Same old true story: why have TV shows turned into Wikipedia entries?

An overstuffed season of fact-based dramas, from Winning Time to Under the Banner of Heaven to The Staircase, has been more miss than hit

Lately, I’ve been having what I call based-on-a-true story fatigue. I first used that admittedly inelegant phrase in March, when a mini-boom of shows about headlining scandals in relatively recent history premiered in the span of a month, with splashy premises that fizzled 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 – varied in quality (The Dropout, on starring Amanda Seyfried as corporate fraudster Elizabeth Holmes, was the only one to transcend mere dramatization and balance entertainment and clarity) and were all weighted by an awkward, often tiresome relationship to truth.

Since then, the number of shows that double as Wikipedia rabbit holes have cascaded into a full true story boom. An incomplete list of shows released this spring that have turned headlines into scripted television: 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 Thing About Pam and HBO’s The Staircase. There’s not one but two mini-series on the 1980 axe 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 Big Little Lies’ creator David E Kelley with Elizabeth Olsen.

Without exception, these reality-based shows boast decent production budgets and an embarrassment of riches: prestige casting, extensive costumes with occasional prosthetics, moody scores, the leeway to indulge in multiple timelines over several hours. They’re almost all well-made, with solid, sometimes showy direction and remarkably committed performances. But they have mostly fallen flat – there is, it turns out, a high bar for overcoming the distracting, basic tension of what really happened versus what’s on screen, what the real people looked like versus what the actors are doing, and very few of these shows clear it. All spring, with every new release and announcement of yet another installment in the headline-to-series pipeline, I’ve found myself asking: why more? And why do these shows, for the most part, pale in comparison to both speculative, unfettered fiction or the real thing?

Michael Mosley and Elle Fanning in The Girl From Plainville
Michael Mosley and Elle Fanning in The Girl From Plainville. Photograph: Steve Dietl/Hulu

The timing for this reality-based spring flood mostly boils down to Emmy nomination season – the prestige TV version of December’s Oscar bait – and the fact that portraying a real-life figure, particularly a famous one or a tragic one or both, is reliable awards material. See: the success in 2016 of Ryan Murphy’s The People v OJ Simpson, which arguably heralded the scripted true crime boom (and interest in re-evaluating the 90s) from the connoisseur of the glamorous, celebrity-filled riff on reality. The majority of these spring shows could be classified as “true crime” – some far more violent (Candy’s axe murder) than others (the theft of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape) – which seems like the natural evolution of the true crime documentary boom in the 2010s fueled by streaming platforms with money to burn and viewers to hook.

Though my reaction to real-life, and particularly true crime, stories of late has been generally “please, no more,” there are numerous good reasons to watch a ripped-from-the-headlines show. They can offer course corrections to outdated narratives, particularly for women (as in last year’s Impeachment: American Crime Story, made with the cooperation of Monica Lewinsky). The veneer of fiction can maneuver cultural knots too tight for real-life discourse or flesh out existing reporting, as in The Girl from Plainville, which uses daydream sequences to illustrate Michelle Carter’s capacity for self-delusion. Television offers room to complicate that non-fiction does not; the Under the Banner of Heaven creator Dustin Lance Black, for example, invents a fictional, pious Mormon detective (Andrew Garfield’s Jeb) who investigates a real double murder by fundamentalist Mormons in 1984 Utah. The investigation’s toll on his faith – in goodness, in obedience, in the church – illustrates the cognitive dissonance of religion and the tension of belief and intuition more than allegiance to the facts probably could.

There’s also something baseline compelling about watching an actor take on a known quantity – who has not immediately Googled a role to see how the celebrity compares to photos or videos or even loose pop cultural memories of a different real person. That gap can be provocative, teasing out unknown dimensions of the person or layers of the persona; the best, such as Seyfried’s portrayal of Elizabeth Holmes, do both, melded with the ineffable charisma that makes for a crackling screen performance. But it can more often be a distraction, uncanny or unnerving. In almost all of these portrayals, the actor is more conventionally attractive – symmetrical, smoothed, adjusted, whatever you want to call it – than the real figure, another snag on one’s attention. Jared Leto as WeWork’s messianic founder Adam Neumann in WeCrashed, for example, nails the Israeli accent, but looks more like Jared Leto having a romp than the 6ft 5in founder.

Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway in WeCrashed
Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway in WeCrashed. Photograph: Peter Kramer/Peter Kramer/Apple TV

All of these shows are also dogged by ethical questions of how much creative license to take with “true” stories, whose perspectives to soften or simplify or shade in, whose facts to privilege. How much responsibility should a show take in crafting the narrative that will almost surely, by the fact of wide availability and the compelling power of fiction, become the default one? (Who cares about the real story behind the early days of Facebook? In the public eye, The Social Network is the only record that matters.)

That, too, drags down a series. Take the recent controversy over Winning Time, the fourth wall-breaking, HBO drama about the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers that has drawn the ire of the actual Lakers. Last month, former player, coach and general manager Jerry West accused HBO and producer Adam McKay of character assassination for its depiction of West as a volatile, vindictive alcoholic; the legal letter demanded a retraction from HBO – meaning the network would have to say its portrayal is false – and threatened a legal case going up to the supreme court. (HBO responded in a statement that “the series and its depictions are based on extensive factual research and reliable sourcing”.)

The real-life context can be messy, contested or just plain confusing; it can undercut a series from the jump. How do we view Pam & Tommy, a show sympathetic to Pamela Anderson’s traumatic invasion of privacy, when we know she didn’t consent to it being revisited? (I couldn’t keep watching.) The Girl from Plainville, based on the 2014 “texting suicide” case in Massachusetts is sensitive, well-made, and loaded with psychological nuance but struggles to overcome the queasy fact that it’s making watchable entertainment out of the deeply tragic union between two unwell teenagers.

Colin Firth and Toni Collette in The Staircase
Colin Firth and Toni Collette in The Staircase. Photograph: Warner Brothers/2021 WarnerMedia Direct, LLC. All Rights Reserved. HBO Max™ is used under license.

The messiness of competing narratives, of who controls attention, is why The Staircase – a meta series about death and an afterlife in media – is one of the best of this genre. The limited series from Antonio Campos eschews the impulse to make sense of how a wealthy North Carolina business executive, Toni Collette’s Kathy Peterson, died at the base 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 sensational attention’s ripple effects on a family, the sprawling interpretations of truth, and the construction of narrative; the French documentarians whose 2004 series chronicled Michael Peterson’s trial and served as a touchstone for many films to come after are characters in the series. The work of picking and choosing which information to include, which to set aside – the work any true-story adapter must do – becomes part of the story.

This unsettling collage of unanswerable questions is what sucked me in despite fatigue with all this semi-reality. Watching The Staircase is, like any other true crime show, a freighted experience – there are Wikipedia searches to do, other reports to watch, long-form articles to read, comparisons to make, first-person testimonials to consider. The show is inconclusive enough – curious and critical enough of 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 added weight on the real one.


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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