If you’ve eyed some of Netflix’s recent additions, you’ve probably spotted a picture of a young nun accompanied by the mildly ominous title, The Keepers. Or maybe you’ve heard about it: The series is currently making waves, with more than one critic comparing it to David Simon’s The Wire.
Those who know a bit about the show’s background might find this to be an odd comparison, since The Keepers is a documentary, and The Wire, for all its gritty realism, is still a work of fiction. The comparison makes a bit more sense, though, when we press into the details: Like Simon’s show, The Keepers takes place in Baltimore, Maryland, and, like The Wire, it offers a near-comprehensive exposé of institutional corruption.
But here’s an honest question: Do we really need another crime documentary in our queues? The recent proliferation of these titles is dizzying: HBO’s The Jinx, Netflix’s Making a Murderer, This American Life’s Serial podcasts. Isn’t The Keepers just more grist for the true crime mill at this point?
I’m compelled to warn you that Netflix’s The Keepers is one of the more horrifying entries in this recent spate of true crime documentaries, both because of the nature of its subject matter, which concerns murder and sexual abuse, as well as its unflinching depiction of the long-term consequences suffered by the victims of these crimes. In many ways, however, it’s this stark depiction of profound injustice that makes The Keepers a valuable, albeit challenging, watch.
The series revolves around the unsolved murder of Catherine Cesnik, which took place in Baltimore in 1969. By all accounts, Cesnik was one of the most revered teachers at Archbishop Keough High School, a prestigious all-girls institute that billed itself as a Catholic bastion of female empowerment. Her former students describe her as a person whose outward beauty matched her heart. She was more than a teacher to many of these young girls; she was a trusted mentor and confidant.
When Cesnik’s body was discovered at a local garbage dump, it sent shockwaves across the community. Friends and family were devastated. For some of her students, however, sorrow was compounded with dread as the details of the murder began to look less random and more like a conspiracy. Despite these mounting suspicions, though, the murder remained a mystery.
Though the investigation is still ongoing, not everyone was willing to leave the matter to the Baltimore police department. Two of Cesnik’s former students, Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, are retired from their respective professions (Hoskins was a teacher, Schaub a nurse) and now devote their energies to solving the murder of their beloved teacher.
Hawkeyed and determined, Hoskins handles the first-person chores: cold calls, interviews, coffee, lunch, and dinner appointments. Pretty, shy, and resourceful, Schaub is the researcher whose main appetite is for “data” rather than speculative anecdotes, legal hunches, and personal intuition. She’s even developed her own crude filing system for the information she’s accumulated over the years. In the documentary, these two D.I.Y. detectives function as stand-ins for the audience.
Understandably, much has been made of the ways in which shows like The Keepers place the onus on the American public to take action: The wildly popular “Serial” podcast, for instance, led to a renewed interest in Adnan Syed’s case, and was thus instrumental in securing his retrial, and HBO’s The Jinx provided prosecutors with valuable information on real estate scion Robert Durst. Meanwhile, with its alarming portrait of police intimidation, flagrant procedural disregard, and legal ineptitude, Netflix’s controversial Making a Murderer docuseries galvanized the public to abandon their couches and bring their outrage directly to the President’s attention in a formal petition to the White House that garnered over 120,000 signatures.