'The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey': TV Review

Not the next 'Serial' or 'Making a Murderer.'
9/18/2016

Through its first two hours, CBS' docuseries on the JonBenet Ramsey murder isn't effectively trashy or investigative.

CBS initially scheduled its miniseries The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey for six primetime hours kicking off this fall season and commemorating — "celebrating" sounds wrong and "honoring" doesn't feel like what's occurring here — the 20th anniversary of the 1996 murder that captured rampant media attention and captivated some portion of the nation.

After watching the first two hours, which premiered on Sunday night opposite the Emmys and NFL football, it's easy to see why CBS either decided or simply was willing to cut the docuseries down to only four hours over two nights. Had the project been gripping or illuminating or even sensationalistic enough to justify a six-hour running time, the network probably would have figured a worthwhile enough audience could be enticed.

It's not. Even assuming the series is saving basically every single one of its big twists and reveals for Monday's second night, it's none of those things. The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey also isn't as tawdry or exploitative as one might have feared, but isn't that almost worse, to some strange degree? You want something like this to proudly declare its reason for existing in its every frame, and there's none of that here. The Case Of isn't tabloid-y trash, but it also isn't reportorial in the slightest and it has been made without any appreciable aesthetic. The lesson of Serial, Making a Murderer and The Jinx isn't that audiences are inherently obsessed with true-crime programming, but rather that true-crime storytelling with particular access and a particular point of view can draw an audience.

Of course, even in dutiful repetition of tawdry crime details, The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey drew a big audience for CBS on Sunday, so why waste time on inquisitiveness or storytelling?

Instead of building the story around the presence of an onscreen filmmaker or utilizing a piece of the CBS News team to steer a reinvestigation, The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey uses dutiful-but-bland retired FBI agent Jim Clemente and New Scotland Yard veteran Laura Richards as the focal point. Clemente and Richards, who describes herself as a victim advocate, unquestionably have the background and basic credentials to be in this position, but The Case Of never indicates why this particular cold case is of particular interest to these particular investigators at this particular moment. Those true-crime sensations I mentioned earlier were driven by a personal and individual fascination for Sarah Koenig and for Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi and for Andrew Jarecki. "It's the 20th anniversary" does not count as an intellectual imperative.

Koenig and Demos and Ricciardi to some degree "found" their cases or amplified the light that had been cast on the cases previously. Jarecki found an entirely unique way into the case because of his access to Robert Durst. Clemente and Richards have been brought in to reheat very familiar leftovers and they've assembled a B-team of true-crime legends including Dr. Henry Lee, Dr. Werner Spitz, James Kolar and James Fitzgerald to poke at those leftovers.

The supporting team of experts is stuck in a conference room, part of an enormous production infrastructure that is yielding very limited returns in the first two hours. I'm sure that we'll get some payoff on the vast warehouse space that has been decorated to perfectly mimic the Ramsey house, but in the first two hours, other than people nodding and being impressed with the verisimilitude, it accomplished nothing.

Things have been more active in the War Room, but other than a brief tiff between Lee and Spitz about skull-fracture evidence that has already been part of the established case record, nothing happened there to justify everybody sitting around. You want to witness great minds bouncing theories off each other. Instead, we've spent a long time analyzing the lengthy ransom note, which is interesting speculation, but still just speculation.

Clemente and Richards are out on the road doing some investigation, but there's a strong beggars-can't-be-choosers vibe around the people they're talking to and the research they're able to do and a heavy ignoring of actual investigative merit. After spending a lot of the first hour in a recording studio with a sound engineer fiddling with dials and pretending that they were able to pull decisive data from the closing seconds of Patsy Ramsey's famous 911 call, Clemente and Richards go and talk to the actual 911 operator from that night, who says that nobody has ever spoken to her in all of these years. Initially that seems like it could be at least a minor miscarriage of justice until you realize that the operator has almost nothing to say, even when goaded by Clemente and Richards with one interpretation of what they thought they heard at the end of the call. It's not just that the 911 operator remembers nothing new or helpful 20 years later, but that our pseudo-hosts are willing to lead the unreliable witness, just as they walk in and tell the experts in the War Room what they thought they heard, rather than letting them draw any conclusions.

Everyone Clemente and Richards interview sounds sure of themselves, but that's because the JonBenet Ramsey Narrative Industrial Complex has been churning out specials, books and exposés for 20 years and there's no such thing as an unrehearsed story anymore. At that point, I guess you might as well let Patsy's friend Judith Miller tell tales based on things her young child told her that JonBenet told her decades ago. Third-hand recollections passed through the prism of two children? That doesn't even rise to the level of hearsay, but it gets screen time here. What possible new intelligence does anybody think they're going to get from a former gardener's interpretation of JonBenet and brother Burke's personalities from a couple times they crossed paths? To me, the gardener seemed creepy as heck, but maybe that creepiness stemmed from an eagerness to be a tangential witness in the two-decade-old crime and an eagerness to be on TV, neither of which is a criminal offense.

Maybe the second part actually will feature the interview with Fleet and Priscilla White that Clemente and Richards sought out in the first part, as producer Eddie Schmidt stood across the street with the van frustratedly unable to do anything. Schmidt, who has several onscreen appearances, worked with Kirby Dick, an intrepid muckraking filmmaker, and must have been constantly wishing he had more intrepid onscreen talent. I'm sure Clemente and Richards are good at their actual jobs, but they're not reporters and reporting is different from investigating; they can pretend all they want that what they're doing is investigating and so "the case comes first," but what they're actually doing is making a TV special.

So frequently, The Case Of forgets what it is. The reenactments are blurry, presumably to simulate the uncertainty of the case itself, but not interestingly shot. The case timeline is clearly presented and reinforced, but nobody's going to watch a miniseries just for a clean listing of events, unembellished by anything new. I guess I'm grateful that one interview was conducted at a picnic table by a river if only to vary the visuals.

Because nearly everything in the first part was so lacking in audacity, the project's lone moment of audacity becomes all the more bizarre and inexplicable. There's a version of this in which it would feel totally organic for the production to enlist a 10-year-old boy to bash a simulated skull with a flashlight to prove the level of strength necessary to fracture a skull with a flashlight. This is not that version. Here, my thought process went: "Oh, so this is how we're saying Burke did it? And no adult could be trusted to just hit the fake skull with limited strength? Who is this kid? What did they tell him he was doing? WHAT THE HECK IS HAPPENING?!" Leaving aside that at least they didn't dress the mannequin up as a pageant girl, this moment couldn't have been more sensationalistic and trashy. Basically, The Case Of either needed more stuff like that, more guilty pleasure moments to make you feel dirty and embarrassed for wallowing in this one isolated murder out of the thousands of murders each year, or else it needed no stuff like this. Either be better than trashy or be better than boring, but just be better.

Before The Jinx premiered, I interviewed Jarecki and I compared his show to the various Bigfoot-seeking shows that we watch even though there's the presumption that if Bigfoot were actually found, we wouldn't learn about it first on a basic-cable series. Of course, then Jarecki ended up catching Bigfoot, or at least Durst.

Maybe The Case Of producers Schmidt and Tom Forman found Bigfoot, too, but if a shocking revelation is coming in Monday's two hours, the doc did a feeble job of leading up to it and teasing it. And if The Case Of found Bigfoot, I also have a hard time imagining CBS telling the producers, "Yeah, great. Way to go. Can you find Bigfoot in two fewer primetime hours?" Based on Sunday's opener, The Case Of is just going to point the usual fingers at one or two of the usual suspects — Burke sure feels like the logical candidate so far — and leave things every bit as unresolved and unsolved as they've been for 20 years. CBS was smart to know that something with this little reason for existing didn't need any more time to exist.

If Monday's installment becomes thrilling, compelling TV and successfully solves the JonBenet murder, I'll be sure to check in to retract this initial skepticism. I'm not holding my breath.

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