Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
John Anthony Denison and Drew Barrymore in The Amy Fisher Story (Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Attention, Ryan Murphy: 14 more true-life TV movies to inspire tomorrow’s prestige dramas

John Anthony Denison and Drew Barrymore in The Amy Fisher Story (Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

If you want to craft the compelling, hit drama series of today—the kind of show that feels like a can’t-miss cultural event—savvy showrunners know to look to the not-so-distant past. From FX’s The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story to last year’s Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, in the recently premiered Waco on Paramount Network and the upcoming Unsolved: The Murders Of Tupac And The Notorious B.I.G. on USA, the tragic stories of barely-yesteryear are being mined for our modern TV series, retold with a distance that allows for teasing out larger sociological themes—as well as plenty of nostalgic gawking at retro fashions and clunky cell phones. And in the case of I, Tonya, sometimes what once would have been a sensationalistic, slightly tawdry “Movie Of The Week” makes it all the way to the Oscars.

Before this trend inevitably exhausts itself, The A.V. Club has dug up 14 more true-life miniseries and TV movies that can be rehashed and gussied up for basic cable by Ryan Murphy or someone like him. Don’t forget to give us an executive producer credit.

1. The Amy Fisher Story (1993)

With I, Tonya giving Tonya Harding her moment of red-carpet redemption, it seems inevitable a similar fate could befall her fellow ’90s tabloid fixture (and would-be Celebrity Boxing opponent), Amy Fisher. The teenaged “Long Island Lolita” took National Enquirer headlines and David Letterman monologues by storm in 1992 after she near-fatally shot the wife of her 35-year-old lover, Joey Buttafuoco, owner of a body shop and one of America’s most amusing names. As testified by no less than three TV movies released within a year—in which she was portrayed by Drew Barrymore, Alyssa Milano, and Noelle Parker—Fisher’s story has everything that today’s makers of fine, prestige dramas crave. Sex, obviously, but there are also some larger themes to be teased out about the symbiotic relationship of crime and celebrity, what with Fisher openly planning to become rich from her infamy before firing a single shot, and all those burgeoning, sensationalist news shows like Hard Copy and A Current Affair becoming active participants in her trial. Plus, more ugly ’90s fashions! [Sean O’Neal]

2. Indictment: The McMartin Trial (1995)

Standing at the intersection of ’80s pop psychology and tabloid culture, the McMartin Preschool trial sparked a nationwide moral panic that had parents seeing child molesters around every corner after a California woman accused Ray Buckey, a teacher at the boy’s Manhattan Beach preschool, of preying on her son. It was later revealed she was a paranoid schizophrenic who’d also accused McMartin Preschool teachers of sexually abusing animals and “flying in the air.” But by the time anyone found out, it was too late. In a mass frenzy, hundreds of parents—with the help of unlicensed therapists asking extremely leading questions—got their children to testify that Buckey, his mother, and his grandmother had all been systematically abusing their students in bizarre Satanic rituals. The three-year trial—dramatized in the 1995 HBO movie Indictment: The McMartin Trial, starring James Woods as Buckey’s attorney—ended with all charges being eventually dismissed. But rumors about the McMartins, including an alleged secret tunnel used to smuggle children into occult orgies, persisted long afterward. The parallels to the similar frenzy around “Pizzagate” give the McMartins’ story a chilling topical resonance. [Katie Rife]

3. A Friend To Die For, a.k.a. Death Of A Cheerleader (1994)

Given the far better title Death Of A Cheerleader after Lifetime bought it from NBC, the 1994 Tori Spelling TV movie A Friend To Die For dramatizes one of the most shocking manifestations of ’80s “mean girl” culture. In June 1984, cheerleader and varsity swimmer Kirsten Costas was found bleeding to death on her neighbor’s driveway in the wealthy suburb of Orinda, California. A murder in a quiet, tony neighborhood is shocking enough, but her case received nationwide attention once the perpetrator was revealed: Bernadette Protti, a member of Costas’ clique who stabbed Costas with a kitchen knife out of jealousy over her perfect life. The film fictionalizes it slightly, casting Spelling as snobby rich girl “Stacey” and Kellie Martin as her plain, shy frenemy “Angela” to tell the story from the more sympathetic perspective of the unpopular girl who’s driven to violence by the cruelty of her peers. That’s a premise so in Ryan Murphy’s wheelhouse, he already basically did it—albeit wholly invented—in Fox’s Scream Queens. [Katie Rife]

4. Fatal Vision (1984)

The mystery of Jeffrey MacDonald became an American obsession in the early ’80s, after MacDonald, a Green Beret Captain and Army doctor, hired journalist Joe McGinniss to write a book that he hoped would finally clear him in the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters. Instead, McGinniss slowly became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt, penning the 1983 bestseller Fatal Vision that inspired a hit, Emmy-winning miniseries the next year. In it, McGinniss suggested the killing—a bloodbath reminiscent of the Manson Family murders—was committed by MacDonald in an amphetamine-crazed frenzy. The story captured the Reagan decade’s drug paranoia and burgeoning, dark-side-of-the-’60s revisionism, while the accusations of ethical misconduct against McGinniss (MacDonald sued him for fraud) and lingering questions stretched well into the 21st century with McGinniss’ 2012 sequel, Final Vision. That same year, documentarian Errol Morris delved into what he saw as McGinniss’ “pathological” relationship to MacDonald in his book A Wilderness Of Error—Morris’ meticulous examination of a flawed justice system and the media’s culpability within. While Morris couldn’t get it made into a film, MacDonald’s still-murky case could easily fuel a thoughtful (and tastefully salacious) drama series on same. [Sean O’Neal]

5. Cruel Doubt (1992)

For much of its 44-year history, Dungeons & Dragons has been viewed as a geeky, albeit harmless pursuit—except for occasionally getting caught up in moral panics about suicide and Satanism. Long before it turned up on Stranger Things, TV approached the game primarily through true-crime stories. In 1982, Tom Hanks scored his first major role in Mazes And Monsters, a fictional film very tenuously inspired by the suicide of alleged D&D fan James Dallas Egbert III (though the research there was dubious, to say the least). Ten years later, real-life mother and daughter Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow starred in Cruel Doubt, a miniseries based on a book from Fatal Vision author Joe McGinniss—practically the guru of this genre—about the real-life murder of Lieth Von Stein by his D&D-loving step-son. Exploring the sometimes-dangerous blurring of fantasy and reality seems like it’s still a ripe subject for the social media age, one that could fuel another show that, hopefully, would aim for a less sensationalistic middle ground. Maybe it could even cast Hanks as D&D co-creator Gary Gygax? [Danette Chavez]

6. Adam (1983) and Adam: His Song Continues (1986)

Nearly 30 years since the debut of America’s Most Wanted and four since the launch of The Hunt With John Walsh, it’s easy to forget what made John Walsh devote his life to catching criminals: the kidnapping and murder of his 6-year-old son, Adam. His death drew national attention in 1981, which made a TV movie about the case inevitable. Adam chronicled the days following the child’s disappearance and scored a grim hit for NBC, which then reran the film annually. The cast returned for 1986’s Adam: His Song Continues, chronicling John and Revé Walsh’s efforts to raise awareness of child endangerment. Ultimately, the case of Adam Walsh’s disappearance and murder wasn’t officially closed until 2008, and today the story remains as gut-wrenching as ever. A new, deeper look could broaden its scope to examine the kidnapping panic that ensued in the film’s wake, fueled in large part by John Walsh and statistics later revealed as grossly inflated. It could also look at the immediate rise of often-exploitative true-crime shows, following the precedent set by Walsh’s own America’s Most Wanted. Could one show handle that much prestige bait? [Kyle Ryan]

7. The Preppie Murder (1989)

The fact that he looked like he’d walked right out of a Ralph Lauren ad was enough to make Robert Chambers, dubbed the “Preppie Killer,” tabloid catnip. In 1986, the then-20-year-old Chambers was arrested for murdering 18-year-old Jennifer Levin in Central Park, which he blamed on an accident stemming from consensual “rough sex.” The salacious details of the story—contrasted against Chambers’ prep-school, “altar boy” background (which was further complicated by his record of burglary and drug abuse)—fueled headlines for weeks before Chambers eventually pled guilty to manslaughter, serving 15 tumultuous years in prison. Chambers’ case has reverberated throughout pop culture, inspiring Sonic Youth and The Killers songs and episodes of Law & Order, garnering a mention in American Psycho (Patrick Bateman was a fan), but only giving rise to a single, forgettable TV movie, 1989's The Preppie Murder, with William Baldwin as Chambers and Lara Flynn Boyle as Levin. A new series could explore the (unfortunately still topical) privilege inherent to the way the media played off Chambers’ and Levin’s respective reputations at the time, along with the flawed legal system that, as Levin’s mother has pointed out, actually gave Chambers a lengthier sentence in 2007 for drug trafficking, which he’s currently still serving. Chambers’ soft-spoken remorselessness would be an ambitious challenge for someone like Ansel Elgort or Taron Egerton to take on. [Gwen Ihnat]

8. Billionaire Boys Club (1987)

Starring Judd Nelson at his mid-’80s cockiest, 1987’s two-part TV movie Billionaire Boys Club netted Nelson a Golden Globe nomination for his role as Joe Hunt, the real-life Ponzi schemer who fleeced investors out of millions in order to fund his friends’ lavish lifestyles. Hunt’s club—so named because it was populated solely by L.A. rich kids—soon graduated from shifty, Wolf Of Wall Street-style shenanigans to outright murder, with Hunt convicted in ’87 of killing another con artist who’d swindled him, as well as one of the club member’s fathers. It all made for a timely portrait of yuppie greed gone horribly awry, and with that sort of mentality making a comeback, now could be the time for a Billionaire Boys Club revival. James Cox certainly thought so: He directed an Ansel Elgort-starring remake (with Nelson in a supporting role) that, unfortunately, also features Kevin Spacey. But with Spacey’s unfolding sexual misconduct problems, it’s uncertain whether it will ever see release. So maybe this is an opportunity for someone else to try it as a limited TV series instead—one that keeps the boxy suits and retro music intact, while also expanding on the timeless message about the dangers of shitty, entitled dudes. [Sean O’Neal]

9. Guyana Tragedy: The Story Of Jim Jones (1980)

The story of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple cultists he led to mass suicide in 1978 already inspired a 1980 miniseries starring Powers Boothe, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of Jones. The chance to inhabit such a terrifying, powerful character seems like obvious prestige bait for another actor, who would get to sink their teeth into Jones’ transformation from a progressive civil rights activist, lauded by the likes of Harvey Milk and Jerry Brown, into the megalomaniac responsible for the largest number of American civilian deaths before 9/11. And while the miniseries was criticized for spending too much of its runtime on Jones’ former political life, then rushing through his descent into a drug-crazed, nuclear holocaust-fearing, sexually abusive madman, a new drama series could stretch out over several episodes, giving greater weight to each turn of events that led to the deaths of more than 900 of Jones’ followers. Similar to the recent Waco, it could explore still-timely themes of faith, power, and the uneasy relationship between church and state, while delving into one of the darkest stories in American history. [Gwen Ihnat]

10. Everybody’s Baby: The Rescue Of Jessica McClure (1989)

For 58 hours—and across years of magazine profiles, Michael Jackson videos, and Simpsons parodies to follow—the whole world knew the name of Jessica McClure, who in 1987 tumbled down a well and became the most famous toddler since Lindbergh’s baby. The rescue and surrounding media circus has been dramatized once before, in the 1989 TV movie Everybody’s Baby (a film mostly notable for starring a young Will Oldham—yes, that Will Oldham—as Jessica’s teenage dad). But despite its central action mostly involving everyone looking flustered around a big hole in the ground, there are plenty of layers and side stories to be explored in a new series, from desperate rescue crews to the ratings-hungry press—particularly a nascent CNN, which made its bones on the 24-hour coverage of Baby Jessica’s story. With the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, it could also explore the after-effects of those brief brushes with fame for Jessica and everyone involved, a reversal of fortune that hastened her parents’ divorce and led to a nasty custody battle, and—most tragically of all—eventually led to the suicide of Robert O’Donnell, the paramedic who pulled Jessica out, after he found he couldn’t cope with its decline. It’s a suspenseful story about people coming together, then being torn apart that’s ripe for revisiting. [Sean O’Neal]

11. Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story (1987)

The Emmy-nominated The Burning Bed opened up a second career for Farrah Fawcett, who spent most of the ’80s starring in TV movies based on real, often-troubled women. One the most successful was the 1987 miniseries Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story, a dramatization of the lavish, yet privately tormented life of the scion to the Woolworth’s empire. Across a TV-friendly span of decades, Hutton had high-profile affairs with powerful men like Howard Hughes and wedded myriad members of royalty and other race-car-driving playboys—and even Cary Grant—only to endure endless exploitation and mistreatment at their hands. Hutton was a media sensation from the days of her debutante ball, the excess of which, in the midst of the Great Depression, caused her to become a perennial punching bag for the press, who delighted in covering her many failed relationships, her descent into alcoholism and suicidal depression, and her eventual near-total bankruptcy, after a lifetime of using money to buy affection. Someone like Ryan Murphy could have a field day with the glitzy scandals of Hutton’s outsized soap opera—and hey, it won the Golden Globe for Best Miniseries once already. [Sean O’Neal]

12. Gone In The Night (1996)

In 1988, Jaclyn Dowaliby was abducted from her Midlothian, Illinois home in the middle of the night while her parents slept. A week later, the 7-year-old girl’s body was found in a field in a neighboring Illinois town, having been strangled with rope from the family’s own garage. Jaclyn’s estranged father, Jimmy Guess, immediately came under suspicion, but since he’d been “relocated” to a Florida prison, investigators turned to Jaclyn’s mother Cynthia and stepfather David Dowaliby. Over the course of the next two years, Cynthia and David were charged and tried for Jaclyn’s murder. David was found guilty and sentenced to 45 years in prison after a witness claimed he’d seen him near where Jaclyn’s body was found, but his conviction was overturned in 1991 based on the shakiness of that testimony. Jaclyn’s murder remains unsolved to this day. Shannen Doherty and Kevin Dillon played the Dowalibys in the 1996 TV movie, Gone In The Night, but the various investigative twists of one of Illinois’ most famous cold cases could benefit from the kind of longer format given to something like Netflix’s Making A Murderer—especially as a critique of how the criminal justice system handles high-profile investigations, and the way a community’s need to solve a heinous crime can sometimes supersede due process. [Danette Chavez]

13. All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story (2000)

These days, the news is filled with reports of inappropriate sexual relationships between teachers and their students—a permanent tabloid fixation that has roots in its most notorious example, Mary Kay Letourneau. In 1996, the former sixth-grade educator became a media obsession when she was charged with rape of a minor, her then-12-year-old student Vili Fualaau, then gave birth to their first child during the trial. Letourneau’s case became even more explosive two years later when, a mere two weeks after her release from prison, she was again caught with Fualaau in her car, a large amount of cash and her passport on hand, then subsequently gave birth to their second child. All of this was already recounted in the Penelope Ann Miller-starring 2000 TV movie, All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story, but even it only barely scratched the surface of Letourneau’s tragic, mixed-up life: her childhood as the daughter of a philandering U.S. Congressman (and onetime presidential candidate); the traumatizing death of her 3-year-old brother; her abuse at the hands of her first husband. Then there are all the things that have happened since 2000, including a prison term Letourneau spent largely in solitary confinement, followed by a 2005 marriage to Fualaau that saw the two trading on their infamy—including hosting “Hot For Teacher” club nights and having their wedding filmed for Entertainment Tonight—before separating last year. Theirs is a decades-spanning story of sex, scandal, and uniquely 21st-century celebrity—the kind that’s indistinguishable from morbid fascination—that could easily fill eight episodes of shamefully titillating television. [Sean O’Neal]

14. The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story (2004)

Scott Peterson’s 2002 murder of Laci Peterson, his eight-months-pregnant wife, has already spawned two TV movies: 2004’s The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story, starring Dean Cain as the calculating killer; and 2005's Amber Frey: Witness For The Prosecution, told from the point of view of Peterson’s massage therapist girlfriend (The West Wing’s Janel Moloney), who became the star witness in his trial. With that many angles to cover, Peterson’s case could easily be stretched into another season of American Crime Story: The investigation—which hinged on a single strand of Laci’s hair found in her husband’s boat—and the way Laci’s family went from defending Scott to suspecting him are compelling enough on their own, while the trial and Frey’s reveal of damaging taped phone calls are readymade for episodic cliffhangers. And as with so many of these stories, there’s also the ravenous press, who mined the public’s appetite for sordid details with headlines like “Secret Laci Files” and “Trapped By His Lies.” It could make a larger statement about our endless fascination with this kind of thing, which stretches from the newsstand to our modern TV shows. [Gwen Ihnat]

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