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'The Girl From Plainville' Shows How True Crime Dramas Are Evolving

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Published June 1, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Fanning gives a mesmerizing performance as a young woman accused of committing manslaughter via phone. - COURTESY OF STEVE DIETL//HULU
  • Courtesy Of Steve Dietl//Hulu
  • Fanning gives a mesmerizing performance as a young woman accused of committing manslaughter via phone.

Is an obsession with true crime ruining our society? I see this claim regularly, often paired with the observation that streaming services are creating more and more drama series based on lurid stories of wrongdoing. "What happened to original fiction?" these commentators ask. Why are stars such as Renée Zellweger ("The Thing About Pam") and Colin Firth ("The Staircase") participating in these glorified crime reenactments? Are we all just a bunch of voyeurs?

Well ... guilty as charged. When court cases capture the public imagination, that's because they come with stories that touch a nerve. Such is certainly true of Hulu's recently released eight-episode series "The Girl From Plainville," created by Liz Hannah (The Post) and Patrick Macmanus. It's based on Jesse Barron's Esquire article about how "speech alone" was enough to convict a young woman of involuntary manslaughter.

The deal

When 18-year-old Conrad Roy (Colton Ryan) dies by suicide, his close-knit family in a Massachusetts fishing town is devastated, particularly his mother, Lynn (Chloë Sevigny). In Conrad's room, Lynn finds a farewell note addressed to a girlfriend she didn't even know he had — Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning), who lives 30 miles away. Though the two teens met only a few times, they carried on an intense relationship by text.

Michelle inserts herself into the lives of the grieving family, organizing a fundraiser in Conrad's honor. Meanwhile, detectives read the teens' text correspondence and discover that Michelle knew about Conrad's plans and enabled, encouraged and finally even incited his death — all via phone.

The real Michelle Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 2017. The drama series retells the story using a dual narrative structure, alternating between the events that preceded and followed the suicide.

Will you like it?

The source material of "The Girl From Plainville" is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the thousands of text messages between the teens are a sort of ur-script that the writers were able to quote directly, using the principals' own words to offer a window into their troubled entanglement. On the other hand, two teens staring at their phones isn't exactly riveting drama.

The show's creators handle this problem by periodically leaving the domain of strict realism for what might be called the twilight theater of teen angst. When Conrad and Michelle text, we initially see only one side of the conversation — Conrad sitting by a backyard firepit, for instance. Soon, however, Fanning joins Ryan in the scene, and the two actors speak aloud as if actually conversing.

In these scenes, the actors alternate between interacting and gazing down at their phones, with occasional telltale moments — a side view when we would expect a reverse shot, for instance — reminding us that the characters aren't actually together. Thus the series cleverly replicates the phantom intimacy of online interaction, in which people can convince each other they're on the same page when they're actually volumes apart.

Michelle is depicted as being so wrapped up in her own imaginary drama that she doesn't realize how little she actually understands the problems of her supposed boyfriend until it's too late. The real Carter was fixated on "Glee" and quoted the TV show's dialogue in her text messages. Here, as Michelle tries desperately to romanticize what happened to Conrad, she imagines the two of them expressing their love in a "Glee"-style musical number. But the ugly truth soon emerges.

The series won't appeal to viewers who want to see Michelle depicted as a heartless narcissist, as she was in much early coverage of her trial. Here, as in Barron's account, both Conrad and Michelle struggle with depression, loneliness and social anxiety. Their texting has aspects of an ongoing power struggle and a folie à deux.

At the same time, "The Girl From Plainville" rejects the defense's argument that Carter wasn't responsible for her own actions at the time of Roy's death. Both principals and Sevigny give stellar performances, but the crux of the drama is a moment when we read a fatal shift of attitude — a decision — on Michelle's face. With immense subtlety, Fanning lets us see through the cracks in the character's guarded, faux-adult self-presentation to the adolescent delusions beneath.

"The Girl From Plainville" suffers from a common malady of streaming series: Longer than it needs to be, it sometimes drags, especially since its main focus is the day-to-day monotony of depression and grief. By sidestepping sensationalism, however, the series brings the deeper resonance of its story home to the viewer, reminding us why we get so obsessed with these dark tales in the first place.

If you like this, try...

"I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter" (2019; HBO Max, rentable): Erin Lee Carr's docuseries on the Carter case offers a multifaceted account of the facts behind the tabloid headlines.

"The Dropout" (2022; Hulu): If you like stories about the misbehavior of blond women with icy stares, this fact-based series about Elizabeth Holmes and her biotech scam is probably a must, though its portrayal of its subject doesn't always feel coherent.

"The Staircase" (2022; HBO Max): Colin Firth and Toni Collette star in a drama series based on the much-debated death of North Carolina businesswoman Kathleen Peterson. Like "The Girl From Plainville," this series has a restrained, art-house style, with Antonio Campos (The Devil All the Time) at the helm.