Anna Sorokin · IDCon · Top "Dateline"s

Plus Woody Allen, Tekashi69, Soledad O'Brien, and a book review

Hello again! Since it’s unclear whether today is in fact a holiday — I have worked from home/for myself for so long that I’m accustomed to forgetting/failing to observe pretty much everything but American Thanksgiving — I’m going to do what I’d do if I really had the day off, which is clean out the closets (of links) and then take a break (from longer write-ups). — SDB

Discovery+ has a bunch of upcoming premieres you might want to note. There’s The Chameleon Killer (Feb 19), a special on the Bear Brook case; The List of Ten (Feb 23), on Joseph Naso’s cryptic titular list and a race against time by investigators; Joe Kenda’s new gig (new eps on Wednesdays); and the full first season of Where Murder Lies starting tomorrow. — SDB

Investigation Discovery is making its midwinter “fan appreciation event” free. Instead of paying admission, fans are invited to donate to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and/or the ACLU — and to come hang out with big true-crime names, and each other, gratis next Saturday, February 27:

With IDCON:DEAD OF WINTER, armchair detectives can face the dreary doldrums together and commiserate about the cases that keep them up at night, with special appearances by their favorite faces in the genre throughout the evening event. Attendees will receive sneak peeks of upcoming true crime offerings from discovery+, and registered fans will be treated to surprises, insider knowledge, and a chance to have their own burning fan questions answered.

…By Joe Kenda, by the way. The con site has a big Ask Joe button at the bottom, which tickled me for some reason. More info at the link above! And if you’re going/Asking Joe, let us know. — SDB

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You may still be recovering from the onslaught of high-profile premieres the previous Sunday, February 21. Alphabetically by network, you’ve got

  1. Boiling Point at 8 PM on BET. A follow-up of sorts to Soledad O’Brien’s 2011 series Black In America, Boiling Point “will explore Black America’s longstanding struggle for racial justice and equality through CBS News’ archival content, original interviews and never-before-seen footage of dramatic flashpoints in history – including George Wallace’s Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, Bloody Sunday in Selma, the Attica Prison Uprising, L.A. Riots, Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the killing of George Floyd and beyond.” O’Brien is one of the more thoughtful content producers on the network side, IMO, so this one’s probably worth a look.

  2. Allen v. Farrow at 9 PM on HBO. Inexplicably, this was in my notes as “Allen v. Farro.” Very different docuseries. I could have sworn we put the trailer for the actual series, which is not going to be a soothing history of an ancient grain, in here last week, but I’m unable to find it, so here it is:

  3. Supervillain: The Making of Tekashi 6ix9ine at 10 PM on Showtime. I filed my review of this one for Primetimer earlier today, and it may get lost in the shuffle, not just of other premieres that night but generally; I don’t think SHO gets enough credit for their docs anyway, plus Hulu beat it to the punch with a feature doc at the end of last year. But this one’s good, and I was right about the PR that sort of struggled to elevator-pitch it effectively. I also read Rolling Stone’s piece that forms part of the foundation of Supervillain, and it’s very solid — but it’s pretty grossed out by 6ix9ine and doesn’t pretend otherwise, a tone that fortunately is mediated in the series. I recommend both. — SDB

One from the Blotter archives that I somehow forgot to port over to B.E. until now: my review of Melanie Thernstrom’s Halfway Heaven. I discovered this oversight while logging a hardcover copy into the shop’s inventory (don’t forget you can grab this and anything else over there at a discount with the BestEv22 code!).


Melanie Thernstrom's account of a Harvard murder-suicide struggles with the personal

The crime

"The morning that students were supposed to move out of their residence, Dunster House, for the summer ... Sinedu set her alarm for early in the morning and then stabbed Trang forty-five times with a knife as she lay sleeping in her bed. ... [S]tudents called the police, but by the time they came Sinedu had hanged herself in the bathroom, with a noose she had prepared ahead of time, and both girls were dead." (4)

Sinedu Tadesse's murder of her roommate, Trang Ho (and attack on Trang's friend, Thao Nguyen, who survived), is the catalytic crime Melanie Thernstrom tries to untangle in Halfway Heaven: Diary Of A Harvard Murder -- while also parsing the lesser crimes the institution itself may have been guilty of by failing to support a depressed and struggling student from halfway around the world. Why did Sinedu latch onto Trang, and then onto killing Trang and herself as the only solution to problems those around her only dimly understood? Who is responsible when "outsiders" can't assimilate at legendary schools like Harvard? Why did this happen -- and if Thernstrom's right about the possible causes, why doesn't it happen more often?

The story

Thernstrom, who attended Harvard as well as teaching there for a time (Sinedu actually applied for a spot in Thernstrom's writing section, and was not accepted, a fact that haunts Thernstrom perhaps more than it should; more on this later), talks a lot about the "twinning" of killer and victim, their rising from "humble circumstances" (in Trang's case, escaping Vietnam on a fishing boat at age 10), their quests to belong at that most revered American ivory tower. There's a twinning at work in the nature of the subject she's chosen, too, or a duality: it's one of those stories that fascinates us because, in the end, the true motive will always remain elusive. But at the same time, it's one of those stories that can fall prey to filler, sidebars, and/or overly subjective speculation because, in the end, the true etc.

For the first half of the book, Thernstrom keeps it tight. Traveling to Ethiopia to meet Sinedu's family strikes me as a bit contrived, and there are a handful of references to how awkward she feels calling various friends and relatives for comment, which I empathize with -- this is why I'm not a reporter -- while also feeling that it's a little bloggy and should have got cut, but on balance Thernstrom's background on Sinedu and Trang, and in particular the "isolation" Ethiopians "are culturally unprepared for" when they come to college in the U.S., is well written and paced. She gets good observations from the very interviews she appears not to enjoy doing, too, like the one with the daughter of "a prominent Pakistani family," Shugu Imam, who remembers Sinedu, "'which is interesting because she wasn't very interesting. ... She was not a compelling personality. She was completely ordinary-looking." The paragraph goes on like this, and underlines Sinedu's challenges -- she knew she couldn't relate to people; people didn't particularly care to relate to her in turn -- with that unwittingly dismissive phrasing particular to students who do believe they belong at an Ivy.

And Thernstrom also does well capturing the...Ivyness of the situation. Comparing these deaths to the unmasking (well, that one unmasking; they keep happening) of James Hogue a couple years prior at Princeton doesn't quite work, but in the coverage of crimes at Ivies, both outside the walls and inside, there's a sense that the closing of ranks and the "here among the world's elite" and all that noise makes the whole of the story greater than the sum of its parts. It's hard to explain, and obnoxious to boot, but Thernstrom's good at interpreting that atmosphere.

But there's some overwriting -- the "bereft and weary gaiety" of moving-out day, for instance -- that can undercut the points she's trying to make about mentally ill students slipping through the cracks at elite schools, as does the speculation late in the book about which personality disorder Sinedu might have suffered from. Some of that is a casualty of the book's age; we're better informed now about depressive episodes, and DSM diagnoses generally, than when this book came out in 1997. And the fact is, there is no "solving" this. There's guessing, and assumptions, and Sinedu's journal, and the peculiar and gusty changes adolescent women's friendships can sometimes undergo, but no firm conclusions, and while this is exactly the kind of true-crime story that gets under my skin, it's also the kind that can suffer from going book-length instead of confining some of the longer-winded ancillary research in a longform magazine piece.

All of that said, it's quite readable, and by a couple of chapters in, you can tell which bits you might do better just skimming through. I do think Thernstrom's editor did her a mild disservice by not reining in the parts in which Thernstrom herself steps into the story, but Thernstrom is creditable at that kind of writing, and Halfway Heaven did make me want to read her first book, The Dead Girl, which was Thernstrom's senior thesis and concerns the disappearance of her best friend, Bibi Lee.

Thanks to my esteemed colleague Stephanie Green for the loan of the book. — SDB, 3/16/17

Speaking of things Stephanie and I like to discuss…I’m not a hundred on the lede in this Film Daily piece, but I can’t argue with the Keith Morrison graphic. I will argue with the listicle’s use of the term “murderinos,” and description of Morrison as taking viewers through murder cases with “delightful glee” — yeah, he’s delightful, but we noted just last week that he’s ambivalent about the genre of which he’s considered by many a patron saint.

And then there’s this:

Love is war. You know what happens in war? People die. What better way to celebrate that sentiment and Valentine’s Day than curling up on the couch, getting your favorite takeout, and watching hours & hours of true crime on Dateline. 

A bit flip for my taste, and when the author tries to sound admiring of one episode’s central figure, we’re told that the “strength emulating from victim Nancy Howard” is what makes the episode powerful. That said, the piece does note that its chosen eps and many others can be found on Peacock, which makes me wonder when some masochist is going to rank all of them for Vulture1. — SDB

She’s baaaa-aaaaack! Anna Sorokin got sprung from the joint for good behavior last Thursday, and wasted no time doing a little 400-thread-count spon-con cosplay on her Insta. The New York Post cattily put her geo-tagged location “in Manhattan — possibly the site of a ‘male friend’ where Sorokin told the Board of Parole she’d be staying upon release, though she expects to be deported back to Germany imminently.”

More recent posts seem to show filming already underway for…something (I admit I’m unclear on whether the Netflix cash infusion she got was for Inventing Anna or an unscripted project — or both), as well as an unpleasant drift towards Betty Boop facial posing. You can see for yourself here, and no, I have no idea what that Fatal Instinct post is about. — SDB

Tuesday on Best Evidence: Pasadena real estate…Robert Maxwell…angels of death…who knows what Eve’s going to settle on.

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