'The College Admissions Scandal': TV Review

Courtesy of Sergei Bachlakov/Lifetime
Wooden, and sort of delicious.
10/12/2019

Penelope Ann Miller and Mia Kirshner star as villainous helicopter moms in Lifetime's fictionalized account of Operation Varsity Blues.

It was the schadenfreude heard round the world. Last March, a bombinating mass of netizens took to social media to revel in the out-of-nowhere announcement of Operation Varsity Blues: the FBI's investigation into a criminal conspiracy orchestrated by affluent parents bribing their children's way into elite undergraduate institutions. Over 50 people were charged in this elaborate fraud, including Oscar-nominated actress Felicity Huffman and former Full House star Lori Loughlin, and both will be forever tainted in the public eye for such blatantly venal and arrogant dealings. 

What felt most delicious about the scandal wasn't just learning of the sheer audacity of scams like using Photoshop to get a kid recruited for a sport they didn't actually play (what helped get Loughlin's apathetic daughter Olivia Jade into USC), but that it confirmed something you knew in your gut all along. If you're at all plugged into college admissions culture — or, if you at least skim the annual New York Times trend piece about it — you've always gotten a whiff of something rotten in the state of Denmark. Still, the bribery scandal is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to class stratification, false meritocracy and privilege bubbles.

Lifetime's flat yet watchable The College Admissions Scandal is not about Huffman or Loughlin, nor does it star them (a dream too good to hope for), but the contrite blonde and vainglorious brunette at the center of this fictionalized 90-minute telefilm are no doubt modeled after the Hollywood transgressors. Penelope Ann Miller (The Artist) and Mia Kirshner (The L Word) star as a pair of entitled Brentwood helicopter momsters who will stop at nothing to get their mediocre kids into top universities they have no business attending. (Drink once for every brand-name college mentioned in the script and twice if it happens to be Stanford or Yale.) It's less an oily TV movie than an afterschool special for adults. You won't learn anything new, but you may delight in witnessing a few insecure idiots get flushed down the toilet.

Miller plays Caroline, the hedging and then, later, remorseful mommy who would do anything to get her tousle-haired guitar-boy son (Sam Duke) into her alma mater, Stanford. "You’re going to end up homeless and in the streets!" she bellows histrionically when he fails to meet her standards. She's an interior designer to the stars, her husband a lawyer, and they've got the cash to pour into tutors, learning specialists and college counselors. Ultimately, in order to keep up with the frenzied acquaintances who feed off their kids' acceptances into the Ivy League, they'll resort to elaborate payoff schemes devised by unctuous admissions consultant Rick Singer (Michael Shanks), the real-life nexus of Operation Varsity Blues. And her son won't be the wiser.

Miller plays Caroline with such delicate and delusional sincerity that you itch, impatiently, for her degradation. Kirshner, on the other hand, is having so much fun as an over-the-top witch that you kind of wish this film was only about her. Her sexy/petulant Bethany Slade (what a name) spends more time threatening guidance counselors and waxing on about Charles Darwin and the "advantages" of disadvantaged people than wrestling with the morality of this sham.

Kirshner, who made her bones as absurd prima donna Jenny on The L Word, brings that devious goth girl energy to the role of a hedge fund manager who merely believes she's doing everything in her power to give her child a good life. And if that includes arranging greenscreen photo shoots of her kid pretending to kick a soccer ball so they can submit doctored photos to Yale coaches, then damn that cognitive dissonance! Every moment Kirshner is onscreen you're forced to remind yourself you're not watching the story parts of a porno.

One day we'll get an extravagant TV movie about the B-list celebrity foils who tried to game the system, but for now we must settle for this slapdash and camp-less one that does a lot more telling than showing. (For example, most competent directors would utilize montage and narration to convey the mechanics of a scheme — think Sorkin, Soderbergh or Scafaria. Here, we're privy to a wife dully explaining the scam to her husband as they stand in their kitchen.)

The dialogue, however, is intentionally designed for maximum cult appeal and unspools like thread from wooden figures. "He's in Big Bear," Caroline reports, tracking his son's iPhone against the boy's will. "Of course. He loves Big Bear," her husband responds. "Because we don't," she laments.

My personal favorite sequence is what I've dubbed "The Blueberry Monologue," during which Bethany's dingus daughter (Sarah Dugdale) questions the nature of her entire reality after her mother's arrest: "I only know what you've told me to want my whole life. Are blueberries even my favorite food or is that something you've programmed into me because of the blueberry parfaits at my stupid fifth birthday party with the stupid blue clowns and the stupid blue ponies?!"

There are more compelling sagas out there about fragile dynasties and commodified children — SuccessionGame of ThronesThe Godfather — but do they have blueberry meltdowns? I don't think so.

Cast: Penelope Ann Miller, Mia Kirshner, Michael Shanks, Robert Moloney, Sam Duke, Sarah Dugdale
Director: Adam Salky
Executive producer: Gail Katz
Premieres: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (Lifetime)