MPR · Michael Peterson · Mark Greene
Plus: "Vengeance" is not thine, saith The Wrap
A couple weeks ago, we noted that Minnesota Public Radio had shut down APM Reports, a stable of properties that included the Peabody-winning investigative podcast In The Dark — and writer-owned Twin Cities online mag The Racket also thought something was rotten in Denmark (which is in fact a township in Minnesota, near the Wisconsin border). Thanks to B.E. tipster Donna, we might have an answer to, per the Racket headline, “What the Hell Has Been Going On at MPR?”
Sadly, Jay Boller and the Racket team report pretty much what you’d expect in the present age of buy-it-and-gut-it journapitalism:
For answers, we reached out to almost 20 ex-workers from MPR News, 89.3 the Current, and YourClassical MPR. With the exception of one single person who fondly recalled their tenure, the overwhelming consensus resulted in some tiny variation of: an out-of-touch board of trustees running the public institution like it’s a Fortune 500 company; stifling, bloated managerial ranks; and a general attitude of perceived indifference from top leaders toward the people who actually make the product.
The uniformity of that assessment was genuinely remarkable, and the term “Stockholm Syndrome” was deployed by three separate former workers.
“This could be one of the best newsrooms in the country, and it feels like it chooses not to be,” says Evan Frost, a photojournalist with MPR News from 2016 through last fall. “You should be able to see the absolute hemorrhage of talent happening at that place. They just take really fantastic people and kinda dump ‘em on the side of the road.”
The piece goes on to look at a series of increasingly grim layoffs; the role Garrison Keillor’s ouster played in the devolving situation; similar allegations 89.3 “the Current” host Eric Malmberg, a vetted story on which MPR suppressed; pay disparities between the executive suite and the content creators/union; and a past MPR music director calling the place a “boys’ club” (if “a bunch of overstuffed egos boasting about how they knew Hüsker Dü back when. Who gives a shit?!” isn’t the quote of the week, it’s on the podium somewhere). So, lip service paid to diversity and meaningful change, but only the kind that doesn’t re-slice the board’s pie? Sounds about right.
But at least Racket is trying to do something Defector-esque in the writer-owned-journalism space; I threw them a sub, and you can too.
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Hmmm, guess it’s follow-ups day around here — because The Wrap’s Simon Abrams confirmed my suspicions about B.J. Novak’s Vengeance from a few weeks ago. Here’s what I thought we were in for:
Fictional versions of true-crime worlds have a lot to offer — in theory. In practice, for every Only Murders In The Building, you’ve got a handful of lazily snide “satires” that don’t push too far past SNL’s Dateline skit, only grabbing the low-hanging joke fruit we’ve been served many times before.
Despite its pedigree, Vengeance seems like the latter, with a heaping helping of condescending to Texas rednecks on the side, which does not land great today, through no fault of the production’s, but…still.
According to Abrams, that’s pretty much what Vengeance serves. He does begin by praising Novak’s direction and mastery of “sitcom-style humor,” but not the material it’s in the service of:
“Vengeance” also reeks of both-sides waffling, the kind that suggests Novak wants to condemn true-crime podcasts while also pandering to an ideal audience — one that’s aware of their ethical quandaries but still listens to them (or just can’t escape the social orbit of people who do).
And the 1/3-dimensional redneck characters sound like exactly what I feared.
[M]uch of the movie feels like a shooting gallery whose primary targets are corn-pone protagonists with names like Kansas City and El Stupido (Eli Abrams Bickel), the latter being Abilene’s oafish, but amiable kid brother. These goofy personalities aren’t the main villains of Ben’s story, but they’re characterized with the same broad strokes that Novak’s story purportedly condemns.
So, as expected, Vengeance is a skip for me — but, albeit not in so many words, Abrams raises a good point about the difficulty of nailing the tone in a project like this. It’s intended as a satire, so it should have some humor to it, or at least wit, but at the same time you can’t go too comedic or it feels disrespectful, even in a scripted property — but it also can’t go too somber, or the self-seriousness can slide into melodrama.
I often return to American Vandal’s first season as the gold standard of true-crime satire, because as Bob Colacello observed about some Warhol film or other, you can’t send up what you don’t have down. American Vandal picked a “crime” that wouldn’t run its creators into trouble for flippancy, which Vengeance doesn’t do, but the real issue here, I suspect, is that you can’t satirize true-crime properties and tropes effectively if you don’t mostly love the genre. You of course can feel contempt for it also, and I sometimes do; the stack of paperback inventory currently occupying a corner of my desk is the capital of “the parody of the thing is the same as the thing” territory, truly (nine books, four have the word “Fatal” in the title). And you can feel…wearied by the wine/crime tank-top crowd and the tee-hee fonts that distance them from racist, classist systemic failures and turn cold cases into LARPing, and I sometimes feel that way, too. But if you primarily despise not just the genre but also people who care about it and the secondary victims in its stories, you get a sour snotty thing, or a cheap glib thing. Only Murders is also useful as a comparison; that show finds a way to concede certain toxicities without trying to act like it’s better than its characters for engaging.
…I should stop unpacking a movie I haven’t even seen, right? But I’d like to hear from y’all about what you think is the foundation of a successful fictional true-crime universe, satirical or otherwise. — SDB
Speaking of Only Murders In The Building…second-season trailer ahoy! I fear that my expectations have gotten too high and I will be disappointed when the show returns — kind of an inversion of its effect on me last season! — but we’ll find out in a couple weeks!
You can also peep the pilot script for the show as part of “It Starts on the Page,” “Deadline’s annual series that highlights the scripts that serve as the creative backbones of the buzzy shows that will define the TV awards season.” — SDB
Tubi premiered an original doc on Gary Ridgway, aka the Green River Killer, yesterday. It’s called Sins of the Father, and based on the production team’s CVs (think a lot of Snapped), it’s probably a miss for me, but if you’re a case aficionado, here’s that trailer as well. — SDB
The Staircase backlash has added another couple of chapters. Vanity Fair reported earlier this week that the subject of both Staircases, Michael Peterson, sent a “profane” note to Variety last week, so “incensed” is he “by the depictions of his children.” He’s probably more pissed off at Jean De Lestrade for selling the rights to HBO Max director Antonio Campos than he is at Campos per se, and his way of expressing that is classic Peterson — legitimately angry, but also evidently pleased with his own outré locutions.
VF is more interested in a documentary by one of said children, though — namely Margaret Ratliff.
As Ratliff makes clear in Subject, a documentary she coproduced that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this past weekend, she had no reason to believe that de Lestrade’s resulting docuseries, The Staircase, would be widely seen. She consented to participating in the project in 2002—years before the advent of streaming.
To tell you the truth, I found it hard to focus on Ratliff’s (justifiable) grievances after looking up Variety’s review of Subject and realizing I’d seen every doc whose subjects figure in this examination of “ethics in documentary filmmaking.” It’s the kind of meta conversation I’m in with the genre every day, so I hope it gets picked up by PBS or Hulu but fast. — SDB
“Two Bet-Craps in one week?? Go lie down.” Nah. And this one is by request! Our esteemed contrib Margaret suggested Anthony “Mark Greene” Edwards, betting he had “a decent BET-CRP score under his belt.” I had to agree; just off the top of my head, I could name Zodiac, that regrettable In Cold Blood remake that I swear I reviewed somewhere at some point, and Inventing Anna. And he doesn’t have a ton of IMDb entries, either — a respectable 64, which could really boost his percentage depending on how many name figures he’s played. Before cranking up the CRPometer, my guess for his number is high thirties.
Let’s do it.
The Killing of Randy Webster, 1981. Holy cats, this is an all-star line-up — in a TV movie based on a true story that first appeared in Texas Monthly. (The author of the article is played by Scott “Professor Randall” Paulin from 90210. Amazing.) But for our hero, just the: 1
Walking Tall, 1981. I didn’t remember they turned this into a TV series, although it isn’t surprising; moonshine-adjacent programming seemed to have a moment around the turn of 1980. Edwards only appeared in one episode, but Buford Pusser and his war on Tennessee vice were real, so: 1
Call To Glory, 1984. No points awarded for his role in the pilot of the Craig T. Nelson period piece, but I could not unsee this corn-tastic credit for JFK on the episode page. …Also: “(archive footage).” Yeah, thanks for the clarification.
Going for the Gold: The Bill Johnson Story, 1984. Edwards plays the titular Olympic skier, who got into skiing because it was that or do six months in juvenile hall. I guess I could qualify GftG as true crime thanks to the diversion program, but I mostly mention it because “Billy The Kid” seems like a prime topic for a 30 For 30. Johnson passed a few years ago, after suffering a horrific crash in 2001 and battling the cascading effects of the resulting brain injury for fifteen years. A similar documentary, The Crash Reel, has stayed with me for close to a decade. A tough watch I nevertheless recommend. …Right, Edwards. Sorry, buddy: 0
In Cold Blood, 1996. You read that right. And you kind of have to see the cast list for yourself, because my merely telling you about it (Gwen Verdon??) isn’t as effective. I also managed to track down my review of it, and I’d like to apologize again to Jeb Lund for putting him through it in TBP 096. Best not to dwell on this one, as the silver lining here is how many points it picks up for Edwards: 3
Zodiac, 2007. Well, we know it’s a two-pointer right up top, but here’s the question: is Edwards’s Bill Armstrong a name figure? Because he is as far as the movie is concerned — but I don’t feel like most overviews of the case even mention him, or if they do, it’s an afterthought. Almost anyone else in the cast gets those points; I don’t think Edwards does. (Side note: He’s in a Blue Bloods a few years later called “The Bullitt Mustang.” Bullitt is ostensibly based in no small part on…Dave Toschi.) Nor does he get the awards point, although it’s a nice, centered performance. (Zodiac did nothing at the “majors” that year. It didn’t even win an Edgar for the screenplay.) It’s a shame, but: 2
Law & Order: SVU S18.E05 “Rape Interrupted,” 2016. I’m not sure what made me check to see if the SVU wiki classed this as a ripped-from-the-headlines episode, but sure enough, it’s there. (The case is Brock Turner. “Allegedly.”) Good for: 1
Law & Order True Crime, 2017. Oof, what a disappointment this was. Not a hall-of-famer, no awards chatter for Edwards, but 30-odd years ago, we did know who Judge Weisberg was; he wasn’t Ito-level, maybe, but he was a name figure, so: 3
Inventing Anna, 2022. Too early to call re: awards; I don’t think this will end up in the HOF; Edwards’s character isn’t a name AFAIK: 1
WeCrashed, 2022. I confess I don’t know this case well (or, tbh, if it even sinks to the level of a case). I think Dunlevie is in fact a name figure, though. And boy, do I have to BET-CRP Leto before he, like, does a Jack The Ripper one-man show or something. For Edwards here: 3
…Wow, I way overshot this one. Edwards ends up with 15 points total. Divided by 64 entries, that’s a 23.4 T-CRP. Even adding in a couple of points I elected not to award, it still doesn’t get to 30, much less high thirties. I guess I thought I’d find more of the sort of quickly-forgotten TV movie almost every working actor has a couple of deep in the recesses of the eighties; he’s just got the one.
But I really like doing these — the weird connections you find, or leitmotifs (like all the Philip Baker Hall joints Joe E. Tata showed up in…k? or that Donna Mills’s BET-CRP seems like it’s got to be 44, minimum), or miniserieses that had half of Hollywood in them. This one took me two hours to finish because I tumbled down a Texas Monthly-in-Reagan’s-first-term rabbit hole and wasn’t in a hurry to clamber out. Keep the suggestions coming! — SDB
Friday on Best Evidence: Queer as Folk, Sandy Hook, and DNA exposes another shady doc.