‘American Nightmare’ Puts a ‘Gone Girl’ Twist on the Docuseries Formula, Blurring the Lines Between Life and Art

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In the realm of contemporary docuseries and reality shows, a prevalent tactic involves blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction, weaving narratives that tap into the audience’s familiarity with dramatic genres like Lifetime movies. Netflix’s “American Nightmare” puts a unique spin on this formula by showcasing the police falling into the same mindset, wherein life seems to consciously imitate art.

The peculiar events of 2015 sound almost incredulous at first glance: Aaron Quinn and Denise Huskins, a young couple, experienced a break-in at their home, with Quinn drugged and bound while Huskins was kidnapped. The subsequent search led to Huskins being found hundreds of miles away, claiming she had been raped by her unseen abductor before being released.

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As with many shows of this genre, “American Nightmare” leverages interviews recorded within the police station, TV news coverage, and current interviews with those involved. The narrative also explores the growing skepticism of authorities towards Quinn’s account, with each episode ending in a cliffhanger-style fashion.

What added an extra layer of intrigue for the media was the theory that Huskins had staged a hoax, seemingly inspired by the movie “Gone Girl,” where a woman feigns her disappearance. This connection to “Gone Girl” gives “American Nightmare” a distinctive edge, even though stylistically it aligns with the trend of reality shows inspired by movie concepts, such as Netflix’s recent example, “Squid Game: The Challenge,” and docuseries unfolding like murder mysteries seen on networks like NBC’s “Dateline,” Oxygen, or Investigation Discovery.

While this strategy of adapting movie concepts into reality TV has produced memorable results, like CBS’s controversial “Kid Nation” in 2007, it’s not a new phenomenon. “American Nightmare” stands out as a creation from the producers of “The Tinder Swindler,” which focused on a man conning women out of their money, a narrative also explored in another docuseries, “Love Fraud.” Both series utilized dramatic reenactments to enhance interviews, with one of “The Tinder Swindler’s” victims explicitly stating that her experience felt like a movie.

Movies and TV serve as convenient shorthand for processing unusual events, a practice dating back to the days of wondering if one was on “Candid Camera.” Although cameras are now ubiquitous, the way we process events through dramatic storytelling remains largely unchanged. What makes “American Nightmare” particularly disconcerting is the quick pivot by the police to adopt an approach that seems to doubt a woman’s account of assault.