True crime has been undergoing a bit of a renaissance, in large part due to Sarah Koenig’s record-shattering podcast Serial. There’s a lot that could be said about what this might mean for civilization (short version, we’re doomed, but you knew that), but I’m not here to talk about that. Especially since I’m one of those people who has been tacitly interested in true crime for most of my life.
In my last office job, I killed time between stressful overreactions (seriously, my boss was insane and, I later found out, a white collar criminal!) by reading the old Crime Library online. Before that, I got into it because of my mother (now immortalized on my twitter feed as #DrunkMom, and yes, all of the quotes are 100% real). She’s read a ton of full-on true crime novels, which was how you had to do things back in the ‘80s because there was no internet or podcasts. She always felt guilty (my mother feels guilty about everything) when I would get her one or more true crime books for Christmas.
In the genre of true crime, one name stands above all others: Anne Rule is the JK Rowling of true crime world. She has a pretty incredible story too. Back in 1971, Rule worked at a crisis hotline center, where she met a young student by the name of Ted Bundy. Yeah, that one. She was so thoroughly snowed by the charming psychopath, she said she used to wish he was ten years older for her or ten years younger for her daughter. Later, after he was unmasked as a monster, she wrote the best seller The Stranger Beside Me. While she didn’t invent the genre, she turned herself into a reliable cottage industry, turning out horror stories with the frequency of Stephen King but with the added allure that these things actually happened. For better or for worse, I knew who Anne Rule was before Truman Capote.
So it was with a small sense of excitement that I recorded this Lifetime movie way back in November of last year. It had two things I enjoy: Anne Rule and Rob Lowe. Oh yeah, Rob Lowe, the man I referred to as the patron saint of Lifetime movies, is in this one. Sadly, he doesn’t put on the virtuosic performance he did for Drew Peterson: Untouchable, and the movie itself isn’t the nonstop madness romp that was Beautiful & Twisted, but Lowe and Rule! I couldn’t miss it!
Just to get it out of the way quick, what you’re picturing in your head about what a team up between these two luminaries filtered through the Lifetime lens would look like is most likely accurate. It has the soulless McMansion interiors, the too-bright lights, and just enough kind of recognizable faces that have become the network’s trademark. The important thing, though, comes in the way the movie is structured. Because it’s super-obvious that these folks have listened to Serial (or watched The Staircase) when they set to write it down.
Serial’s first season was so addictive at least in part, because it oscillated back and forth between the question of Adnan’s guilt. Half of the episodes uncovered things that implied his innocence, while the other half found the opposite. Listeners were on a seesaw, each week tuning in to hear how their view of the case would be entirely blown up. Koenig hewed to this formula so closely, it’s almost impossible to believe she didn’t cook the story at least a little, especially after all of the things that have come out in the wake of the podcast. Now it looks like Adnan is entirely innocent and any suggestion he is guilty is based on either shoddy detective work, or in service to a better story.
This story starts with a woman’s suicide. This woman, Jenn Corbin, is married (to Rob Lowe’s Dr. Barton T. Corbin, DDS, who was apparently a real person and not a VC Andrews character) and has two sons, Trevor and Taylor. One late night, she apparently commits suicide via a single gunshot would to the head. The family is, of course, devastated. While Bart is suspected largely as a matter of course, no one really thinks he had anything to do with the death. But then shit starts getting weird.
First, there’s the method. Women generally don’t commit suicide with guns, and the specific angle of the shot later proves to be impossible. Then there’s the matter of Jenn’s burgeoning affair. Convinced that Bart is sleeping with fellow dentist Dara (presumably they have the world’s mintiest kisses), she embarks on an online affair with “Chris,” who turns out to be a woman. This was a shock to Jenn, but in a few flashbacks, she’s clearly considering it. This woman is an early red herring, as is her ex-girlfriend, who was insanely jealous and liked to threaten people with a firearm.
This specific red herring — a jilted gun-happy lesbian — is given as a throwaway line. She never appears and does nothing. On one hand, I was bummed at missing out on this character. On the other, I was glad Lifetime wasn’t indulging in any lesbaiting. Once we’re halfway through, Bart is the only real suspect, and his habit of never actually denying any charges (he only gets offended when asked) really starts to look guilty.
Even more guilty? The fact that he had a girlfriend back in dental school who killed herself in the exact same way. This is mostly an excuse for an ‘80s flashback, and I shit you not, the movie fucking rickrolls you. If the rest of the movie were better, I’d be tempted to call my Very Special Series finished. When an entire channel is shooting Rick Astley at you, there’s nowhere really to go. You’ve hit the top. Or bottom, depending on your perspective.
Sadly, a lot of the ‘80s flashback stuff is kind of half-assed. Or it could be I was spoiled by Stranger Things, which was so accurate, I could only complain about things like the D&D rules being wrong, or the Millennium Falcon toy being the modern model. This is Lifetime, after all. They spent most of their money getting Rob Lowe onto set. They’re not going to faithfully recreate 1984. They do sadly drop the ball when she’s describing Lowe’s character to a friend and doesn’t say that “He looks like that guy from St. Elmo’s Fire.”
Anyway, Lowe eventually gets busted and thrown into prison for life, largely due to the (say it with me now) steely determination of a mom. Namely, Jenn’s sister (played by Lauren Holly), who though initially on team Bart comes to her senses. And, oh yeah, Bart was totally having an affair, just like Jenn thought.
So what did we learn? If a family member kills themselves, it’s probably due to a homicidal spouse. Look into their pasts for other bodies. Those things pile right up.