Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Amanda Knox (Photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images), Elizabeth Smart (Photo: Lois Smart via Getty Images), and Drew Peterson (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Ripped from the headlines: 12 TV movies that raced from scandal to small screen

Amanda Knox (Photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images), Elizabeth Smart (Photo: Lois Smart via Getty Images), and Drew Peterson (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

This Saturday, Lifetime will air The College Admissions Scandal, a dramatic depiction of Operation Varsity Blues. The scandal over parents pulling illegal strings to get their kids into college broke this past March and spread like wildfire, especially given that two of the parents involved were TV actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. By July, Lifetime had announced that it would offer a dramatic depiction of the scandal; by August, The A.V. Club reported that Penelope Ann Miller and Mia Kirshner had “been hired to portray characters who are meant to be composites of women like Loughlin and Huffman”; a trailer was ready by September. We’re not great at math, but seven months seems like an extraordinarily quick turnaround for even a TV movie. The College Admissions Scandal (is the dumb title because Varsity Blues was already taken?) is the latest in a long string of TV movies ripped from the headlines and then rushed straight to the small screen: like the Elizabeth Smart movie that came out only seven months after she was rescued; and not one, not two, but three movies about the Long Island Lolita, Amy Fisher (two even aired on the same night!); and eight more, discussed below.

1. Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret (Lifetime)

When her sort of ex-boyfriend Travis Alexander was found gruesomely murdered in the shower at his Mesa, Arizona home in June 2008, Jodi Arias couldn’t have been a more perfect suspect. Her obsessive, years-long pursuit of Alexander was straight out of an early ’90s erotic thriller, as was her photography hobby and the pair of plastic-rimmed glasses balanced on her attractive face. So it should come as no surprise that producers jumped on the case, originally pitching Lifetime on what ended up becoming Dirty Little Secret in March 2012—eight months before Arias’ murder trial began. The trial and production of the film took place concurrently, a fact that savvy viewers should be able to intuit based on the simple fact that only the last five minutes of the film are devoted to the trial, usually a good third of a Lifetime true crime movie. A title card at the end covers what hastily rewritten courtroom scenes could not, but it didn’t really matter what happened in real life: Arias had already been convicted of being an emotionally unstable succubus in the court of Lifetime. [Katie Rife]

2. Amanda Knox: Murder On Trial In Italy (Lifetime)

Like Jodi Arias, Amanda Knox was tried in the court of public opinion long before she was sentenced to 26 years in an Italian prison for the 2007 murder of fellow exchange student Meredith Kercher. That conviction came in the wake of a vicious campaign against Knox waged in both Italian and international media, depicting her as a sadistic deviant who killed Kercher as part of a kinky sex game gone wrong. But not all media bought into the “foxy Knoxy” narrative: Eight months before Knox was acquitted in a retrial, the 2011 Lifetime movie Amanda Knox: Murder On Trial In Italy painted her as an innocent all-American girl being scapegoated by forces beyond her control, a depiction supported by the casting of apple-cheeked cheerleader type Hayden Panettiere in the title role. That’s unusual for Lifetime movies, which are usually eager to seize upon the stereotype of the cold blond seductress whenever they’re in need of a villain. And the story may very well have been different if the murder had taken place in America. In this instance, however, patriotism took precedence over slut-shaming, and Knox got a sympathetic portrayal in the TV movie of her life. [Katie Rife]

3. The Elizabeth Smart Story (CBS)

A rare case of kudos for Lifetime here: While the network finally did decide to shed a little light on the life of teenage abductee Elizabeth Smart, it happened nearly 14 years after her rescue—and in her own words, as the adult Smart (now a child safety activist) both narrated and produced 2017’s I Am Elizabeth Smart. CBS’s The Elizabeth Smart Story arrived much closer to the events in question, though, just eight months after Smart was rescued from nearly a year of captivity at the hands of self-styled religious prophets Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee. The Bobby Roth-helmed TV movie was based on the book Bringing Elizabeth Home, written by Smart’s father, Ed, who serves as the central figure of the story, briefly coming under suspicion from investigating police. (Maybe they just noticed he was being played by Happiness’ Dylan Baker.) Meanwhile, Heartland’s Amber Marshall stands in as Smart, enduring a harrowing but sanitized version of her brainwashing and captivity by Mitchell, less interested here in making Smart one of his “brides” than in simply espousing his messianic dogma. In the end, Smart’s story is one of those rare cases of the true crime industry doing some of the actual good it purports as its less-tawdry reason for existing; after all, it was only after the family’s portrait of Mitchell was distributed on shows like Larry King Live and true crime OG America’s Most Wanted that he was recognized by police, and the missing girl was finally found. [William Hughes]

4. Love’s Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder (Lifetime)

Obsessive teen love went tragically awry in the case of the Texas Cadet Murder, two killers so young that their “secret code” was to whisper “greenish-brown female sheep” (“olive ewe” = “I love you”) to each other. When high school sweethearts David Graham and Diane Zamora separated to attend the Air Force Academy and U.S. Naval Academy, respectively, Graham allegedly cheated on Zamora, and the pair then killed the girl he slept with. The killers’ and their victim’s youth, along with the twisted romantic aspect of the crime, was highlighted in Lifetime movie Love’s Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder (original title: Swearing Allegiance), with a post-Picket Fences/pre-Charmed Holly Marie Combs as Diane, David Lipper as David, and Models Inc. star Cassidy Rae as their victim, Adrianne Jones. Combs plays Zamora with a steely-eyed pragmatism, reflecting her real-life counterpart—when Zamora eventually confessed to her roommates at the naval academy, they said she seemed unrepentant—while Lipper’s voice-overs are painfully regretful. Both Zamora and Graham eventually confessed, but by the time their Lifetime movie aired in February 1997, their trials hadn’t even started (but were about to become a ratings hit on Court TV). In 1998, they received life sentences in prison—where they both eventually married someone else by proxy. [Gwen Ihnat]

5. Drew Peterson: Untouchable (Lifetime)

Proving that, while convicted wife murderers come and go, truly terrible Lifetime-crafted hairpieces are forever, Rob Lowe achieved “Oh god, no, not that mustache” immortality in January 2012, taking on the role of Illinois cop-turned-all-time-bad-husband-prospect Drew Peterson. Peterson was still nine months out from being convicted for the murder of ex-wife Kathleen Savio (Cara Buono) when Untouchable debuted (and another four years from getting a second sentence dropped on his head for trying to put out a hit on his original prosecutor), but he had already provided plenty of material for Lifetime’s writers to comb through, including an infamous Larry King interview that Lowe gamely squints through a recreation of. Peterson’s case is the stuff of tabloid gold—he was only convicted for the murder of his third wife after police began investigating the disappearance of his fourth—and yet the most enduring mystery surrounding Untouchable is why Lowe, at the height of a Parks And Rec-powered career resurrection, would subject himself to this ongoing indignity. In one interview, he goes so far as to suggest he agreed to the role because he had no idea why anyone would ask him to take on such a part; we wonder if he ever figured it out. [William Hughes]

6. Willing To Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story (Lifetime)

In 1991, Wanda Holloway was convicted of hiring someone to kill Verna Heath, the mother of her 13-year-old daughter’s cheerleading rival, in hopes that the girl would be so devastated that Holloway’s daughter could then take her place on the squad. The media jumped on the sensationalistic story so quickly that a Lifetime movie aired the very next year: Willing To Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story, starring Lesley Ann Warren as Holloway and Tess Harper as Heath. The movie plays everything pretty heavy-handed, highlighting Warren’s theatrics as Holloway flirts and jokes with her brother-in-law (William Forsythe) to set up a contract killer. According to Lifetime, the insecure Holloway was trying to make her daughter’s glories her own, taking helicopter parenting to a new, murderous level. HBO had better luck the next year with the Emmy-winning The Positively True Adventures Of The Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, which took a campier look at the ridiculous and fortunately bloodless crime, with Holly Hunter as a much steelier (and twangier) Wanda than Warren’s flightier version. [Gwen Ihnat]

7. The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story (USA)

Long before he murdered any remaining affection stemming from Lois & Clark by starring in a recent string of unhinged and misbegotten far-right Christian propaganda films (odd, considering his pro-choice and pro-gay marriage views, not to mention appearing in Lady Dynamite and other quality projects), Dean Cain played actual murderer Scott Peterson in the USA Network film The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story. Almost exactly 10 months to the day before Peterson was sentenced to death row for the murder of his wife, Laci (and their unborn son, leading to the passage of the controversial Unborn Victims Of Violence Act), the cable channel aired this cheesy slice of true crime hokum, which followed the case through the eyes of Scott’s friends and relatives. Beginning with the Christmas Eve night of her disappearance and ending with his arrest in April the following year, the movie paints the predictably and justifiably damning portrait of Scott as a man masquerading as an ideal husband while carrying on a string of affairs, including the one with Amber Frey (Tracy Middendorf) that began shortly before he killed his wife, and which contributed to his eventual arrest after she publicly revealed the relationship in a press conference. Co-starring a pre-Office David Denman as close friend Tommy Vignatti, the movie actually uses Cain’s oily Superman smile to good effect, showing how some all-American earnestness could help mask the actual behavior of such a sicko. [Alex McLevy]

8. Goodnight Sweet Wife: A Murder In Boston (CBS)

On October 23, 1989, Boston furrier Charles Stuart told police that a Black carjacker shot and killed his pregnant wife, Carol, and then shot him in the stomach. Less than a year later, CBS had a TV movie ready to go, after it was revealed that Stuart himself had killed his wife and unborn son, stoking the city’s racial tensions in the process. Ken Olin from thirtysomething turns in an outright chilling performance as Stuart, unfailingly soft-spoken even as he embodies the absolute worst kind of evil. The movie starts with the night of the shooting and examines how Stuart’s story eventually unraveled, fueled by Margaret Colin as a suspicious reporter. Flashbacks showing Carol as a sweet, supportive wife married to an icily calm psychopath make the real-life events all the more tragic. (Stuart eventually killed himself three months after his wife’s death, knowing that he was about to be charged for her murder.) Olin’s frighteningly true-to-life performance and the movie’s painstaking attention to the case’s details elevates Goodnight Sweet Wife (a quote from Stuart’s wedding vows) from sensationalistic fodder to a genuinely gripping small-screen thriller. Bonus: An extremely young BD Wong is a cub reporter who gets roped into driving Colin’s reporter around. [Gwen Ihnat]

9. Amy Fisher: My Story (NBC)
10. The Amy Fisher Story (ABC)
11. Casualties Of Love: The “Long Island Lolita” Story (CBS)

As illicit as it was mysterious, the seedy Amy Fisher saga was bound to captivate the perverse, tabloid-hungry masses of the early ’90s. A suburban 17-year-old alleged prostitute seduces blue-collar thirtysomething Joey Buttafuoco, then shoots his wife in a jealous rage? The barrel hadn’t cooled by the time not one, but three different TV movies were added to the broadcast schedule: 1992’s Amy Fisher: My Story served as the straightforward account, while the following year’s Casualties Of Love: The “Long Island Lolita” Story on CBS and The Amy Fisher Story on ABC drew lines in the sand, the former demonizing Fisher through Buttafuoco’s lens and the latter sympathizing with her as a manipulated, lovestruck teenager. In a move that capitalized on the case’s he said/she said drama, the two movies aired on the same night, with ABC’s soft-focus portrait of Fisher pulling ahead in the ratings, due in no small part to the casting of a post-Poison Ivy Drew Barrymore. A good thing, ultimately—the movie is as tawdry as its contemporaries, but at least it understands that Fisher, a minor, was a victim as well. Casualties Of Love, which starred Alyssa Milano, portrayed her as a one-note psycho. [Randall Colburn]

12. Who Is Clark Rockefeller? (Lifetime)

“There’s a stranger in my bed” is a solid, steady subgenre of wholly fictional Lifetime movies, so of course the network would jump on a real-life case of a seemingly upright man whose entire life turned out to be a lie. The man in question is Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, the German man who so convincingly played the part of “Clark Rockfeller” that he managed to scam a successful New England business executive into marrying him and having his child—and staying married to him for 12 years, even though he became emotionally abusive as soon as it became clear that his supposed old-money ties were never going to materialize. It took several years to fully untangle Gerhartsreiter’s web of aliases, and Lifetime wasn’t going to wait for the legal saga to conclude before putting this juicy story on TV. Lifetime might have benefitted from some patience, however, as Gerhartsreiter was convicted of first-degree murder in the case of a missing California man in 2013, compounding the 2009 convictions for kidnapping and assault covered in the 2010 film. Perhaps a sequel is in order? [Katie Rife]