One of the things that’s so appealing about true crime is that the narrative attraction comes ready-made, no heavy lifting required. Something dramatic has already occurred, and it happened right here in the real world. There’s a victim, an aggressor, the vicarious adrenaline rush of the salacious details, and the knowledge that, unlike fictional crime, nothing is too random, bizarre, or outlandish—everything is pre-justified in advance by the knowledge that it all really happened.
Director Joe Berlinger presumably knows all this by heart. The director of the landmark Paradise Lost trilogy of films about the West Memphis Three, as well as numerous other documentaries (Whitey: United States Of America V. James J. Bulger, Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster) and TV docuseries, has an uncanny knack for both cracking open sprawling, messy true-life narratives, as well as finding surprises and complications in stories that appear open-and-shut on first glance. Which is why it’s surprising he’s chosen to succumb to some of the more generic trappings of Investigation Discovery-style reality TV. Whether it was network-noted into a more reductive framework or Berlinger simply erred too far on one side of his usual balancing act between illuminating and activist button-pushing (who’s to say where these decisions end up happening), Gone: The Forgotten Women Of Ohio often comes across as unnecessarily pandering and a little tabloid-esque.
Luckily, the material Berlinger has to work with is so inherently compelling, the show often rises above its structural weaknesses through the simple value of having an incredible story to tell. Gone centers on the town of Chillicothe, Ohio, where six women went missing over the course of roughly a year. Ranging in age from early 20s to late 30s, all of them had struggled with drugs, particularly heroin, and each had occasionally turned to prostitution to feed their addiction. By the time Berlinger’s team arrives to begin exploring the individual cases—in an effort to see if they’re all linked, and if so, to find the ones responsible—four of the women have been found dead, and enough time has passed to make hopes of finding the other two alive less plausible. Putting together a team that includes a forensics specialist and former FBI profiler, Berlinger sets out to do what the police of Chillicothe have not, a fact that lingers uneasily in the air every time he turns his camera on members of local law enforcement.
Despite a rushed beginning that sacrifices coherence for a burst of intensity, the cases quickly take on a scale and scope as complicated and involved as anything on The Wire. By the end of the first episode, you’ll be forgiven for shaking your head in bafflement at the contradictory accounts given even by those not under investigation. And by the conclusion of the second and third episodes, everything you thought you knew about the cases gets thrown into question all over again. What at first looks like an investigation into the possibility of a mysterious serial killer soon falls down a rabbit hole of the region’s drug-running underworld, criminal informants, and a who’s-who of shady characters (with nicknames like “Dollar Bill” and “Cheese”) that would scan as unbelievable, were the whole thing not unfolding in front of our eyes. When someone first mentions the possibility of a staged suicide, it sounds like a soapy twist; soon, it’s not even the 10th-most-unlikely scenario.
All of the family members, suspects, and related parties making up this morass of drama are engaging and raw, which makes the decision to spend so much time on Berlinger and his people feel off. Berlinger’s camera does the muckraking for him; there’s no need to insert himself or his associates into the story. An outspoken activist (against the death penalty, among other issues), here he casts himself as the fearless investigator, stirring the pot of this small town and seeing what rises up. But in execution, it makes for a lot of reductive scenes involving him restating things we already know, and while it’s useful to see Angela Clemente, the forensics expert, talking to family members and uncovering things the police missed or simply ignored (a jaw-drop moment comes when she learns the police never even looked through the purse of one of the missing women), Berlinger’s role is decidedly less so. His camera is already capturing enough drama. By including himself as a Michael Moore-like agitator for justice, it diminishes the force of his documentary. (And the decision to treat the audience as forgetful simpletons grows tiresome—onscreen captions reintroduce Berlinger after literally every act break.)
There are moments when the viewer hopes for a little breathing room, a chance to flesh out the daily life of this world and its people a little more thoroughly. But the strange twists and turns of the case soon start to unspool so rapidly, it’s all coming far too fast to do anything but hold on as long-dormant aspects of the crimes suddenly flare back into light. (Not using the same 10-second clip every time someone says “prostitution” probably would’ve freed up a few minutes.) It soon becomes obvious the police are following Berlinger’s footsteps, trying to ascertain what he knows and who he’s speaking to, in hopes of turning it to their own benefit. And so, despite the cheap and derivative opening credits, the tendency toward unnecessarily dramatic editing, and the show never meeting an ominous music cue it didn’t like, Gone: The Forgotten Women Of Ohio is captivating almost in spite of its efforts to look like yet another interchangeable true-crime reality show. Peel back the seen-it-before look and feel, and a genuinely gripping mystery is waiting behind it all.