TheFor a while, I had what I call burnout based on a true story. The not-so-stylish phrase was first used in March, when a month-long mini-surge debuted through head-to-head scandals in relatively recent history, with vice places fading on arrival. Those shows — Hulu’s The Dropout, Netflix’s Inventing Anna, Showtime’s Super Pumped, Apple TV’s WeCrashed, Peacock’s Joe v Carole — were of mixed quality (The Dropout, starring Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, was the only company that surpassed just the dramatic acting and the balance between amusement and clarity) were all burdened with an uncomfortable, and often tiring, relationship with the truth.
Since then, the number of shows that doubled as rabbit holes on Wikipedia has exploded into a veritable boom of true stories. A partial list of shows released this spring that turned headlines into written TV shows: FX on Hulu’s Under the Banner of Heaven, Hulu’s The Girl from Plainville, Starz’s Gaslit, Showtime’s The First Lady, Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, HBO’s Winning Time, Peacock’s The One Thing About Pam and HBO’s The Staircase. There’s not one, but two miniseries about the 1980 ax killing of Betty Gore by her friend Candy Montgomery—Holo Candy, which premiered this month and starred Jessica Biel Montgomery, and an upcoming HBO series directed by David E. Kelly, creator of Big Little Lies with Elizabeth Olsen.
These reality-based shows always come with decent production budgets and a wealth of fortunes: prestige selection, intense costumes with occasional prosthetics, moody notes, and latitudes to indulge in multiple schedules over the course of several hours. They’ve all done nearly all well, with solid, sometimes bright performances, and remarkably committed guidelines. But they mostly fell flat – it turns out that there’s a huge hindrance to the dispersal tension between what actually happened and what’s on screen, what real people look like and what actors do and very few of them get over this clearly showing it. Throughout the spring, with each new release and announcement of another part in the making, I found myself asking myself from title to series: Why more? And why, for the most part, are these shows pale in comparison to unreserved fantasy or speculative reality?
The timing of this mostly reality-focused spring tide boils down to the Emmy-nominated season—prestigious television takes a taste of the Oscars in December—and the fact that portraying a real-life character, particularly a famous one, a tragic one, or both, is credible. Prize materials. Watch out: the success of Ryan Murphy’s The People vs. OJ Simpson 2016 that arguably spawned a real screenwriting boom (and interest in reassessing the ’90s) for connoisseurs of glamorous, celebrity-filled riff on reality. Most of these springtime shows can be categorized as “true crime” – some more violent (the Candy ax murder) than others (the Pamela Anderson robbery and Tommy Lee sextape) – which seems like the natural progression of 2000s true crime documentaries, which Streaming platforms fuel it with money to burn and viewers to hook up.
While my reaction to real-life stories, and true crime in particular, has generally been “please, no more” lately, there are plenty of good reasons to watch a show snatched from the headlines. They can provide course corrections to older narratives, especially for women (as in last year’s Isolation: American Crime Story, set in collaboration with Monica Lewinsky). Fictional novels can maneuver cultural knots too tightly to allow real-world discourse, or fill in current coverage, as in The Girl from Plainville, which uses daydream sequences to illustrate Michelle Carter’s capacity for self-deception. Television provides space for the intricacies that real-life books do not; For example, “Under the Banner of Heaven” author Dustin Lance Black invented a devout fictional Mormon detective (Pocket by Andrew Garfield) who investigates a double murder by Mormon fundamentalists in Utah in 1984. He explains the impact of the investigation on his beliefs. In goodness, obedience, and the church, the cognitive dissonance of religion and the tension between faith and intuition are more than can be made by devotion to reality.
There’s also something fundamental about watching an actor take on a household name — who didn’t immediately Google a role to see how a celebrity compares to photos or videos, or even loses pop culture memories of another real person. This gap can be provocative, emphasizing the unknown dimensions of a person or layers of a person; The best, like Seyfried’s portrayal of Elizabeth Holmes, does both, mixed with unspeakable charisma that makes for amazing screen performance. But often it can be a distraction, awkwardness, or nervousness. In almost all of these images, the actor is traditionally more attractive – symmetrical, sleek, fitting, whatever you want to call it – than the real character, another attraction for attention. Jared Leto as WeWorks Messianic founder Adam Newman in WeCrashed, for example, accentuates the Israeli accent but sounds like Jared Leto oozes more than the 6-foot-5-inch founder.
All of these shows are also haunted by moral questions about how much creative freedom one can take with “real” stories whose perspectives need to be softened, simplified or obscured, and whose facts need to be privileged. How much responsibility should the show have in shaping the narrative that will almost certainly become the default novel given the wide availability and compelling power of fiction? (Who cares about the real story behind Facebook’s beginnings? Publicly, the social network is the only record that matters.)
This also pulls you down one row. Take, for example, the recent controversy over Winning Time, the fourth drama series on HBO about the Los Angeles Lakers from the Showtime era, that angered the actual Lakers. Last month, former HBO player, coach and general manager Jerry West and producer Adam McKay were accused of character assassination for portraying West as a volatile, vengeful alcoholic. The legal letter called for HBO to be retracted — meaning the network had to say its portrayal is wrong — and threatened prosecution all the way to the Supreme Court. (HBO responded in a statement that “the series and its filming are based on extensive factual research and reliable sources”).
The real context can be messy, controversial, or just confusing; Row can be undermined by the jump. How do we look at Pam & Tommy, a show sympathizing with Pamela Anderson’s shocking breach of privacy, when we know she didn’t agree to repeat it? (I couldn’t keep watching.) Based on the 2014 Massachusetts “SMS suicide” case, The Girl from Plainville is insightful, well-designed, and full of psychological nuances, but struggles to overcome the disturbing fact that it’s the deeply tragic union of two… Sick teens is entertainment worth watching.
The mix of competing narratives about who controls attention is why The Staircase — a media spin-off about death and the afterlife — is one of the best genres. Antonio Campos’ limited series avoids the impulse to understand how Cathy Peterson, a wealthy North Carolina business executive, died in her home at the bottom of a staircase in 2001. Did she slip and fall? Was her husband Michael (the excellent Colin Firth) murdered? The series is less concerned with certainty than with the effect of erotic interest on the family, and the wide-ranging interpretations of fact and narrative construction; The French documentary filmmakers, whose 2004 series anchored the trial of Michael Peterson and served as a stop for many subsequent films, are characters in the series. The work of picking and choosing what information to include and what to put aside—the work that every true story teller has to do—becomes part of the story.
This unsettling set of unanswered questions occupied me with all this half of reality though tired. Watching The Staircase, like any other true crime show, is a lively experience – there are Wikipedia searches to do, other reports to see, long articles to read, comparisons to make, and first person testimonies to consider. The show isn’t succinct enough – curious enough and critical enough to get the attention of true crime – to make this context interesting, and an added bonus. But this is the exception. For most of this TV season, the written story feels like extra weight over the real thing.