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The Long Shadow of the True-Crime TV Movie

Before ‘American Crime Story’ and ‘Serial,’ streaming platforms and social media, sensational news stories made their way onto television as network original movies. Budgets, production values, and even true-crime ethics have evolved since the ’90s—but is the formula all that different?

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On the night of January 3, 1993, more than 20 million people tuned in to CBS to watch former Who’s the Boss? teen idol Alyssa Milano set fire to her good-girl reputation. The occasion was Milano’s portrayal of the infamous Amy Fisher, who shot and wounded the wife of Fisher’s statutory rapist, Joey Buttafuoco, when she was only 17. Casualties of Love was not a particularly nuanced production: In one typical scene, Jack Scalia (as Buttafuoco) aw-shucksed his way through the pair’s initial overt flirtation, as Milano tried her best Long Island cheese with lines like, “You can beep me. … I’m gonna give you a special code. Ya know what it’s gonna be? 007.”

The people missing out on this bit of small-screen cinematic history were probably glued—at the exact same time—to ABC’s own Fisher-inspired offering. The Amy Fisher Story starred a rehabilitated Drew Barrymore in the titular role, which helped bring the movie roughly 30 million viewers for its initial airing. NBC’s take on the affair—Amy Fisher: My Story (later redubbed Lethal Lolita), which aired before both Casualties of Love and The Amy Fisher Story—drew 27 million of its own viewers. As then-NBC senior vice president of movies Ruth Slawson told The New York Times about the Fisher bonanza, “I’m happy with the success of our own movie. But overall I’m not happy about the state of movies on television.”

Her lament might have had been prompted by the network-driven 1990s craze of true-crime movies of the week, which had just hit its stride with the sensation of the multiple Fisher-Buttafuoco dramas. At the time, a budget-friendly, quick-turnaround movie could find a major audience on network television, and after the Fisher dramas, a sort of arms race was launched. The three aforementioned broadcast networks, along with upstart Fox, wasted little time devoting their still-mighty resources to seizing on every news-grabbing death or con job as grist for the exploitation mill. O.J. and Nicole, Tonya and Nancy, Lyle and Erik—each blockbuster scandal got its adaption, creating an industry that made its money off the misdeeds of seemingly well-heeled Americans.

The only outlier was that period’s most perverse tabloid-fodder-meets-pop-culture phenomenon: the saga of Lorena Bobbitt, who in 1993 dismembered her allegedly abusive husband, John Bobbitt, and dumped his penis out of her car window while driving away from their house in a panic. Even by that period’s salacious standards, castration was outside the bounds of TV drama. That the Bobbitt story is now about to be reexamined in a Jordan Peele–produced Amazon docuseries, Lorena, provides some insight into how true crime has expanded—and, in some cases, evolved—since the early ’90s. Audiences’ interests and aesthetics have changed; ethical quandaries are now part of the public conversation. But the true-crime movies of the ’90s remain both a piece of TV history and a source code for future programming. While its products were eventually cast off to Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel, their basic formula is now being reimagined in prestige series and podcast anthologies. Our standards may have changed, but our prurient interests have been there all along.

From the 1960s through the ’80s, ABC, NBC, and CBS each reserved an evening per week of prime time for a feature-length film or miniseries, whether in the form of an original production or an edited-down version of a theatrical release. Their top-line branding was virtually indistinguishable—ABC’s Movie of the Week, CBS Thursday Night Movie— and the mission was generally the same: add a bit of Hollywood sheen to their lineups, buoy new series with in-program promotion, and, in the case of original films, maximize exposure for homegrown talent and up-and-coming voices. At their essence, TV movies were about standing out from the pack.

Qualitatively and tonally, they were a mixed bag. There were cautionary tales of teens run amok (1974’s Linda Blair vehicle Born Innocent); murder mysteries adapted from novelists like Mary Higgins Clark or Agatha Christie; ambitious projects in the vein of Alex Haley’s slavery miniseries, Roots. And that’s before accounting for stand-alone provocations like the 1983 nuclear-apocalypse nightmare The Day After. Some now-famous names were occasionally in the mix: Steven Spielberg’s debut as a film director was made for ABC in 1971, and eight years later, Stephen King’s second published book, Salem’s Lot, scared the bejesus out of a generation via its Tobe Hooper adaptation for CBS.

By the mid-1980s, thanks to huge ratings for dramas like the based-on-a-true-story (and Farrah Fawcett–starring) domestic abuse parable The Burning Bed, executives had landed on a surefire formula. “I was working for Sony at the time, and I was working with their movie-of-the-week division. We did a whole bunch of things—In a Child’s Name, Casualties of Love—that were based on other material,” recalls Vahan Moosekian, a veteran network producer whose credits include vintage TV movies like Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills and the custody-battle drama In a Child’s Name, as well as more recent series like Aquarius. “Sometimes they were just based on a true story, which gives you a little license to combine characters and stuff like that,” Moosekian recalls. “Sometimes you would fictionalize a little bit and wouldn’t say it was a true story.” Unlike the boom around the corner, the ’80s timeline of true-crime TV movies was not tied to a ruthless, fast-moving news cycle. “Back then, [networks] weren’t rushing to these more well-publicized stories or trying to rush to judgment before the information played itself out through the trial,” explains Philip Krupp, who coproduced A Killing in Beverly Hills.

Moosekian, Krupp, and their peers tended to toggle between working on two-part miniseries and classic made-for-TV movies. But those tidier 90-minute films represented the best of all worlds for networks and creative personnel, because they were typically cheap, easy, and profitable to produce. “There was a window of time in the early TV-movie days where Vancouver and Toronto were offering rebates and had an incredible dollar-exchange rate, and so all the studios wanted to head north,” says Desperate Housewives and Station 19 executive producer George W. Perkins, who once produced TV-movie standouts including 1991’s Face of a Stranger (starring no less than Gena Rowlands and Cynthia Nixon) and The Amy Fisher Story. “I could do prep on these in four weeks, we would shoot in four weeks, and then I could come home. And the jobs just kept coming.” It helped that Perkins found the work enjoyable. “It was like making little mini features. And at that moment, they were the highest end of TV, and they were very well paid.”

But by the turn of the ’90s, cable television had become commonplace, and Court TV, CNN, and their kin could cover titillating criminality with unprecedented persistence. The collective appetite for picking the bones of unbelievable felonies and follies had made itself plain. If development executives were to stay relevant, they’d need a crime so captivating that no round-the-clock news cycle could contain it—even if some of the details were embellished or the point of view skewed. And in the spring of 1992, they found their subject.

On May 19, 1992, a 17-year-old Long Islander named Amy Fisher shot and nearly killed Mary Jo Buttafuoco, the unsuspecting wife of 38-year-old body-shop owner Joey Buttafuoco, who had been carrying on an affair with the underaged high school senior. Fisher would serve almost seven years in state prison, while Joey Buttafuoco spent a bit more than four months in county jail; nearly 27 years on, the story still hangs over New York City’s suburbs like lore. Back in 1992, it was catnip for nonstop news networks and helped set the tone for those entities’ mix of hard current events and glorified gossip. The fallout from Fisher and Buttafuoco’s tryst was clickbait before the internet, and all the major broadcast powers sprung into action.

“It was a race,” says Helen Verno, executive vice president, U.S. movies, miniseries, and limited series for Sony Pictures Television. Verno, along with her daughter Judith Verno, currently vice president of development at Sony Pictures Television, coproduced CBS’s 1993 entry, Casualties of Love, later amended for home video as The Long Island Lolita Story. “That was the first movie I was involved in,” adds Judith, who describes it as having initially been a “local story that hadn’t broken through yet, and then it blew up. But we went about it the old-fashioned way. We wooed Mary Jo, we bought her rights, we got her story. That’s how traditionally these were done.” Consequently, Casualties of Love was particularly sympathetic to Mary Jo’s plight, and by extension Joey’s, allowing Milano plenty of latitude to sleaze it up. It also made the Vernos feel like they’d essentially called dibs, though they underestimated their counterparts’ zeal. “[Other networks] circumvented the traditional way of going to the victim and getting rights,” says Judith. “That, I thought, was a huge turning point where getting the rights to the victim of the story no longer guaranteed exclusivity.”

Not everyone saw Mary Jo as the singular victim. “Everyone was desperate to get Amy’s rights,” explains Phil Penningroth, who wrote the teleplay for what became Amy Fisher: My Story. According to reports at the time, NBC paid Fisher $60,000 for the rights to her story, and the movie claimed to tell Fisher’s “version of the truth.” Fisher herself does not recall speaking to anyone involved in production: “Not one person ever spoke to me or any member of my family,” she told The Ringer via email. “Apparently they didn’t need to, once they owned rights they could say whatever they wanted.” Penningroth maintains that he and two colleagues met with Fisher shortly after rights were secured.

My Story is an upside-down answer to Casualties of Love, with Fisher as the vulnerable casualty of Buttafuoco’s predatory advances. But it is also content to fixate on the peephole appeal of her and Buttafuoco’s illicit tryst, and actress Noelle Parker—as do Milano and Barrymore—doubles down on Fisher’s Long Island accent to the point of parody. Poor Mary Jo is more or less reduced to another bullying grown-up who practically goads Amy into the climactic assault. Ed Marinaro, who was cast as Joey, remembers that it was unique at the time to get to play a living person; his only determination and direction was “to make a point of trying to be unlikable. In this case, I didn’t want everybody to think Joey was a good guy.”

The reviews for all three movies were, unsurprisingly, less than warm, not that it mattered. Fisher’s story had resonated. And in 1993, there was little self-reflective analysis about how she was depicted, or about the media’s role in taking advantage of real-life trauma. The morning that ratings for The Amy Fisher Story and its competitors came in, it was a “seminal moment,” according to Diane Sokolow, who produced Casualties of Love (and 2018’s The Girl in the Bathtub). “The audience was so clearly there for it. If three movies, practically the same movie with different actors, get in the top 10 for the week, that’s a huge audience.” She also says that, however distasteful, being a part of that frenzy to be first and best “was the most fun I ever had making a television movie.”

And so the networks went all in. After figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a man associated with competitor Tonya Harding in 1994, NBC aired Tonya & Nancy, which starred Nightmare on Elm Street heroine Heather Langenkamp and was written by Penningroth based on publicly available material. (Penningroth remembers creating a scene, “much to the fury of the network movie execs,” in which characters similar to those execs are in a conference room talking about how they can get a program on air as fast as possible to win sweeps.) In 1993, Beverly Hills brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez began to be tried on charges that they murdered their parents in 1989. That trial and the subsequent retrial—the brothers were convicted at the end of the second trial in 1996—were broadcast on national TV, making them ripe for adaptation. In April 1994, Fox released Honor Thy Father and Mother, a controversial feature based on journalist Ron Soble’s book Blood Brothers, which delved into the allegation that the Menendez brothers had been molested and abused by their parents. CBS swept in one month later with the comparatively big-budget miniseries Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills, which starred A-lister Edward James Olmos and was based in part on the reporting of Los Angeles Magazine contributor Joe Domanick. Despite A Killing in Beverly Hills’ reception as a more nuanced take, Honor Thy Father defeated its qualitatively superior counterpart in the ratings. And then there was The O.J. Simpson Story, starring a young Terrence Howard and future True Blood baddie Jessica Tuck, among others, which found its way onto Fox for a January ’95 premiere—barely half a year removed from O.J.’s wild Bronco ride.

If there’s a common thread among these ’90s crime ficitionalizations, it’s less about the horrific nature of the acts than the real or perceived well-to-do-ness of their perpetrators and victims. Crimes of passion and ill-advised schemes motivated by greed occur every day. But when they take place in areas of assumed wealth like Long Island or Beverly Hills, or represent a shiny symbol of Americana like the Winter Olympics, they open the door to a uniquely lusty kind of voyeurism. “When you’re doing these stories as a producer or network studio, there’s a level of: How is a crime story also entertaining?” says Judith Verno. “I believe there was a period of time where people felt that it was more entertaining to watch people who might deserve it—where finding dramas about the rich and famous doing bad things to each other was popular.” While Helen Verno says that the enticement was “more class than race,” it would be hard to deny that, in the case of Tonya and Nancy or Amy and Joey, the stories shared what felt like the ultimate pleasure: finger-wagging at white people behaving badly.

Why, then, did these same content-starved networks fail to jump at dramatizing Lorena Bobbitt’s dismembering of her husband, John? Late-night hosts like Jay Leno certainly had their fun, as did Saturday Night Live; then as now, newsmagazines like 20/20 rolled out a series of soft-lens investigations. But several variables made it less of a sure thing for scripted showmanship. Beneath the crime’s shocking surface, the wider story’s conventional appeal as a TV movie was all but absent. The couple was interracial, but not glamorous like O.J. and Nicole. They were legally married, a big distinction from the ties that bound Amy and Joey. There was nothing Olympic-level at stake in their animosity. Lorena was merely a shy and scared woman who acted on a survival instinct to escape her husband’s alleged abuse. They were, most pointedly, a young middle-class couple from Virginia with volatile domestic issues.

Helen Verno, who was in a position to consider adapting the Bobbitt story at the network level, offers in retrospect, “I think it’s a story I didn’t want to tell because it’s a story based on one incident. An impulsive, moronic incident. Every true crime’s not interesting to me. I get the moment [of John’s castration], but I don’t think a movie is about a moment. I think a movie is about a story.”

Penningroth offers a less noble interpretation. “I heard [a Bobbitt film] discussed a number of times at a number of different networks,” he insists. “And it was like, ‘No, man. We can’t do that. We can’t cut off somebody’s dick.’ Believe me, they thought about it, but it was one step too far.”

By the early 20th century, reality TV and premium-cable original movies led to an ebb in both ripped-from-the-headlines productions and TV movies as an institution. The broadcast behemoths were suddenly fighting for market share with everyone from HBO and Showtime to MTV and USA. The collective, somewhat panicked wisdom seemed to be: forego relatively costly endeavors, and turn cameras on everyday Americans in extraordinary situations—remote islands, singing competitions—without allocating millions toward actors, wardrobes, and countless personnel. True-crime TV movies were put out of fashion almost as quickly as they were made.

“The networks discovered that, for half the money, you can make a prime-time show that gets as good a rating as something you spend a good deal of money on creatively,” Moosekian says. Much of the decision-making came down to the bottom line, but like any sea change in pop culture, fatigue with a longstanding mode—and a craving for something fresh and antithetical—crept in. “The audience attention was shifting,” Perkins says. “Reality TV was an immediate, every-week pleasure for people that were into that kind of programming, and TV movies were a commitment of two hours, and you had to decide you really wanted to watch the whole two hours.”

As cable channels and social media proliferated, it became less likely that any one example of bad behavior could captivate audiences long enough to turn around an adaptation. The true-crime TV movie had, like so much else in the landscape, been airlifted from its network environs to a very specific corner of the cable guide that delivered niche entertainment nonstop. Lifetime, which had shadowed the big networks in the ’90s (Kellie Martin fans, unite!), became its primary benefactor, churning out hundreds of rooted-in-real-tragedy thrillers. “People have always been interested in these stories,” says Meghan Hooper, senior vice president, original movies, coproductions, and acquisitions for Lifetime and A&E Networks. In her estimation, that Lifetime was left largely to itself helped it find a less over-the-top approach. “Authenticity is really important now,” she says. “Not to say we weren’t authentic before, but it’s not necessarily scrambling to be the first person to beat everyone else. It’s really making sure we’re telling it accurately, especially when it’s a survivor. Telling a story through their perspective and doing it justice has become more critical, and viewers seemed to be drawn to that authenticity.”

That shift in perspective has, over several decades, yielded a new generation of popular entertainment. Ryan Murphy, notably, won several Emmys and Golden Globes with his 2016 FX limited series, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and, in 2018, its successor, The Assassination of Gianni Versace. But plenty of other top-tier names, from Ben Stiller—who directed and executive-produced last year’s Escape at Dannemora for Showtime—to, fittingly, Law & Order maestro Dick Wolf himself, who glanced back at the ’90s with his Edie Falco–led True Crime: The Menendez Murders, have been compelled to craft longform drama from storied newsmakers past and present. In addition to their A-list casts and large budgets, these projects are notable for their attempts to reexamine the cases in a sociological context, and in some cases to overturn the narratives created in part by the TV movies that went before.

The parallel rise of true-crime docuseries narratives and forensic podcasts is hard to disentangle from the trend. Serial and Making a Murderer, which were downloaded and streamed, respectively, by millions, arguably altered the criminal-justice system itself, and begat yet more dramatizations adapted from podcasts in particular. At roughly the same point, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and other social-justice movements fueled a further interest in examining scandals and wrongdoing from the inside out, whether through an auteur’s revisionist lens or by auditing a crime in earnest.

Lorena director and executive producer Joshua Rofé is aware of how that industry timing may have helped advance his project, though he says his interest was raised more sharply by the release of President Trump’s Access Hollywood tape in 2016 and a Huffington Post piece around that point reconsidering Lorena Bobbitt. “In 2015, my friend and I were talking about what stories we could imagine Ryan Murphy and American Crime Story tackling,” he says. “And my friend mentioned Lorena Bobbitt, and I never thought about it again until well into making this series, but it definitely feels like a story that today could be given just treatment by a show like that, where you have real filmmakers handling something so deftly.”

Most of the old-school TV-movie minds praise the work being done by Murphy and his contemporaries. Still, there is occasion to wonder aloud what might have been with equivalent time and resources. In 2019, the true-crime ecosystem is self-replicating, matched with a culture that feasts on ephemera yet sees very little boundary between the timely and timeless. “They’re treating them like A projects,” says Paul Schneider, director of Honor Thy Father and Mother, of today’s TV movie-style endeavors. “It’s always your dream that you can do something with all the right resources and people so you can give due justice to the story.”

Many ’90s TV-movie stalwarts still work semiregularly on Lifetime Original Movies, which have gained a cult cachet and occasional Emmys recognition. “I do think it’s a bit of a lost art, and those of us who were fans in the ’80s and ’90s really can learn from the producers and writers and directors that were making them back then, because there is a fine balance in this storytelling, and these guys know what they’re doing,” says Lifetime’s Hooper. “They’ve mastered it, and it is a very specific skill. TV movies are much more difficult than I think people give them credit [for], and I think you’re starting to see that now in the resurgence.” In other words, nothing sophisticated starts off that way.

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