Lillo Brancato · Discovery+ · TikTok Cracks Cold Case

Plus "Gilligan's Island" versus everybody

A very happy new year, readers! May our coverage in 2021 not be dominated by anti-mask protests, vaccine fraud, and/or Trumps.

Speaking of election results everyone ought just to accept (hee), you’ve decided the January bonus-book review topic is We Keep the Dead Close: A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence. If you’ve already read it, let me know what you thought, but remember, the bonus book review is for paid subscribers, so if you want a look at that and all my previous reviews, grab a sub today. — SDB

The crime
In December of 2005, Lillo Brancato — always billed as the up-and-comer who debuted in A Bronx Tale; I know him best as Matthew Bevilaqua from S02 of The Sopranos — and his then-girlfriend’s father broke into a vacant house where a “friend” of theirs had used to live. A neighbor, off-duty cop Daniel Enchautegui, confronted the pair, and in the ensuing gun battle, Enchautegui was killed. Brancato is still loathed by NYPD for his part in the murder, but was only convicted of the burglary charge, and went to prison, where he got clean (the “friend” was a dealer; Brancato was hopelessly addicted to heroin and cocaine at the time of his arrest). Paroled in late 2013, Brancato paired with retired cop, producer, and muscle to the stars Steve Stanulis for what we might call an amends-umentary, 2018’s Wasted Talent.

The story
You can watch Wasted Talent with an Amazon Prime membership, but even at an undaunting 66 minutes, I can’t say you should bother. Director Stanulis has a pretty lengthy c.v., and IMO someone should make a documentary about him — although I missed the story, this is the guy Kanye and Kim slapped with a cease-and-desist in the middle of last year for talking shit about Kanye’s “ridiculous rules” and status as Stanulis’s least-favorite client, so there’s material here — but someone else should make it, because Wasted Talent is exactly that. There’s certainly material here, too, but Stanulis has almost no intuitive sense of how that material ought to best be organized. The talking-head interviewee roster is impressive, and includes Drea De Matteo spilling the tea about director Abel Ferrara’s substance issues, former NBA player Jayson Williams telling a “funny” story about finding a coke-paranoid Brancato in one of his mansion’s 144 closets after a charity event, and a string of NYPD “detectives” giving away more than they think on everything from the crime-scene evidence to how Pat Lynch tells them how to feel.

But the interviews just run, on and on and on. Occasionally you see a cut, but it’s not to anything, except, too often, to Stanulis himself, performing active listening. (It is never to whatever bonehead didn’t put their phone on vibrate during filming. Guys, that’s like day-one shit, come on.) My notes during Brancato’s account of the casting process for A Bronx Tale read “never thot I’d long 4 re-enax,” and that’s kind of the movie in a nutshell, as Brancato is a pretty good actor but not a particularly focused storyteller, and many of his interviews needed shaping with something — a soundtrack cue, interstitial photos, cross-cuts to other interview footage, anything. A scene with Brancato and Williams “casually” standing around on a neighborhood hoops court, mutually admiring each other’s recovery, is typical of the central problem here, namely…well, look, “the rooms” have saved lives in my family so I’m not here to question the processes therein, but we all know that shares are not the figuratively cogent moments we see in scripted projects. Which is fine, because that’s not the purpose of them, but it’s possible for a filmmaker to respect the working of a program and guide its portrayal a little more forcefully.

Stanulis started with a solid logline here. Is it possible to come back from a downfall like Brancato’s, as an actor and/or as a New Yorker? What can we learn from the experiences of a famous addicted guy in the carceral system, versus a famous addicted guy of color like Williams, versus an addicted average Joe of color — and post-carcerally? How does the institutional memory of the NYPD operate in and after cases like this, and what is the level of toxicity of that? Alas, aside from a few mildly diverting comments — from a fellow actor about the poppy-fields movies specific to Italian-Americans; from Brancato’s attorney, who has also repped infamous cops — Wasted Talent’s amateurish construction gets in the way of insightful conclusions. Unless you’re a Bronx Tale scholar, skip it. — SDB

But we’re not done with Sopranos-related topics…remember the ending of “Whitecaps,” when the crew is harassing Bruce Altman by blasting Dean Martin from a boat in front of his shore house? Yeah, it’s like the least memorable part of that episode, but of course I remembered it immediately.

Anyway, looks like billionaire bond guy Bill Gross took a page from Tony’s book, or tried to, but instead of Dino, Gross and his partner cranked the Gilligan’s Island theme on repeat — which was just another chapter in an ongoing dispute over a…lawn sculpture? Apparently Gross and Amy Schwartz put a garish installation (the artist has works at the Bellagio in Vegas; enough said, prolly) near the shared property line, which their tech-magnate neighbor Mark Towfiq wasn’t wild about, but when a protective net that looked like a giant soccer goal went up around it and seldom came down, he asked Gross and Schwartz to deal with it, and when they wouldn’t, Towfiq then ratted them to the city. When the city cited Gross and Schwartz for a lack of permits, that’s when they decided Towfiq would be sitting right down and he’d hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip. Repeatedly.

…Now that that infernal song is stuck in your head too (sorry), why not distract yourself with an extremely detailed provenance of the real-life Minnow? Or remember Dawn “Mary Ann” Wells, who passed last week of COVID complications at the age of 82. — SDB

TikTok helped solve a cold case. Sarah Turney, whose sister Alissa went missing nearly twenty years ago, leveraged a couple of pandemic trends to her investigation’s advantage — and Kristy Puchko mic-dropped a hell of a lede in her story about it on Pajiba:

As TikTok’s popularity blew up during the pandemic, Sarah hoped making videos about her sister’s missing person’s case would put public pressure on police. Sarah wasn’t just convinced Alissa hadn’t run away. She believed she was dead, and that their father, Michael Turney, was the killer.

Eve mentioned a Wired story back in November that looked at how TikTok had become a hub for crime-scene videos; apparently it’s also potentially a video Websleuths. The Pajiba story is nuts even before getting to Sarah’s TikTok strategy, though, given that Michael, a former sheriff’s deputy, 1) tried to Chrissie Snow Alissa’s disappearance at least three different ways; and 2) already did time for “possession of unregistered destructive devices” he was planning to bomb the local electricians’ union with (!), a scheme only discovered thanks to a serial killer offering a false confession that forced the cops to re-examine Alissa’s case (!!).

Michael Turney was charged with second-degree murder in August; Sarah continues to use all her social media and her podcast “to draw attention to unsolved cases … ‘I feel this is my calling now.’” — SDB

It’s probably inappropriate to caption this snap of disgraced YouTuber Onision with a joke about the confusing proliferation of streaming services, so I won’t.

One thing hasn’t changed since last year (yet, anyway): series scheduling is still all over the place thanks to pandemic-related production shutdowns and recastings. That means Deadline’s Big List O’ Midseason Premieres may not stay up-to-date, but on the other hand, a lot of the less…august true-crime programming isn’t as affected by COVID adjustments.

But the real headline here is probably the launch of Discovery+, on which you’ll find two of the new properties on Deadline’s list — American Detective with Lt. Joe Kenda and Onision: What Really Happened. My esteemed colleague Inkoo Kang at THR wrote up the new streamer this morning, and talked about its branding focus:

…Discovery+ has been marketing itself hard as a new destination for true crime. The splashiest original in this vein is the feature-length JonBonet Ramsey: What Really Happened?, a thoroughly pedestrian (i.e., unnecessarily grisly) revisiting of the 1996 case. But the most promising true-crime show on the streamer is Onision: In Real Life, a three-part doc featuring Chris Hansen (of To Catch a Predator fame) about the titular vlogger, whom a fellow creator calls “the R. Kelly of YouTube.” Despite the occasional sensationalism, the opening installment, at least, suggests a series that will explore how relatively new and under-regulated platforms like YouTube and social media, along with the intimate microcelebrity they engender, can enable the sexual exploitation of minors. Of all the programming I sampled on Discovery+, it was the only thing that seemed to understand audiences might want something they haven’t seen a thousand times before.

Based on Kang’s comments, I’ll make checking out Onision more of a priority, but it’s also interesting to think about how various true-crime cable destinations might conceive of the role of their respective streaming partners in either reinforcing or reimagining their brands. Specifically, I mean that Oxygen via Peacock and ID via Discovery+ might be as tempted to leverage trashy, but reliably familiar and proven, content libraries as they are to branch out into more thoughtful fare. I’ve written a number of times about what looked like efforts at ID in recent years to move away from flip, punny garbage, but momentum never quite accrued around modest successes (Village of the Damned), while at the same time Reelz is clearly coming for Oxygen and ID’s lunches in the red-filtered-junk sector.

Any of y’all planning to sign up for Discovery+? Or are you going to do the old “binge everything that’s not nailed down during the free trial this weekend, then bail” (or as it’s sometimes called, “the Buntsy”)? If you’re feeling cheap post-holiday spending, you can read an explainer on Onision here, and then you can let me know if you’re getting strong Shane Dawson vibes too. — SDB

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Tuesday on Best Evidence: Kidnap plots and victims’ voices.

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