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'The Jinx' review: An engrossing, compulsively watchable journey

"The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Frost" premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. on HBO. Credit: HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Several years ago, Andrew Jarecki ("Capturing the Friedmans") got a call, and on the other line was Robert Durst, the scion of the New York real estate empire, accused or suspected in the murder of three people, including his wife, Kathie. Never charged in his wife's disappearance (she is presumed dead), Durst had just seen Jarecki and his partner, Marc Smerling's fictionalized big-screen movie ("All Good Things") about his life and supposed crimes. Would Jarecki like to interview him?

That's your starter kit for this six-parter -- two episodes were made available for review -- , although the details are vastly more complicated. Durst had been charged (later acquitted) in the Galveston death of a neighbor, while a close friend of his was later found slain. This series promises to pick up all the pieces, and put them into a coherent whole. On Sunday, friends and family of Kathie McCormack Durst are interviewed. Their pain remains palpable.

Meanwhile, Jarecki, Smerling and HBO insist that by the end of this series, the truth about Durst's involvement in his wife's disappearance will be absolutely -- and irrefutably -- known.

MY SAY Did Robert Durst kill his wife on or about the night of Sunday, Jan. 31, 1982?

Therein lies a six-part series, when a simple "yes" or "no" would suffice. But Durst has never made it that simple, and he's not about to begin. His strange, treacherous trail of crumbs has been followed obsessively for years by the New York media and law enforcement in several states. The case received even more notice in 2010 when the film starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst arrived. At the end of both trail and movie lay only ambiguity, or more questions. My hunch is we'll get more of the same by the end of this ride, too, despite what the producers or network say. Durst, after all, probably isn't using HBO to turn himself in.

That doesn't mean "The Jinx" isn't fascinating -- it is -- or compulsively watchable. It's absolutely that, too. Not only do Jarecki and Smerling bring great storytelling skill to the enterprise, but they have Exhibit A sitting right in front of them.

Durst arrives in the second hour, and viewers -- because that's what we do -- will instantly seek proof of guilt. Durst's eyes are opaque and expressionless, he blinks obsessively. He seems too calm, too untroubled. Aha, he must be thinking: "This is all going my way."

Aha: Maybe that's exactly what Jarecki and Smerling want him to think.  Or us to think.

 "Over the seven years in which we pursued the story through all its unexpected revelations, uncovering the truth became an obsession," said Jarecki and Smerling in a statement. "Now the audience can watch it unfold in front of them as it did for us."

Indeed, "The Jinx" does channel that we're-all-on-this-ride-together thrill that hooked so many listeners of last fall's NPR podcast, "Serial," about a murder of a Maryland teen. This may be a high-gloss treatment that utilizes all the tricks of the TV trade, including dramatic re-creations, and a way-over-baked credit sequence, but that sense of unfolding discovery remains.

But are there ethical considerations here? Sure. Big ones, including the most obvious: What's HBO's obligation to law enforcement and the families involved in the off-chance that Durst does confess by chapter six? Legally, the answer may be "nothing." Morally, the answer is "everything." Does HBO, Jarecki and Smerling have real dynamite here?

Did he or didn't he? Yes or no?

Guess we'll have to wait until chapter six to find out. In the meantime, I have trouble forgetting the chilling words of a Galveston detective, who led the Durst investigation there: "I don't believe he takes any pleasure in killing, but if you back him in a corner and threaten his freedom, he'll kill ya."

GRADE B+

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