With the TV adaptation of Dirty John wrapping up on Bravo and adaptations of Gladiator (for FX) as well as Dr. Death and Business Wars, Wondery is hoping to build on their successes with another new true crime podcast miniseries, Over My Dead Body, covering the unsolved case of a respected law professor who was murdered in his driveway in Tallahassee in 2014. It follows a similar blueprint as the others, teaming a seasoned reporter — in this case Matt Shaer, who has written features for GQ and the New York Times — with Wondery’s production team.
Wondery is sort of an early adopter in giving podcasts the same kind of promotion as TV series and movies, buying billboards and hosting listening premieres (the LA listening premiere for Dr. Death provided the audience with eye masks while the podcast played over the screening room’s speakers), which seems to have paid off in all the upcoming adaptations of its shows. OMDB is similar to Dr. Death — which was reported by award-winning medical journalist Laura Beil — in hiring a respected print journalist to do the reporting and hosting while using Wondery’s in-house team of producers and audio engineers to create the sound and add production value.
“This would’ve been a magazine article and it had been approved as a magazine article, but ultimately, there was so much to it,” Shaer told Uproxx. “I had a friend, Eric Benson, who co-reported this with me, and we’d wanted to do a podcast for a while. Eric covers different aspects of the criminal justice system. When we started talking about this one, it was obvious that it compared to a lot of other cases that we’d both written about, there was a lot here and there was enough to spool it out over six episodes.”
The case begins with the story of a courtship and then a divorce, between Dan Markel and Wendi Adelson, two Jewish attorneys, before spiraling into a murder mystery, with connections to both Orthodox rabbis in New York (who Shaer had previously written about for GQ), and Latin gangsters in Miami. “The case was unusual on a lot of levels, but one was that the victim was pretty high profile in the legal academia world,” Shaer says. “Without spoiling anything, I guess suffice to say that what made it additionally fascinating was that it did bring together two radically different worlds in a really tragic way.”
The show is compelling just as an autopsy of a doomed relationship even before it gets to the murder, with twists that are seemingly part of the Wondery house style. Like all Wondery shows, it lives right on the edge of too muchness — too much music, too many sound effects, too busy a soundscape — but as Shaer says, the style seems to fit the story in this case, which he compares to American Crime Story or Fargo on FX.
Over My Dead Body releases its fourth episode this week. I spoke to Matt Shaer by phone.
What made you want to do [this story] as a podcast?
Look, I think that there are a lot of true crime podcasts out there, right? There are a lot of true crime television shows. I think that part of what sets this particular story apart is that there are so many different characters involved in this case from so many different types of backgrounds. They were all sucked into this murder investigation that started around 2014 and really gained steam in 2016. I think that there’s an inherent interest too in being able to create something that’s about a relationship as well as a murder. The podcast is specifically structured so that someone doesn’t even die until two hours in.
That was actually one of my other questions — I think it’s like an episode and a half before you even get to the murder. At first, it feels like a story about why a marriage didn’t work, and I was actually just kind of enjoying it on that level before you got to the murder.
I’ll tell you the truth. When Eric and I, we finished a bunch of our reporting and we were getting an outline for the first draft for how we envisioned the whole series going, we had more or less started right with the murder. We started with that, and the investigation immediately lurching into gear. We worked with these producers, Wondery, specifically Marshall Lewy and George Lavender, and they had the idea that, “All right, what if we don’t do that? What if we hold back and make it about the relationship first?” The idea being that people would care about the two people at the center of the investigation more than they would if we just dove right into it. I think that also Wondery’s done some really interesting similar stuff — Dirty John, etc, where you’re kept in the dark for a long time. There’s something to be said for that. It’s interesting to be able to play with structure like that, which you can’t always do with a magazine article but you can with a podcast.
Had you listened to a lot of podcasts before you started working on this one?
No. I mean, yes, I listened to the big ones. I listened to S-Town and I listened to Serial. I listened to all the seasons of Serial and In the Dark, which I really loved, but I watch a ton as well. My unwinding reading is crime novels ranging from the really trashy to the mildly high brow, and I also watch a lot of documentaries about crime.
The way that Wondery works is that their podcasts are really, although it’s in audio form, they are really cinematic in some ways, right? I think that being an aficionado of detective novels and crime TV helped to a large degree. But yeah, as we’ve been winding down our own, I’ve started to listen to more podcasts. I think you can start to see that people are starting to play around with the true crime podcast form. Even though this medium’s been around for a few years, people have done the true crime thing in the straightforward way over and over again, right? People will still make the straightforward ones, but I think it’s really interesting when people start to mess around with how a true crime podcast sounds, how the structure should work, and which act the dead body appears in. I feel like that is something that is getting a lot more thought in terms of approach, which is cool.
Wondery has a very specific house style in terms of the soundscape and the way it should sound. How close was your idea of what it should sound like? How did that fit in with Wondery’s house style?
Well, yeah, look, you can listen to a Wondery podcast and know more or less what you’re gonna get, right? That’s what Hernan and Marshall have set out to do, and they’ve been largely successful. So I knew that that was gonna be how [our] podcast was shaped. I wasn’t under the illusion that it wasn’t gonna have music or sound effects or anything like that.
I think we compromised in some ways and in some ways I learned to appreciate how those techniques can really bring a story to life. Obviously, it resonates, right? I have my own theories about why, but I think obviously it does. I think that maybe it’s a matter of people know what they’re gonna get. They don’t know what the story’s gonna be, but it’s like watching those… What’s the series, they did the OJ Simpson and they did the Versace one?
American Crime Story.
Yeah, exactly. That’s similar, right? They’re different cases but tonally, there’s a relationship between the shows. I think that’s what’s happening with Wondery.
It’s funny. That seems to be a common theme where as writers, I think we envision the story more minimalist, and Wondery does a good job of hiring good reporters and then it seems like there is an interesting compromise there that goes on because their house style is very immersive.
Yeah, it’s very immersive. They worked with the Globe Spotlight team, right? So Wondery has been really impressive journalistically. I think it’s also coming from a writer’s background. If you only are used to writing in print and you’re used to creating atmosphere or suspense through words and not having the aid of audio cues and music and so on, it can be daunting. Wondery in my mind has never gone too far with any of its podcasts in terms of that. I think there is a stage where you could go too far with sound effects and so on at the risk of journalism, but I never felt like that with Over My Dead Body. But also, this story in a weird way is a really good match for the Wondery tone. It’s just a really over the top story. It’s so strange, and there’s so many weird characters in it. What happened is so tragic but also just bizarre that it kind of makes sense in a Wondery tone, just as it would weirdly make sense in…
American Crime Story?
Right. So I think when we were writing it, we were really thinking about [that and] Fargo the TV show. The TV show does a really good job of… Obviously, that’s fiction, not non-fiction, but it does do a really good job at balancing absurd humor with a compelling crime story, and so we were thinking something similar to that. That was what Eric and I would always talk about when we were mapping everything out.
It seems like there’s a lot of specifically Jewish elements to the story. Is that a particular area of expertise for you?
It’s so funny that that happened. I started writing magazine stories in 2010. I am half-Jewish, but as my Jewish grandmother would say, not on the right side. My dad was Jewish, not my mom. I wasn’t raised Jewish, but when I first started doing magazine articles, I was living in Brooklyn at the time and I was writing for New York Magazine and Harper’s. I ended up doing just a weirdly large amount of stories about the Orthodox world. It just kind of happened and I think often what happens with magazine writers is you get pigeonholed pretty quickly, right? I had tried my best to break out of that. I did those stories when it happened.
It’s funny but with the Markel case, we didn’t fully realize going how Jewish Dan was. I knew he was Jewish, but I didn’t know until we started talking to his friends how seriously he took his Judaism, so I knew that there was gonna be an aspect where the Prodfather and some of the kidnapping rabbis would be involved, but I didn’t know that we would get it as much from Dan’s family. I think it is interesting. I’ve been trying to break free of writing about that for so long and then made a whole podcast about it.
It’s part of that interesting mix of cultures that happens in Florida too, right?
Yeah, absolutely. That’s a big part of what makes a case so fascinating. You have extremely wealthy lawyers, people who are living a relatively privileged life. You have Jewish dentists, doctors and so on, and then without spoiling too much, what ultimately happened was a weird association between the criminal underworld in Miami and Tallahassee high society, for lack of a better term. The clash, especially in the later episodes, is really interesting to hear from an audio perspective, but yeah.
On that note, are there any special challenges to reporting a story where so many of the people involved are lawyers?
Yeah, the constant fear of getting sued, but yeah, people are really careful, right? If you’re a lawyer, you know what it means to speak out. I would also add that this is an open criminal case, right? That makes it unusual as well because people who are choosing to comment on it and choosing to go on the record are doing it knowing that it is open in a major way. So, that makes it really unique. I think that there were a lot of people who said no. We got lucky that some people did say yes to us, including people that we had been really wishing would come on, but yeah, that’s a challenge. I think we were able to wring, especially in the first two to three episodes,a lot of drama out of the legal battle that was happening during the divorce and get lawyer friends to weigh in on how that was all going down. But yeah, it’s a challenge.
If this is a magazine story, people could’ve gone on background much more freely, right? It’s the reality of podcasting that you always have to have a mic in someone’s face if you want to get good tape.
On that note, when you’re reporting a story that’s about a murder and it’s open, do you ever worry about your own safety? Did you have to take any precautions there?
Let me think how I’m gonna answer that. No, I did not worry about my own safety. I think that we were always really careful about not going too far both in the narration and in our own reporting, so we were careful, but yeah, look, it’s something we’ve thought about obviously. You also think about if a case has not yet gone to trial, how could this impact the course of the investigation, that kind of thing.
So far a lot of the true crime reporting on podcasts has seemed pretty ethically well done, but it seems like there’s potential for someone to come along and, you know, fuck it up for everyone. Is that a thing that you worry about?
Well, I obviously worry about being really careful. One thing that we thought about a lot, I’ve been following the criticism of the Ted Bundy Tapes, the Netflix documentary, and a big part of that was the focus was on the killer and not the victims. So I think that one of the most important things we did starting out was try to get the victims’ parents to speak to us and to have their permission and also have their voice. In doing so, Dan comes back quite a bit in the last episode as do his parents and they’re big in the first two episodes. One thing that we really thought about was it’s a person, right, so you have to tell their story and you have to allow people to get to know them. It can’t just be about the murder itself.
I think in terms of the ethics of it, it’s something that people have been struggling with as long as they’ve been making documentaries or writing about crime at all. I think that people go into it for different reasons. I don’t want to say that we had lots of different motives in wanting to make the podcast, but one is certainly that this case is a little bit stalled out or a lot stalled out, and there is a case to be made that with enough media attention, that might change. Knock on wood. We hope.