A show opens on a scene of carnage. A severed limb here, a pool of blood there, a voice-over narrating the tableau in grim detail. What happened, who did it, and why? Or maybe it’s a character-study: open on photos and testimonies depicting a man who is charming and kind . . . or (insert ominous music) is he? It’s not as if it matters much — whether it’s Dateline gore or prestige phenomena, the true crime formula rarely varies: start with questions, end with answers. Mysteries yield 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 doc, then, is to uncover it.
HBO’s true crime docu-series Burden of Proof starts in a different place, with shifting and contradictory accounts of a 15-year-old girl gone missing that emphasize the unreliability of memory. The show ends on the same note, which leaves it diametrically opposed to its true crime peers: sometimes there is no definitive truth, and we need to learn how to live with that. Director Cynthia Hill recently referred to Burden of Proof as “an ‘anti-true-crime true crime series.’” And while it does fall back at times on familiar genre conventions, Hill’s characterization is apt — especially seeing as it was never intended to be a true crime show at all.
Hill began work on Burden of Proof in 2016, when mild-mannered Stephen Pandos messaged the Emmy award-winning documentarian on LinkedIn about the disappearance of his younger sister Jennifer from her bedroom 30 years prior – but not because he wanted Hill to solve the case. He already knew who did it, everyone did: his and Jennifer’s parents, Ron and Margie Pandos. When the case had been reopened in 2006, all evidence pointed towards them, though without the original 1987 case file (which had suspiciously gone missing), there simply wasn’t enough for a conviction. The trail having gone cold, the case was closed once more in 2009, leaving investigators, onlookers, and family alike convinced of Ron and Margie’s culpability but with no means 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 unified in their belief in the parents’ guilt. This is rare for a true crime series, but less so for a documentary – which, at that point in time, Burden of Proof was. Hill’s curiosity had been piqued not as an investigative reporter but as a documentarian fascinated by the human impact of violence. But as it turns out, the only question harder to stomach than “how do you live with the gut-wrenching yet legally unprovable truth that your parents killed your sister?” is its heartrending follow-up: “how do you live with the possibility that, all this time, you might have been wrong?”
There are turns and surprises throughout, but the biggest twist comes about halfway through. Three years into a seven year filming process, with one phone call and no prior warning, the show’s foundation comes undone. Everyone onscreen 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 jaw-dropping, gasp-inducing; this is visceral in a different way, a deep gnawing discomfort in the gut, almost paralyzing in its severity. Burden of Proof doesn’t traffic in classic shock value, but a different kind of horror: the maddeningly slow experience of watching one’s whole world fall apart in real time.
It’s impossible not to root for Stephen, the show’s sad-eyed protagonist with a wealth of patience, determination, and kindness. He’s sympathetic throughout, but as the series continues its slow march onward, Hill’s compassionate direction lets this sympathy evolve into an almost unbearable empathy. The show has no real enemy, no single antagonist or mastermind. There’s just a man trying his best, a sister whose truth might never be told, and the agonizingly slow grind of the bureaucratic process (the closest thing the series has to a villain). The justice system fails Stephen time and time again – evidence is lost, conjectures are treated as objective truth, and, in one of the most excruciating moments, we watch an investigator admit that yes, they should’ve told Stephen a certain piece of life-changing information years earlier. The toll their extended silence takes on Stephen is palpable and painful—important relationships have been irreparably ruined because of a fixed belief, a truth, that has now been cast into doubt.
Burden of Proof does not end with truth or proof or notions of justice served. What it does end with, however, is the possibility of resolution without closure. The guiding logic of most true crime shows — that there is always a truth to uncover and intrepid investigators won’t stop until they find it — makes for satisfying television. But not every crime finds its criminal behind bars or sees justice served; in fact, most don’t. So for real people — in contrast to journalists and showrunners looking on from outside — the genre’s truth or bust mentality is not only impossible, but unsustainable. In the end, Stephen says it himself: “I know everybody wants, like, that perfect ending, right? … But life’s not perfect. At the end of the day, we are where we are. Which is… not knowing.” There might not be justice served, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be peace. Sometimes, the best thing you can do is shut the camera off, turn away, and begin the slow, terrifying process of being free.