuVernay brings those shocking and horrific events to life, starting with life in Harlem before the jogger was found and ending with their eventual exoneration, in this four-part crime drama. Within the first month, the miniseries had been watched by over 23 million viewers. In addition to being widely praised, it was nominated for 23 awards, taking home 11 wins.

Foxcatcher

Foxcatchers, a crime drama with Channing Tatum
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  • Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Starring Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher follows multimillionaire John du Pont (Carrell) as he recruits 1984 Olympic gold medal wrestling brothers David (Ruffalo) and Mark Schultz (Tatum) to help coach U.S. wrestlers in a private Foxcatcher wrestling team. The movie begins when the brothers are approached by du Pont, building in a quiet, creepy tension as Mark desperately tries to win John’s approval while John does the same towards Dave. It’s a dark look into how obsession, competition, and power can twist together with horrifying consequences.

Related: 24 Classic Film Noir Movies Every Mystery Buff Should Watch

The Act

The Act, a crime drama
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  • Photo Credit: Hulu

Based on the heartbreaking true story about how Gypsy Rose Blanchard went from being the victim of her mother’s crimes to murdering her. Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette) is overprotective of her daughter (Joey King). Gypsy Rose has always struggled with various illnesses, but as she gets older wants to assert her independence. But when Gypsy discovers that her illness is a lie, she asks her boyfriend to kill her mother. Every moment in all eight episodes of The Act is filled with tension and dread, creating a nauseating story that builds like slow-acting poison.

Related: 12 Domestic Thrillers That Make You Read Between the Lies

Monster

Monster with Charlize Theron
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  • Photo Credit: Newmarket Films

Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) moved to Daytona Beach to start over. And when she meets Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), she thinks maybe the two have a chance. But to make money, Wuornos works as a prostitute where she kills a man who sexually assaults her. Over the next twelve months, she kills seven men before Wall eventually ties her to the crimes. Monster is loosely based on the actual murders Wuornos committed between 1989 and 1990. The movie follows that violent year, ending with her execution in 2002.

Monster was a smashing success when released. It made over $64 million and was highly praised. Charlize Theron was commended for her spectacular performance and won multiple awards for the role.

Narcos

Narcos, a Netflix crime show
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  • Photo Credit: Netflix

Told from the perspective of American DEA Agent Steve Murphy, Narcos documents his time working in Columbia tracking drug cartels in the 1970’s. In season one and two, we follow Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura) as he begins his career as a cocaine trafficker and becomes one of the notorious cartel leaders inciting violence across both Columbia and the United States. Steve Murphy (Boyd Murphy) and Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal) are tasked with bringing down Escobar, and later the Cali cartel. The show led to a spin-off series moving from Columbia to Mexico in Narcos: Mexico, continuing to bring the drug war to life in vivid, violent, and breathtaking detail.

Related: 8 Must-Read Crime Thriller Books

Dirty John

Dirty John, a crime drama

A true crime anthology series, Dirty John is based on the podcast of the same name. The podcast and first season of the show follows John Meehan (Eric Bana) as he lies and manipulates businesswoman Debra Newell (Connie Britton), ensnaring her in a web of lies that escalates to abuse that extended to her daughter Terra (Julia Garner). Season two focuses on the true story of Betty Broderick (Amanda Peet) as her marriage to Dan Broderick (Christian Slater) breaks down and ends with his murder. With an all-star cast, the series is an entertaining and scandalous glimpse into two very different crimes. 

Zodiac

Zodiac, a crime film with Jake Gyllenhaal
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  • Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Directed by David Fincher, Zodiac takes the viewer inside the manhunt for the elusive killer of one of the United States most infamous crimes. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the Zodiac killer taunted police by sending them ciphers, bloody clothing, and direct letters, threatening to murder a dozen people if his letters weren’t published. Political cartoonish Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) work with Inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) to try and identify the killer.

Considered one of the best crime dramas of all time, Zodiac works hard to capture the facts of the case alongside the nuance of the real-life people who drove the investigation. The murders aren’t the focus as much as the detective work, and as the case remains open and unsolved, the film is a compelling reminder into the hard work and thankless determination an entire city put into trying to find a killer.