Where is the line between entertainment and exploitation? Do television producers have a moral obligation to the real people whose lives serve as fodder for their series?
These are questions I found myself grappling with while watching the new Hulu limited series. Plainville’s daughter. After I finished watching all eight episodes, I procrastinated in writing my review. Something about examining a recent real-life tragedy just seemed wrong. Because unlike other recent true-crime TV series, including Invent Anna, The stallWhere We crashedthe victim in Plainville did not lose money or status. He lost his life.
Plainvillefrom executive producers and showrunners Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus, tells the story of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts native Conrad “Coco” Roy (Colton Ryan), a recent high school graduate, who committed suicide on July 13, 2014. Shortly after his death, it was discovered that his girlfriend Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning, who is also an executive producer of the series) – who lived in Plainville, Massachusetts – had encouraged him to kill himself and had him even said at one point that he gets back in his car filled with carbon monoxide.
Roy’s death is a heartbreaking tragedy. He passed away less than eight years ago, and I suspect the loss of a beloved brother, son, and grandson is still felt deeply and daily by his family. The deeply disturbing nature of Carter’s texts, combined with the groundbreaking legal ramifications of Carter’s trial, made the case perfect tabloid fodder. The press crews descended into the courtroom. Carter was on the cover of People magazine. There has already been a 2018 Lifetime movie, Conrad & Michelle: If words could killwith Bella Thorne and Austin P. McKenzie, and HBO had a two-part documentary series I Love You, Die Now: The Commonwealth V. Michelle Carter in 2019. Roy’s tragic death has been explored (exploited?) time and time again.
So the question really becomes what can Plainville to offer viewers? Most TV shows don’t need to justify their existence. This one does and, for the most part, meets the challenge. The series, which is based on an Esquire article of the same name written by Jesse Barron, is never sensationalized. He seeks to explain but never to justify the circumstances that led to Roy’s death.
Ultimately, the truly outstanding performance makes this series. Fanning and Ryan portray their characters with a palpable empathy that transcends the source material taken from the headlines. They take their characters beyond sensationalized sound bites. Fanning makes Michelle a fully realized character and gives her a depth beyond the image we’ve all come to know of a brooding girl with blonde hair and abnormally dark eyebrows. Before the truth was revealed, just being the girlfriend of a boy who committed suicide propelled Michelle to fame, making her the likable heroine and giving her the attention she craved. so desperately needed. (Michelle needs love and validation so much that she worries even though the judge loves her.) Ryan, for his part, gives Conrad such deep sadness. He is a boy who loves his family and has goals and dreams, but the daily battle with his inner demons has become insurmountable.
The entire cast is great, but Chloë Sevigny is a real standout as Coco’s mom, Lynn. Her pain is so raw. Her devastation at her inability to save her son is heartbreaking. Coco’s parents and Michelle’s parents are not perfect, but they are loving and involved and want the best for their children. What Plainville makes it clear that there are so many gray areas in this story; nothing is as black and white as the headlines might have made it out to be.
Coco and Michelle first met while vacationing with their families in Florida, but their relationship was forged over texts. Conrad struggles with depression and has already attempted suicide. Michelle has an eating disorder and struggles to fit in at school. She’s not the girl people include. No one considers her a close friend. Michelle is obsessed with the show Joy often performing scenes from the Fox series in the mirror or saying monologues as if they were his own words. The hyper-realized world of Joy offered her comfort, but Michelle is also delusional. “The jury has to figure out our love story,” she told her attorney at one point.
Plainville uses multiple smart devices to convey her difficult story. When the two characters text each other feverishly, the series has them talking face to face. It brings to life how, even though the two teenagers mostly communicated via words on a screen, they really felt like they were talking to each other and carrying their innermost thoughts and fears. The couple created a world only they knew.
I remember studying adolescent development in school, and one thing that has always stuck with me is how difficult it is for an adolescent brain to fully understand the long-term consequences of its actions. While watching Plainville it becomes clear that Michelle may not have fully internalized that Conrad’s death would be permanent.
At one point, Michelle’s parents, Gail and David Carter (played so brilliantly by Cara Buono and Kai Lennox) grapple with the texts they know now that Michelle sent Conrad. “We don’t know the context,” says Gail. “Can you think of a context in which all of this is acceptable?” David answers.
And the truth, which Plainville recognize is that there is no context where everything that happened in this devastating story is correct. But it’s a provocative series that gives perspective and will make you think about the news media’s willingness to exploit a tragedy, the difficulty of being a teenager, and the harshness of society towards young women.
I’m still not sure if this is a story that needed to be told, but if it is, I’m very glad Hannah and Mcmanus were the ones who did.
The first three episodes of Plainville’s daughter premiering March 29 on Hulu.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with it as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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