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In the Era of True Crime, Lifetime Lives On

The 2015 escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat — abetted by prison staffer Joyce Mitchell — was begging for a dramatization. Lifetime stepped up to the plate (of course), and proved why their brand of storytelling still has value.

(Lifetime)
(Lifetime)

There are a couple of conversations from the near-recent past that I like to imagine playing out. The first: the one in which two convicted murderers asked an upstate New York prison staffer to provide them with a hacksaw (to escape prison) and a ride to Mexico (to escape upstate New York), and she replied, probably, “No, I’ll definitely get caught,” and they said, presumably, “No, definitely not,” and then she said — certainly, given what happened next — “Well, OK.” Another: the one in which said prison staffer, who is now serving a prison sentence of her own, was informed that her life, or at least the most embarrassing few months of it, was going to be turned into a Lifetime movie. I have no sources here other than my own powers of guesstimation, but what else could she possibly have said except: “Yeah, that makes sense”?

It does make sense. The 2015 escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility, in which they were aided and abetted by Joyce Mitchell — a married grandmother, I am obligated to inform you, who apparently believed that the three would spend the rest of their days together makin’ beach whoopie south of the border — is now on the network where it always belonged. New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell premiered Sunday night, and it hits most of the key targets of your standard Lifetime original fare: a lonely woman, scheming men, blooming romance, shadowy intrigue, an unhappy marriage, manual penetration in the store room of a prison sewing class … uh, oh, sorry. But The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell belongs to another genre, too: the true-life crime thriller.

True crime is in right now. From 2014’s Serial to 2015’s Making a Murderer and The Jinx to last year’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, we’ve been treated to a wave of glamorous, prestige tours of horror. Audiences continue to flock to the genre, enthralled by its grit, mystery, and macabre twists. For all its merits, though, the genre is mostly a bummer, and often disconcertingly voyeuristic.

The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell is a useful corrective to all that. To start, the movie has the charity to get the murders and gloom out of the way in the first couple of minutes: We get a montage of Matt’s (Myk Watford) and Sweat’s (Joe Anderson) respective grisly crimes, and then we’re on our way to a painting class at Clinton Correctional Facility, sped along by all-caps announcements that list the prisoners’ sentences with cartoonish sound effects. The rest of The Seduction is shot through with the same playfulness — and benefits from the understanding that before true crime was the stuff of highbrow podcasts, it was pulpy as hell.

Lifetime is as Lifetime does, and in Seduction you’ll get it all. The tale of Joyce Mitchell — played here by a frazzled and delightful Penelope Ann Miller — is at its core a tragedy, after all: What our central character thinks is a love story is in fact a disaster in slow motion, one in which even the best version involves hightailing it to a foreign country with three first names and a gross verb. But Seduction’s Mitchell isn’t ever really sad about her lot. She’s too busy practicing her Spanish — “necesito una mesa para dos” — to be particularly down about any of it. When she reads an account that one of her beaus was extradited from Mexico following a murder there, we see a dream sequence of a Mexican standoff, sombreros and all. Mitchell doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

The program has fun with the details. There’s a seedy prison. How seedy? Well, gosh, there are illicit hot plates and smuggled crispy nut clusters! There’s an unhappy marriage, full of back hair and heartburn. And then there’s poor, dowdy Mitchell, destined from the outset for black-and-white stripes. We watch her ignore the sweet nothings of her snoring cornball of a husband so she can listen to romance novels on tape and fantasize about a poor man’s Zihuatanejo, while her raggedy, homicidal paramours wiggle out of prison grounds, butt cracks bared.

There’s another way to do this story, one that delves into the violent pasts of Matt and Sweat as they find a new way to take down yet another hapless bystander, before their own natures condemn them to separate shootouts en plein air. We see all that in passing; Lifetime is more interested in reproducing the response you may have had when you first started seeing the words MAXIMUM-SECURITY ESCAPE and MANHUNT and PRISON WORKER and LOVE TRIANGLE in headlines — namely, what? The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell is sympathetic, insofar as painting Mitchell as someone oblivious enough to smuggle blades buried in frozen hamburger meat to a man who once sawed the body of a victim into pieces can be sympathetic — but given that the real-life Mitchell actually did that, the network seems to ask, what more is there to do but chuckle?

(Lifetime)
(Lifetime)

Take a look at the last shot of the movie, Mitchell’s own imagined finale. Someone at Lifetime — The director? The network’s senior manager of camp? The guy in the back who seems to be the only one aware he’s in a true-crime story? — looked at the tableau of a prison employee downing margaritas with a couple of murderers and a mariachi band and said: You know what, they need shots, too. With lime. Even ending the movie with a tequila’d-out Mexican daydream feels like an act of generosity: Joyce Mitchell is in prison, but on Lifetime, she gets to finish her story by taking a permanent vacation.

What I’m trying to say is: Flip on over to The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell at your earliest convenience, and thanks heavens for Lifetime: now as ever a beacon of pulpy weirdness in even the darkest of steam tunnels.