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Mike · Alice · Lori and Chad
Plus an "Only Murders" finale-review round-up
DPB and I watched the Only Murders finale last night, and I don’t have a ton to add to my observations from last week. We laughed; we said “aw”; it was better than whatever Cats sequel Oliver is going to cite next season as a notoriously troubled production of his past. I still think the show hangs together better when it’s marathoned, versus consumed weekly, because that way, there’s less time to find and mull the plot holes and question marks — but in the end, it’s a character/set-piece vibe, and if you like spending time with these people, which we do, S02 gets the job done.
[Didn’t watch yet? Spoilers ahoy, so skip to the next segment of the newsletter!]
Prior to sitting down with the finale, we bet on who would be revealed as the killer; I went with Poppy, mostly because Cinda didn’t seem like a viable option. I don’t know how much more viable Poppy is if you really sit with the set-up for ten minutes — Becky disappeared, it turned into a huge story, but then she went back to her small hometown and nobody spotted her? — and the writing didn’t do a great job pinning down what Cinda knew when and how she got that information, not to mention that the handful of bleak flashbacks we got to Becky’s pre-Poppy existence, while admirably elliptical, seem to me in retrospect to have begged for expansion, into an episode or two of their own digging into the Not OK podcast, into Cinda’s bankrupt journalisming, into how Becky erased herself and then drew herself into this slice of New York. Show jefe John Hoffman might have skipped the Amy Schumer bits and other less successful red herrings and gone with a more textured look at Cinda and Poppy/Becky’s world, if he had it to do again; certainly Tina Fey and Adina Verson could have done it with depth.
My husband, meanwhile, guessed Oscar, probably from an abundance of hope that the character would return and ergo that I would stop grumbling “hashtag where’s Oscar” from the other end of the sofa. Wrong on both counts! (Sorry, Dan.) But the absence of Oscar bugged me all season, especially since Aaron Dominguez had gone on the record as being psyched for what came next for the character. Granted, I noted at the end of last season that the writing didn’t seem to know what to do with a wrongly incarcerated character — and Hoffman went on the record with Deadline about, among other things, what became of “tie-dye guy” and why, and I don’t not buy his rationale that Mabel had done enough dwelling in her trauma and needed to move forward, BUT:
she gives a whole speech to Alice about trust and Alice’s using Mabel’s pain for her art, and that she’s not okay with that, but then Alice is apparently back in for the finale reveal…and more, so why is it okay to have it both ways there; and
I get the distinct sense that Dominguez thought he had a roster spot going into S02, and then something happened — probably just SOP industry “we went in a different direction” shit, but as of this writing, Dominguez’s Instagram is stripped down to the studs, with links from elsewhere to his previous fulsome posts about Only Murders now broken, and Hoffman’s flatline “I love Aaron.” from the Deadline interview is…I don’t know. In theory, I am more than okay with showrunners Kalinda’s-husbanding arcs that don’t work and moving smartly on, and the more I think about it, the more I suspect that Hoffman et al. were like, “Oscar’s journey isn’t something we can get our arms around in the context of this show and still stay on tone,” and Dominguez maybe didn’t take it well. What’s y’all’s theory? (NB: “Buntsy, you’re overthinking this” isn’t a theory so much as established fact.)
Anyway: we still love the show, the Paul Rudd jump-off looks promising (as does the choice to play him as though Andy from Wet Hot American Summer went to Broadway), and it’s not always a sign of quality that a show’s imperfections preoccupying me means it’s doing its job — but I think that’s true here. And I think you guys need to remind me ahead of S03 just to bank the whole season before watching.
Wondering what others thought of the finale, and the second season overall? On the whole, the consensus lines up with my “the whole > greater than the sum of the parts” take, but you can read more from Myles McNutt at Episodic Medium; Saloni Gajjar at AV Club; a recap/another Hoffman interview at Variety by Selome Hailu; and Danette Chavez’s review/list of dropped threads at Vulture. — SDB
The 1967 “LSD party murder” of Linda Fitzgerald was one of the first widely-reported stories of a well-off, beautiful teenager destroyed due to psychedelics, soon to be followed by more prominent deaths, like that of Art Linkletter’s daughter Diane. In 1971, the book Go Ask Alice was released as the cultural panic over (white, female) teenage drug use was at its height. Touted as essential reading for vulnerable kids, it was based on the apparently real diary of a girl caught up in addiction. An immediate best seller, it received glowing recommendations in the likes of the New York Times. Other “anonymous” diaries followed, including Jay’s Journal, a book which would help fuel the Satanic Panic of the next decade.
Rick Emerson’s Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World's Most Notorious Diaries isn’t how I learned that Go Ask Alice wasn’t a real diary. As a gullible thirteen-year-old I read it and duly considered myself well-versed in the ways of hard drugs. I was still a teenager when I found out it was a fake, and felt duped, although it seems obvious in retrospect. This is a story where, in a matter of weeks, a teenager goes from accidentally trying LSD to selling acid to pre-teens, then on to every parent’s nightmare: homelessness, prostitution, Satan worship, moving to San Francisco.
Go Ask Alice wasn’t “real” as it was sold to me and millions of other readers, but a creation of Beatrice Sparks, an ambitious writer of domestic advice columns. Sparks always maintained that she met the original “Alice” at a youth conference, a lie that Emerson neatly unpacks, along with many more of Sparks’s claims. But apart from lying in the name of keeping kids clean, were there any actual crimes going on? While the invention of the War on Drugs is key to how Go Ask Alice became a sensation, the central transgression of Unmask Alice is Sparks’s blatant plagiarism of a different diary.
While Sparks’s follow-up Jay’s Journal was never the phenomenon Go Ask Alice was, it did have an oversized effect. As well as popularising the myth of a widespread cabal of teenage devil worshippers, it devastated the family of Alden Barrett, whose suicide note and other journal entries were woven into the book. Emerson takes to task the sloppy verification practices that let Sparks get away with her nonsense, even making a sustained point in his afterword on how he used primary sources to try to get to the truth behind the story.
Snappily structured, Unmask Alice is a gripping, and sometimes snarky, read. Unlike Go Ask Alice, it knows just how entertaining it is, but takes pains to honor the victims of Sparks’ manipulation. It’s not essential, but even for those not gullible enough to have fallen for the ultimate teenage melodrama, there’s plenty to uncover here. — Margaret Howie
We love hearing from our contributors on the true-crime content we’re not able to get to (which, given the genre volume the last few years, is most of it). We also love paying them what they’re worth, which we’re not quite able to do yet, but your paid subscription would really help! It also defrays book-shipping costs, and our own subscriptions to streaming services.
We know the economy’s not great, but if you could throw in $5 a month (or $55 for a year), we’d appreciate that greatly.
And now, your premiere-date odds and sods! Paid subscribers will get to read my review of Leah Sottile’s When The Moon Turns To Blood in a few days; Netflix’s three-parter on the same case, Sins of Our Mother, drops September 14. You can watch the trailer below.
Netflix’s “Bling Ring” docuseries drops the following week, September 21.
Just in the first episode, intimate-partner violence, animal cruelty, burglary, assault…so consider this your content warning.
I don’t want to get too far into the weeds with Mike Tyson’s furious objections to the eight-part streaming series, whose first two episodes dropped today. I noted in March of 2021 that “tapping an Australian white guy to direct a docuseries on a Black boxer from Brownsville, Brooklyn is likely not the direction I’d go with that,” and comments from the production team have IMO a letter-of-the-law/“I apologize to anyone who was offended” flavor to them:
In regards to Tyson’s past criticism concerning the approach to the show, [executive producer Steven] Rogers told reporters [at a virtual TCA panel] that showrunners couldn’t talk to Tyson “because his life rights were already taken, so that was never on the table.”
“I would hope that if he watches it that he would change his opinion,” Rogers continued, according to Entertainment Tonight. “For me, as a writer, as a storyteller, I don’t really like to be reliant on just one source. I really like to do the research and get all these different opinions and then put a story around all of that. I don’t like to be beholden to just one person.”
I mean, sure, that’s probably true — but it’s also quite convenient to cite as narrative strat when the “just one person” in the title thinks you’re bullshit. In any event, Tyson is incensed that Mike even exists, has called Hulu a “slave master,” and is, I assume, not interested in an assessment of its per-se quality. That’s where I come in, and I think Tyson has a point in re: the cultural appropriation — and, “if he watches it,” is unlikely to “change his opinion.”
This isn’t to say that Mike isn’t watchable; it’s very watchable, not least because all three actor iterations of Tyson — Ethan Barrett as 10-year-old Mike, B.J. Minor as teen Mike, and Trevante Rhodes doing the heavy lifting as adult Mike — find ways to dig into and then project Tyson’s native charisma without looking strikingly like him; Minor in particular just draws your eye. There is a substantial reliance on imitating Tyson’s distinctive speaking style, for good or ill, but here again, it isn’t badly done, it’s more a question of whether it “should be” done in the first place.
My issue is more with the tone, and this is where the I, Tonya of it all can cut both ways. The series opens with The Bite, then freezes on it at a particularly outré and gory moment with a VO: “No no no, fuck that shit.” Smash cut to a re-imagining of the one-man show, and then back from there to Tyson’s childhood. From there it proceeds largely chronologically, but occasionally cuts in reconstructed interviews from the late eighties, Tyson’s mother in the late sixties, fourth-wall-breaking winks — it’s got a confident verve, but it adopts a dark humor about various dismal circumstances of Tyson’s childhood that just doesn’t quite work for me. I understand that there’s only so many ways to frame the story if you don’t want to slide into homework-dirge territory, but I also understand that there’s half a hundred ways to imply that a pigeon got decapitated that don’t involve slo-mo of the grisly aftermath, or playing Little Mike’s ensuing (and relatable) Hulk-out for laughs.
Dark humor is fine! But not everyone gets to deploy it about every topic, and that it’s probably the best choice on offer for this project doesn’t mean it’s a good choice. I also noted back in 2021 that Tyson as a narrative subject opens windows into so many other conversations, and should
get a Made In America of his own — about the two Brooklyns, the one where he literally fought to survive and the one with the Park Slope Food Co-op; about the way just about every single professional sport exploits young Black athletes, then closes off opportunities to move into broadcasting or coaching; about the corruption of boxing; about the echo chamber of accusations in a celebrity marriage.
I still think that. And that project could have wit, signature style, etc. and so on, but still let some things, some ugliness just sit, instead of mediating it with on-the-nose soundtrack cuts. I don’t care for reviewing that blames things for not being other things, and that’s not what I’m doing. Taking Mike on its own terms, it does what it sets out to do. The issue is whether that goal fits the subject, and if the subject is calling you out with hashtags like #slaveryisover, well…
Mike will drop two episodes a week going forward; I’ll stick around another week, I think. Each ep is only around 25 minutes, and while they may not be in the service of something that’s worthwhile overall, there are some compelling performances here that I’d like to see more of. But I may hold out for that rumored Jamie Foxx docudrama on Tyson instead. Or for Iron Mike: Forged In America. — SDB
Coming up on Best Evidence: A crime-fighting bowler. …We don’t make the news, we just report it.