A show opens on a scene of carnage. A severed limb here, a pool of blood there, a voiceover narrating the scene in stark detail. What happened, who did it and why? Or maybe it’s a character study: open on photos and testimonials of a man who is charming and kind. . . or (insert ominous music) is he? It’s not like it matters much – whether it does Date line gore or prestige phenomena, the true crime formula rarely varies: start with questions, end with answers. Mysteries give way to solutions, uncertainty to certainty. The core tenet of this loosely defined genre is that the truth is out there. The job of the true crime doctor is then to discover it.
HBO’s true crime docuseries Burden of proof begins in a different place, with varying and conflicting stories about a missing 15-year-old girl that emphasizes the unreliability of memory. The show ends on the same note, making it diametrically opposed to its true-crime peers: Sometimes there’s no definitive truth, and we have to live with that. Director Cynthia Hill recently referenced Unpleasant Burden of proof as “an ‘anti-crime true crime series’.” And while it sometimes falls back on familiar genre conventions, Hill’s characterization is apt – especially since it was never intended to be a true crime show.
Hill started work Burden of proof in 2016, when mild-mannered Stephen Pandos messaged the Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker on LinkedIn about his younger sister Jennifer’s disappearance from her bedroom 30 years earlier — but not because he wanted Hill to crack the case. He already knew who did it, everyone knew it: his and Jennifer’s parents, Ron and Margie Pandos. When the case was reopened in 2006, all the evidence pointed to them, but without the original file from 1987 (which had suspiciously disappeared) there simply wasn’t enough for a conviction. After the trail went cold, the case was closed again in 2009, leaving investigators, onlookers, and family alike convinced of Ron and Margie’s guilt, but without the resources to conclusively prove it.
So Burden of proof starts where most true crime shows end: with answers. Hill and her team, the police, the victim’s family and the show’s audience are all united in their belief in the parents’ guilt. This is rare for a true crime series, but less so for a documentary – which at the time Burden of proof used to be. Hill’s curiosity was aroused not as an investigative reporter, but as a documentary filmmaker fascinated by the human impact of violence. But it turns out the only question harder to digest than “how do you live with the heartbreaking but legally unprovable truth that your parents killed your sister?” is the heartbreaking follow-up: “how do you live with the possibility that you could have been all along wrong?”
There are twists and surprises everywhere, but the biggest twist comes halfway through. Three years into a seven-year filming process, with one phone call and no prior warning, the basics of the show are undone. Everyone on screen and off can only watch as the truth that defined not only Cynthia Hill’s show, but Stephen Pandos’ entire life begins to unravel. Most true crime twists are overwhelming, breath-taking; this is visceral in another way, a deep gnawing discomfort in the gut, almost paralyzing in its severity. Burden of proof doesn’t deal in classic shock value, but a different kind of horror: the maddeningly slow experience of watching your entire world come crashing down in real time.
It’s impossible not to get behind Stephen, the sad-eyed protagonist with a wealth of patience, determination and kindness. He’s sympathetic all the way through, but as the series continues its slow march, Hill’s compassionate direction allows this sympathy to evolve into an almost unbearable empathy. The show has no real enemy, no antagonist or mastermind. There’s just a guy doing his best, a sister whose truth may never be told, and the excruciatingly slow grind of the bureaucratic process (the series’ closest thing to a villain). The justice system fails Stephen over and over again – evidence is lost, suspicions are treated as objective truth, and in one of the most excruciating moments we see an investigator admit that they should indeed have told Stephen some piece of life-information years earlier modify. The toll their prolonged silence takes on Stephen is palpable and painful – important relationships ruined beyond repair because of a firm belief, a truth, now questioned.
Burden of proof does not end with truth or evidence or notions of justice served. What it does end with is the possibility of a closureless solution. The guiding logic of most true crime shows — that there’s always a truth to discover and that intrepid investigators don’t stop until they find it — makes for satisfying television. But not every crime finds its criminal behind bars or sees justice done; in fact, most don’t. So for real people—as opposed to journalists and showrunners watching from the outside—the genre’s truth-or-failure mentality is not only impossible, it’s unsustainable. In the end, Stephen says it himself: “I know everyone wants that perfect ending, right? … But life is not perfect. At the end of the day we are where we are. That is… not knowing.” Justice may not be done, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be peace. Sometimes the best thing to do is turn off the camera, turn away and begin the slow, terrifying process of being free.