In its fourth and final episode, “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” finally gets to its point.
After three episodes of unpacking the mysterious disappearance of Elisa Lam, the infamous Cecil Hotel in which she was last seen, the fraught history of downtown Los Angeles, and even several truly confusing “web sleuth” theories about what might have happened, the new Netflix series reaches a perhaps unsatisfying conclusion: that the simplest explanation is almost definitely the right one. This hour not only addresses all the reasons why this particular case got so much attention, but why that attention complicated everything about it beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. It’s surprisingly self-aware, and occasionally very smart about the intersections of local history, public interest and the infinite possibilities of the internet’s involvement.
So it’s really too bad that it takes three full episodes of melodrama and rampant conspiracy theories before “Crime Scene” shows its ultimate hand. If my job weren’t to watch and review the entire thing, I would’ve tapped out in frustration two episodes earlier.
From director Joe Berlinger, previously of Netflix’s “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” “Crime Scene” introduces several narrative threads without tying them together until it’s too late. It sets itself up as the first of a series that would investigate crimes that all unfolded at a specific location. In this case, that’s the Cecil Hotel, a once venerable establishment that has become synonymous with seedy crime. (Or as an interviewee intones with laughable solemnity: “There’s a lot of beauty to [the Cecil], but it was the complete opposite of beauty.”) There’s even a brief crossover with another Netflix true crime series, as “The Night Stalker” briefly lived at the Cecil during one of his murder sprees. For this portion for the series, it relies heavily on interviews with the former Cecil Hotel manager and LAPD detectives who worked the case, as well as a couple experts on Los Angeles history. Even though it makes gestures towards investigating the hotel’s unique place at the intersection between LA’s rapidly gentrifying downtown and Skid Row, for the most part, it’s more interested in relaying shocking stories of violence and homeless people snapping at bystanders than detailing a more nuanced history.
“Crime Scene” then introduces the central mystery of Elisa Lam, a 21 year-old traveler who disappeared at the Cecil in 2013. Her case captivated crime obsessives the world over when the LAPD released a tape of her acting strangely in the elevator — a tape that’s been dissected and interpreted innumerable times ever since. At this crucial point in the narrative, “Crime Scene” almost entirely turns itself over to the legions of web sleuths who were drawn to the video, case, and Lam herself, especially through her personal Tumblr (which, as with so much internet ephemera, somehow still exists). In the fourth episode, everyone who encountered the case both on the ground in LA and through the internet reckons with their involvement, which makes for a perversely fascinating study of human behavior in and of itself. But for those first three episodes, “Crime Scene” barely differentiates between fan theories and hard evidence, making it hard to understand what the series is trying to do at all.
It’s a shame that it takes so long for the show to understand what makes this particular crime scene compelling — or, even worse, that it relishes validating the most salacious details and theories before deigning to do its case, and the woman at its center, true justice. If “Crime Scene” weren’t too busy spinning a wildly compelling yarn, it might have been able to do something far more interesting in taking apart the true crime obsession that makes this hotel and case such phenomena at all.
“Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” premieres Wednesday, Feb. 10 on Netflix.