lI recently suffered from what I call, based on a true story. I first used that admittedly inelegant expression in March, when a mini-boom of shows was over headliner of scandals in relatively recent history premiered in the span of a month, with rousing buildings hissing upon arrival. Those Shows – Hulu’s the outageNetflix’s invent AnnaShowtime’s super pumpedApple TVs WeCrashedPeacock’s Joe v Carole – varied in quality (The Dropout, starring Amanda Seyfried as corporate fraud Elizabeth Holmes, was the only one that transcends mere dramatization and balance between amusement and clarity) and were all weighed down by an uneasy, often exhausting relationship with the truth.
Since then, the number of shows twice the size of Wikipedia’s rabbit holes has grown into true true stories. An incomplete list of shows released this spring that have turned headlines in scripted television: FX on Hulu’s Under the banner of heavenhulus The girl from Plainvillestarz’s gas litShowtime’s The First Ladyhulus Pam & TommyHBOs winning timePeacock’s The Thing About Pam and HBO’s The stairs† There are not one but two miniseries about the 1980 ax murder of Betty Gore by her friend Candy Montgomery – Hulu’s Candy, which premiered this month and stars Jessica Biel as Montgomery, and an upcoming HBO series from David E Kelley. , creator of Big Little Lies. with Elizabeth Olsen.
Without exception, these reality-based shows boast hefty production budgets and an embarrassment of wealth: prestigious casting, elaborate costumes with the occasional prosthesis, moody scores, the space to enjoy multiple timelines over several hours. Almost all of them are well-made, with solid, sometimes ostentatious directing and remarkably engaged performances. But they’ve mostly fallen flat — there’s a high bar, it turns out, for overcoming the distracting, fundamental tension of what really happened versus what’s on screen, what the real people looked like versus what the actors were up to. it do, and very few of these shows make it clear. All spring, with each new release and announcement of yet another installment in the headline-to-series pipeline, I’ve been asking myself, why more? And why, for the most part, do these shows pale in comparison to both speculative, rampant fiction and the real thing?
The timing for this reality-based spring flood usually comes down to Emmy nomination season — the prestigious TV version of December’s Oscar ace — and the fact that portraying a real figure, especially a famous one or a tragic one or both , reliable is price material. See: Ryan Murphy’s 2016 Success The People v OJ Simpson, which arguably ushered in the scripted true crime boom (and interest in re-evaluating the 90s) from the connoisseur of the glamorous, celebrity-filled riff on reality. Most of these spring shows can be classified as “true crime” – some far more violent (Candy’s ax murder) than others (the theft of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape) – which resembles the natural evolution of the true crime documentary boom. fueled by streaming platforms with money to burn and viewers to hook in the 2010s.
While my response to real life, and to real crime in particular, has been generally “please, no more” lately, there are plenty of good reasons to watch a headline-ripped show. They can make course corrections on outdated stories, especially for women (such as in last year’s Impeachment: American Crime Story, co-created with Monica Lewinsky). The veneer of fiction can maneuver cultural knots too tight for real discourse or complement existing coverage, as in The Girl from Plainville, which uses daydream sequences to illustrate Michelle Carter’s capacity for self-deception. Television provides scope to complicate that non-fiction does not; For example, Under the Banner of Heaven creator Dustin Lance Black invents a fictional, devout Mormon detective (Andrew Garfield’s Jeb) who investigates a real-life double murder by fundamentalist Mormons in 1984 in Utah. The toll of the examination of his faith – in goodness, in obedience, in the church – illustrates the cognitive dissonance of religion and the tension of faith and intuition more than fidelity to the facts probably could.
There’s also something compelling about watching an actor take on a known amount – who hasn’t immediately Googled a role to see how the celebrity compares to photos or videos or even casual pop cultural memories of another real person. That gap can be provocative and bring out unknown dimensions of the person or layers of the persona; the best, like Seyfried’s portrayal of Elizabeth Holmes, do both, fused with the unspeakable charisma that makes for a stellar performance on screen. But it can more often be a distraction, creepy or unnerving. In almost all of these portrayals, the actor is conventionally more attractive — symmetrical, smoothed out, adjusted, whatever you want to call it — than the real figure, another who holds the attention. Jared Leto as the messianic founder of WeWork, Adam Neumann in WeCrashed, for example, nails the Israeli accentbut looks more like Jared Leto romping than the six-foot founder.
All of these shows are also haunted by ethical questions about how much creative freedom you should take with “real” stories, whose perspectives should be softened or simplified or obscured, whose facts should be privileged. How much responsibility does a show have to take in crafting the story that will almost certainly, due to the fact of wide availability and the compelling power of fiction, become the standard? (Who cares about the real story behind Facebook’s early days? In the public eye, The Social Network is the only record that matters.)
That too drags down a string. Take the recent controversy over Winning Time, the fourth wall-breaking HBO drama about the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers that the anger of the actual Lakers† Last month, former player, coach and general manager Jerry West accused HBO and producer Adam McKay of character assassination for portraying West as a volatile, vengeful alcoholic; the legal letter demanded a withdrawal from HBO – meaning the network would have to say its portrayal is incorrect – and threatened with a lawsuit go to the highest court. (HBO responded in a statement that “the series and the images are based on extensive factual research and reliable sources”.)
The real context can be messy, contentious, or just plain confusing; it can undercut a range of the jump. How do we watch Pam & Tommy, a show that sympathizes with Pamela Anderson’s traumatic invasion of privacy, when we know she didn’t agree to it being re-watched? †I couldn’t keep watching.) The Girl from Plainville, based on the 2014 Massachusetts “texting suicide” case is sensitive, well-crafted, and loaded with psychological nuance, but struggles to overcome the nauseating fact that makes the watchable entertainment of the deeply tragic union between two unwell teenagers.
The messiness of competing narratives, whose focus sets the stage, is why The Staircase—a death and afterlife metaseries in the media—is one of the best of its genre. Antonio Campos’ limited series eschews the impulse to understand how a wealthy North Carolina businessman, Kathy Peterson of Toni Collette, died at the bottom of a staircase at home in 2001. Did she slip and fall? Did her husband Michael (an excellent Colin Firth) kill her? The series is less interested in certainty than in the ripple effects of sensational attention to a family, the expansive interpretations of truth and the construction of a story; the French documentary makers whose 2004 series chronicled Michael Peterson’s trial and served as the touchstone for many films that came after are characters in the series. The work of figuring out and choosing which information to include, which to set aside—the work any true adapter must do—becomes part of the story.
This disturbing collage of unanswered questions is what sucked me despite fatigue with all this semi-reality. Watching The Staircase, like any true crime show, is a fraught experience – there are Wikipedia searches to do, other reports to view, lengthy articles to read, comparisons to make, first-person testimonials to read. consider. The show isn’t compelling enough — curious and critical enough for true crime’s attention magnet — to make such context fun, an added bonus. But that’s the exception. For much of this TV season, the scripted story feels like extra weight over the real story.
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