From texting suicide to child murder: Hollywood should stay away from some true crime

Kelly Lawler

I think it was seeing the truck. 

An early scene in Hulu's new drama "The Girl From Plainville," a series based on the death of a teenager by suicide in 2014, shows a black pickup truck like the one in which Conrad Roy III died. We see the police approach the vehicle as the young boy's body lies inside. We see his mother worry from afar, and his family arrives at the scene. Roy's death is brought to life in excruciating detail, and it's only the first of eight hourlong episodes about his suicide and the eventual involuntary manslaughter conviction of his girlfriend Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning), who encouraged him to take his own life. 

Roy's story is tragic and upsetting. It has already played out in public twice before:  first in the media frenzy around the so-called "texting suicide" case and then in the 2019 HBO documentary, "I Love You, Now Die." Seeing it again in "Plainville" is nothing but an unpleasant, unnecessary experience.

“The Girl From Plainville” is inspired by the true story of Michelle Carter’s controversial “texting-suicide” case. Based on the Esquire article of the same name by Jesse Barron, the limited series explores Carter’s relationship with Conrad Roy III and the events that led to his death and, later, her controversial conviction of involuntary manslaughter. Joseph Cataldo (Michael Mosley) and Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning), shown.

True crime is a popular, pervasive TV genre. It's on every streaming service and every network. But unlike superhero movies or fantasy epics, there's a responsibility that comes with putting tragedies on screen. And that's especially true when those real stories are fictionalized, as in "Plainville" or Hulu's new miniseries "Under the Banner of Heaven," about a double murder in the Mormon community, where there's a great risk of exploitation. "Plainville" and "Banner" cross the line more than once, and are two recent examples of a troubling trend. Many true-crime dramas have done the same, and it's time Hollywood producers questioned the ethics of turning these stories into entertainment. 

This isn't an argument about the quality of any true-crime drama – there is an artistry to both "Plainville" and "Banner." The bigger question is whether we really need these series at all. We don't need to relive some of our worst tragedies through the lens of A-list actors pursuing awards bait and scripts that don't offer anything new to say about heinous crimes. At some point, it's just too macabre to see a set staged to look like a 15-month-old baby was murdered there. 

"Heaven" is the kind of dark (literally and figuratively), deep and well-acted crime drama to attract attention and buzz, but its production quality doesn't offset the gratuitous exploitation of a real-life double murder. "Heaven" is based on the Jon Krakauer book about the investigation of the brutal murder of a mother and her baby in a Utah Mormon community in 1984 and stars Andrew Garfield as the Mormon detective investigating the case. The violence is off-screen, sure, but there is blood on baby toys, vomiting, police officers traumatized by what they've seen and descriptions of the horror. 

Gil Birmingham as Bill Taba and Andrew Garfield as Jeb Pyre in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

The book drew connections between the fundamentalist Mormons charged with the murder and the roots of Mormonism in 19th-century America, and the series makes passing attempts to draw that connection with a few flashbacks. But mostly it's structured like a regular old detective drama, akin to "True Detective" or "Mare of Easttown." Except the children in those stories weren't real. 

"Plainville" covers a crime that lacks graphic, brutal violence, but the way the series zooms in on the lives of Carter and Roy feels inappropriately intimate. Fanning, who will probably get an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Carter, works hard and the scripts attempt to contextualize the teen, if not humanize her. But every episode has a seedy, uncomfortable edge to the drama. 

There are other examples. Fox's short-lived "Almost Family" (2019-20) drew inspiration from an awful, invasive crime – a doctor secretly inseminating women with his own sperm  – into a cheesy family drama. Peacock's "Joe vs. Carole" managed to make the "Tiger King" story even trashier. 

The appropriateness of these shows is hard to define. Those about financial and fraud crimes, like Hulu's "The Dropout" or Netflix's "Inventing Anna," feel more innocuous. There are plenty of "ripped from the headlines" episodes of shows like "Law and Order: SVU," some of which feel exploitative while others have more nuance and make for effective commentary. And FX has won Emmys and acclaim with the "American Crime Story" franchise, which has depicted murder with a season about the O.J. Simpson trial and the murder of Gianni Versace by spree killer Andrew Cunanan. 

When more time has elapsed between the crime and the TV show about it; when the victims and perpetrators aren't children or teens; and when the violence happens mostly offscreen, these dramas are far more palatable. And when the stories have something profound to say, it feels less exploitative and even vital to bring them to viewers. The Cunanan saga is about the devastating impacts of homophobia. Netflix's "When They See Us" offered an urgent, powerful reframing of the wrongful convictions against the so-called Central Park Five. 

"When They See Us" (Netflix) with Aunjanue Ellis and Ethan Herisse.

Part of the problem is that there is a mad dash for familiar content among streaming services and traditional networks. So turning to a well-known story – whether it’s from a comic book, a movie, or your local newspaper – is the de facto strategy. FX recently announced a miniseries that will dramatize former NBA team owner Donald Sterling’s downfall. What artistic value can come from rehashing his infamous hot mic tape in which he spewed hate and racism? It’s not entertaining; it’s simply recognizable. And unfortunately in this day and age, disturbing, gratuitous and horrifying crime sticks in our memory like a piece of spinach caught in your teeth.

True crime isn't just familiar, it's popular. Investigation Discovery, a network devoted to true crime, rakes in ratings. Documentaries are churned out by the week. Fictional crime shows such as "NCIS" are among TV's most watched. 

So true crime isn't going anywhere. But it's my hope that producers and writers can be more selective and sensitive when it comes to bringing these stories to TV, particularly in fiction, where actors impersonate real-life villains and vie for awards on the backs of real-life victims.

Not every funeral has to be the opportunity for a 10-episode series. 

Suicide Lifeline: If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.

Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.

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