Final Witness debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
If you find what most true-crime shows offer a little low-rent, but feel the average scripted procedural falls on the sterile side, ABC has solved your television quandary. Final Witness is a show for viewers who want their murder stories to look polished without having to sacrifice the chill of knowing they’re based on true events. Presented in a limited series of seven episodes, Final Witness presents itself as a unique, artistically and intellectually hefty way of getting that ripped-from-the-headlines fix.
Besides the promise of high-end reenactments and generally upscale production value, the narrative twist of Final Witness involves first-person narration from the point of view of the deceased, which moves a step beyond dramatic recreations in its artifice and creative license. (As such, it’s a device seemingly snagged from the first season of Desperate Housewives.) Those bothered by the alleged scripting or producer-handling of reality shows like The Real World might be far more disturbed by the blurring of reality and fiction in the telling of murders involving the loved ones of real human beings who appear on the show, but if the first episode of this series is any indication, the gimmick actually works.
Bearing an “oh duh” title—“The Kids Aren’t Alright”—the première begins with the murder of Penny Caffey (the loving mother and faithful Christian chosen to be the episode’s narrator), her husband Terry, and their three children. We see them lying in pools of blood while Penny explains that this was not how she imagined dying, that she thought she would go peacefully, surrounded by grandchildren, just before the house goes up in flames to the sound of some pretty rockin’ 1990s PJ Harvey-style music. As the hour proceeds, it’s revealed that Terry actually survived, along with his daughter Erin, the latter of whom may have been involved in the grisly murders as a result of a teenage romance so intense it seemingly unhinged her. The story is teased out through a combination of Penny’s narration, reenactments, archival footage and photography, and interviews.
Final Witness hardly revolutionizes the true-crime genre; despite its attempts to distinguish itself from its less-lofty brethren, the show very much falls into the same category as Forensic Files and The First 48. The use of the term “documentary-fiction hybrid” on the show’s website—a turn of phrase usually reserved for experimental indie films like Alamar or, more recently and relevantly, the based-on-true-events film The Imposter—might sound relatively novel in this context, but it applies to most other shows in the genre. After all it’s just a fancy way to say “this show uses reenactments to bring dead things to life,” and reenactment is any true-crime program’s bread and butter.
The way in which Final Witness butters that bread, though, sets it apart from the rest of the basket. Gone are the Vaseline-smeared lenses and slow-motion close-ups used to mask a low budget; these reenactments are crisp and cinematic, sometimes resembling the dreamier love-gone-wrong portions of a Lana Del Rey video. Beyond aesthetics, these scenes (the show and most press materials avoid the words “reenactment” or “recreation” like the plague, but for the sake of clarity I’m willing to use them) often focus on seemingly small details—looks passed between Erin and her creepy boyfriend, for instance, or a family dinner—rather than illustrate the major plot points. This subtle difference of approach pays off by bringing the Caffeys’ story to life in a way that a newspaper report couldn’t, even if some of the details may be extrapolated. And as simple a technique as the first-person narration is, it’s a refreshing and effective angle for this kind of show; at the best of times, it allows the directors to create, if not a particularly complex depiction of these characters, at least a deeper and more meaningful link to their humanity. The overall effect is that for whole minutes at a time it’s possible to get lost in the narrative of the episode. There’s an emotional investment involved, not just a guilty desire for the lurid details. This is like the highbrow, PBS version of run-of-the-mill true crime shows; Final Witness is to Dateline what any contemporary series on Masterpiece Mystery is to Law & Order.
A perverse fascination with the violence done unto others is a popular American (if not world-wide) pastime; this New York Times article from 2011 wryly observes that while crime in America is gradually waning, crime stories presented on primetime television are growing in type and number. (The piece also provides a nice array of saucy-yet-hard-nosed titles like Deadly Women and On The Case). Final Witness moves the genre forward in small ways, but the questions remain: Will the show entice viewers turned off by the tawdrier aspects of the true-crime genre? Or, when it comes down to it, is a true-crime-as-entertainment miniseries like a good beach read: the trashier the better?