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‘Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ review

graphic illustration depicting two figures watching a movie screen with a speech bubble coming out of one figure saying "Collegian Show Reviews"
(Graphic Illustration by Charlie Dillon | The Collegian)

The mysterious case of Elisa Lam has baffled true crime buffs for years. In 2013, the 21-year-old Canadian student was traveling along the west coast when she decided to stay at the Cecil Hotel. 

When her parents didn’t hear from her on Feb. 1, 2013, the day she was supposed to check out, they immediately contacted the Los Angeles Police Department. On Feb. 19, a hotel maintenance worker found her body in one of the water tanks. The death was deemed an accidental drowning with Lam’s bipolar disorder as a leading factor.

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Years later, the police and the hotel still believe that Lam’s death was a suicide or an accident. Internet sleuths, on the other hand, are still baffled by this case, wondering if the hotel had something to do with Lam’s disappearance.

The events are explored in a new Netflix series, “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” which premiered on Feb. 10, but the show doesn’t do justice to Lam and her family.

The series follows the history of the Cecil Hotel, Skid Row and the Lam case in a confusing layout. It seemed that director Joe Berlinger wanted to do a series on all three topics but didn’t have enough information for each and clumped them all together. 

The infamous Cecil Hotel is located in downtown Los Angeles, right in the center of Skid Row, a 50-block neighborhood known for its large population of people who are experiencing homelessness, as well as a reputation of violence and drug-related crimes. The Cecil Hotel also has a history filled with death inside its walls. Skid Row is an important part of the Cecil Hotel and its history, but based on the narrative that the Netflix series pushes, Skid Row had nothing to do with Lam’s disappearance.

The first three episodes are based on the infamous elevator footage, a four-minute surveillance video of Lam presumed to be the last known footage of her alive. Although this is a big piece of evidence, there are many other pieces of evidence that are available in this case. Leaving a lot of the major pieces of evidence to the last episode is confusing for people who are unfamiliar with the case. 

Watching the docuseries, I felt like I was watching the same episode over again, just in a different order, with little new information in each episode. Berlinger seemed to not have enough information to fill the time needed to, so instead they filled it with information about the manager’s life, information on Skid Row and reenactments of Lam reading her Tumblr posts.

The ironic and unfortunate part about this lack of information is that there is not a single interview with Lam’s friends or family, leaving a huge gap in information while romanticizing the mystery of Lam’s death.

All in all, the series was drawn-out and repetitive. To me, it seemed that Netflix wanted to help the hotel and the police push their narrative of what happened. Theories created by internet sleuths, although a bit of a stretch, would still have been interesting to learn about in more depth. This show had the potential to be so intriguing with the mysterious circumstances of this case and the Cecil Hotel in and of itself, but the final product is overall disappointing. 

Kadyn Thorpe can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @ThorpeKadyn.

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