Barnhart: How Prestige TV Reinvented the Docudrama

Photos: Netflix, Hulu

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Back in the day the closest thing to video Velveeta was the docudrama — those cheesy yet weirdly irresistible made-for-TV movies “based on a true story.” Docudramas had two things going for them back then: They were usually based on sensational news stories that had legs like a Rockette, and frankly there weren’t a lot of choices on TV back then. This made the perfect combination for a water-cooler show, although discussing what Lorena Bobbitt did with John Wayne Bobbitt’s member maybe wasn’t the most appropriate topic for the break room.

But the ratings! The Burning Bed, a 1984 film starring Farrah Fawcett as Francine Hughes — an abused wife who lit her husband on fire while he slept — was watched in 36 percent of American homes and was NBC’s most-watched TV movie ever. Amy Fisher’s fascination with Long Island mechanic Joey Buttafuoco was so fascinating that the three big networks all made TV movies of it (ABC’s starred a fresh out of rehab Drew Barrymore).

They may have been ratings bonanzas, but docudramas were not high art, and they spoke to the wide gulf in quality between movie and television studios. Even HBO, back then the most prestigious TV channel by far, learned this the hard way when it optioned The Late ShiftBill Carter’s wonderfully reported behind-the-scenes drama about Jay Leno, David Letterman and the battle to succeed Johnny Carson in late night.

A writer was commissioned to write the screenplay. HBO tried to work with it but gave up and hired Carter, who didn’t even have a Writers Guild card, to do the rewrite. The movie was still awful, but that was owing less to the script than the decision to make it a comedy, directed by the woman who did Private Parts and with Kathy Bates hamming it up as Leno’s manager Helen Kushnick. Bates was the only A-lister who would go near The Late Shift; many actors rightly feared they would never get booked again by Leno or Letterman. Indeed, when John Michael Higgins agreed to play Dave, he was roasted by Letterman for days and was later humiliatingly booked on the Late Show just so Dave could bump him.

To be sure, there was a loftier place for motion pictures based on true events, mostly small prestige biopics like The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. The word “docudrama” was reserved for lowbrow TV. In recent years, though, that has changed, thanks to the movie industry’s abandonment of anything that’s not connected to a cinematic universe. In the resulting exodus of talent from movies to TV, the lowly docudrama has been revived and elevated.

The turning point was probably 2016, when producer Ryan Murphy launched a bold reimagining of the OJ Simpson trial under the american crime story brand on FX. The Brown-Goldman murder trial is the Rushmore of true-crime TV, spawning countless tawdry TV treatments and at least one cheesy docudrama. But american crime story was different for two reasons. First, Murphy was able to use his American Horror Story cred to lure talented actors to his true-crime project, most notably Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance, who won Emmys for their remarkable portrayals of opposing attorneys Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran. Also, Murphy was working off a boffo script from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski — refugees from the cinema, where they had written the aforementioned Man on the Moon and Larry Flynt.

Second and more crucially, american crime story wasn’t a two-hour movie but a 10-episode limited series, which today is the lingua franca of prestige storytelling. Ten episodes afford ample time to develop storylines for lesser characters, such as David Schwimmer’s remarkably nuanced turn as Simpson attorney and reality-TV stud horse Robert Kardashian.

This marriage of prestige talent and streaming-TV imperatives has resulted in an extravaganza of highly watchable docudramas. For some reason, a lot of them have dropped recently, so this is a great time to dive in:

dopesick (Hulu). Michael Keaton just won a SAG Award for his portrayal of a caring doctor in coal country who winds up a cog in Purdue Pharma’s monstrous machine to get as many people as possible taking addictive opioids. As you’ll read in my review, it wasn’t the greatest adaptation of a nonfiction book but it clearly struck a nerve with viewers.

Pam & Tommy (Hulu). Speaking of the ’90s, a story that provided a lot of tabloid fodder involved the leaked sex tape of Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. This thoughtful miniseries revisits the story and explores the price of celebrity in an age of no privacy.

maid (Netflix). Stephanie Land’s bestselling memoir about her escape from her from an abusive relationship by scrubbing toilets is a complete triumph, thanks to a star turn by Margaret Qualley with support from her real-life mom Andie McDowell.

The Dropout (Hulu). Yes, Hulu has wrapped its arms around the docudrama. This is a quite good adaptation of the ABC News podcast and Oscar nominee Amanda Seyfried is surprisingly effective as the impossibly young medtech CEO Elizabeth Holmes.

Winning Time (HBO). If you haven’t heard about it yet, you will soon. This ambitious, hugely fun Eighties tale about Magic Johnson and the LA Lakers — based on sportswriter Jeff Pearlman’s book — is generating such buzz that it’s likely to be promoted from limited series to series series.

Inventing Anna (Netflix). Inspired by a New York magazine story about Anna Delvey, a grifter currently in jail (though, this being Netflix, even she got paid), Inventing Anna was not so well-received by critics but thanks to Julia Garner and her inscrutable accent, viewers embraced it.

Joe vs. Carole (peacock). Here’s a subgenre you can expect to see more of in the future: docudramas based on docuseries. Streaming TV has a bottomless appetite for content and there’s seemingly no end to the public interest in the Joe Exotic story. Kate McKinnon lights up this eight-parter as Joe’s bete noire Carole Baskin. I loved it.

Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

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