There were a lot of things for true crime junkies to get excited about when Netflix released the teaser for its new series “The Keepers”: an unsolved murder, a missing nun, corruption, a possible Catholic school cover-up.
For all its promises, the series — from documentary veteran Ryan White, who also directed “The Case Against 8” and “Good Ol’ Freda” — delivers. The seven episodes center around the 1969 disappearance and death of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a young nun who taught English at a Baltimore-area Catholic high school and was beloved by students. Two months after Cesnik failed to return home from a routine shopping trip, her body was found by hunters in a remote wooded area five miles from her apartment. Investigations revealed she had suffered a mortal wound to her head. Her killer was never found.
“The Keepers” is as addictive and compelling as “Making a Murderer,” the documentary series that ran on the streaming network in late 2015, spurring theories, sprawling message board discussions and an acute hunger for more true crime stories. (The docuseries are entirely different, of course, but comparisons will be inevitable.)
Any good documentary needs narration, especially for one as layered, and with as many individuals involved, as this. While some of the key players in the story that unfolds surrounding Cesnik’s death have also since died, many are still around to keep the story alive — namely, a group of students at Archbishop Keough High School where the nun taught. It’s been more than 40 years, but the women are able to recount their memories of their former teacher as though they had just graduated.
Perhaps their sharpness is a result of running through those formative years over and over in their heads, trying to search their memories for anything that could explain Cesnik’s abrupt disappearance. Years after graduating, her former students have created a circle of amateur detectives, knocking on doors, looking up records and sharing information. They want to find out something, anything, about who killed their teacher.
Leading the crew are Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub, a retired teacher and nurse, respectively. In the series, we meet Hoskins sitting down at a restaurant and inquiring about their chardonnay. When she discovers that they serve Yellow Tail, she answers with a laugh, “Oh, that’s fine, that’s what I drink at home. Only.”
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Schaub as she waits in line at a local library, stack of papers in hand. “We’ve been using your excellent services for about two years,” she tells the librarian in a high, warm voice when it’s her turn. “We’ve been looking into an unsolved murder case.”
It’s not the kind of thing you’d immediately expect to hear from Schaub, who comes off as a studious, cheerful grandmotherly type. She and Hoskins make an unlikely team, but one that easily becomes central to the series. In the first episode, Hoskins recalls her excitement upon walking into Cesnik’s class at 13 to learn they’d be reading The Scarlet Letter, describing her wonder that “a cool nun” would be teaching the somewhat scandalous classic. Cesnik, we learn, was supportive and eager to listen to her students, a rare source of comfort in a strict religious and academic environment.
“Gemma’s been the Nancy Drew, I think,” Schaub tells the camera while she and Hoskins are sitting side-by-side at a kitchen table, discussing their efforts to find more information about those fateful months in 1969. “She’s good at getting people to talk to her.”
“Abby does amazing research, like no one I’ve ever met,” Hoskins adds. Hoskins likes to pick up the phone and talk to people, which Schaub says is perfect — she does not. It’s hard not to fall in love with the idea of two old high school acquaintances teaming up to solve a long-cold case, proving that the yearning to solve a grisly crime is not confined to whatever notions of detectives we typically see on screen. Other former classmates, journalists and retired law enforcement join the two women in their search for answers.
Hoskins and Schaub’s passion for justice is inspiring, a torch through the darkness that will emerge most pointedly in the series’ second episode. It’d be inaccurate to paint the series solely as a thrilling caper — real traumas occurred within the halls of Archbishop Keough, the effects of which carry through to the present day. The pair of women leading the amateur search for answers provides a framework for the rest of the shocking narrative to reveal itself, a positive and endearing aspect of a tale with much abuse of power and darkness, where the possibility for true justice feels as long buried as its subject.
“The Keepers” begins streaming on Netflix Friday, May 19.
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