'The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park': TV Review

An important story, somewhat forgettably told.
11/13/2019

SundanceTV and AMC's five-part docuseries about the notorious 1986 murder in New York City is choppy and limited, but full of intriguing first-hand accounts.

Damning and repetitious in near-equal measure, AMC and SundanceTV's The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park is either a tight, straightforward 100-minute documentary about one of New York City's most notorious crimes padded inconsistently over five choppy, TV-shaped pieces (airing over three nights) or a longer and more ambitious piece that's too rushed to sell its bigger themes. Either way, The Preppy Murder is a decent retelling of a harrowing moment for New York, the media and the justice system, but it could surely be something better.

For those who don't remember the so-called Preppy Murder — oddly I recall the 1989 TV movie starring William Baldwin and Lara Flynn Boyle more vividly than the case — the story goes back to late August 1986, when the body of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin was found in Central Park. The investigation swiftly turned to Robert Chambers, part of Levin's circle of friends, and Chambers quickly confessed. His claim was that he killed Levin accidentally, saying it was a tragic turn in an episode of rough sex. The media jumped all over the case and its salacious details and the subsequent and protracted trial was one of the decade's biggest.

Adding to the heat of the spotlight was the fact that Levin and Chambers moved as part of a pack of Manhattan's wealthiest and most privileged offspring, both seemingly photogenic spawn of the city's elite, attending the best prep schools and the cliquiest of bars. Think Gossip Girl, if Chuck Bass had progressed from sexual assault and girlfriend pimping to actual murder, which sounds glib but also reflects the sensationalistic nature of a case that predated the rise of pervasive social media by decades.

Oh, and remember Linda Fairstein? She was presented as the truth-obfuscating prosecutorial villain in When They See Us and the documentary The Central Park Five, both projects she fittingly avoided active involvement with. Here, she's a frequent on-camera presence as a dogged hero and crusader for truth. It's such a discordant shift in her presentation that, coupled with the similarities of the time frame and the geography, one might think the very clear differences in the cases and how they defined justice and how they were presented in the media would demand some level of exploration or at least acknowledgement. Such context is shockingly and conspicuously absent here.

The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park was directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, whose credits include the exceptional Joan Rivers – A Piece of Work and The Devil Came on Horseback, and they have assembled a strong core of featured figures from the case, even without Chambers' presence. From the law and order side, they have Fairstein and several of the primary detectives and investigators, led by Mike Sheehan, who died soon after filming his segments. Jack Litman, Chambers' defense attorney "credited" with much of the victim-blaming and media-baiting, died in 2010, so a secondary part of Litman's team, Roger Stavis, speaks for the defense. Stern and Sundberg interview Levin's mother and sister, several of her friends and, somewhat in the interest of balance, Chambers' girlfriend at the time, Alex Kapp, though it shouldn't be surprising that very few people are willing to be this devil's advocate. There are also interviews with New York City TV institutions Magee Hickey and Rosanna Scotto, plus several of the other reporters who covered the case.

The result is a solid and thorough recounting of the crime, its aftermath and the trial, one that doesn't lack for emotional punch due to the recollections of those closest to Levin. As is surely appropriate, the victim in this crime gets the opportunity to emerge as more of a fully rounded character, while Chambers remains an enigma that people can mostly only discuss in obvious superficial terms. As was the case in media reports of the time, his height, jawline and handsomeness are obsessed over. His upbringing, motivations and actual personality are left mysterious and, as happens so often in this kind of trial-of-the-century recounting, once the trial itself concludes, there's very little air left in the narrative balloon.

There's ample candor from the various talking heads, but maybe not enough self-reflection. There's a point that the directors want to make about the errors made by the media in covering the case and how that maybe changed the landscape and informed how we respond to violence against women today. They're missing much of the ammunition they need to make that case, and it's especially telling that none of the writers and reporters are able or willing to express more than a hair of regret about the role they played in the circus. It's hard to make a convincing argument for lessons learned here if you don't have anybody capable of articulating any of those lessons with introspection. Much of that heavy lifting is left to Jessica Doyle, one of Levin's close friends and perhaps the only person in the series speaking with the righteous anger the situation demands. Doyle is so good and so tuned into the contemporary vocabulary on privilege and its dark side that the directors are willing to let her repeat and rephrase herself with frequency that only becomes annoying when she uses phrases like "It was the glorious '80s…" multiple times.

Some of the series' redundancy isn't quite the fault of the filmmakers. Working for basic cable, they've had to structure things around all-too-frequent commercial breaks, but the bridging in and out of those breaks and the duplicate information points to a limited sense of how people actually watch TV in 2019. If you trimmed the cloned information, The Preppy Murder would be nearly 30 minutes shorter and then you could probably cut another half-hour by removing dated and aesthetically pointless reenactments that make the storytelling cheaper and more tawdry than the otherwise serious approach demands.

At a certain point, basically every high-profile crime from the '70s and '80s is going to get a multi-episode documentary series that plays better if you mostly don't remember the incidents in question. Netflix premiered a so-so entry in the genre just last week with The Devil Next Door. SundanceTV had one of the genre's better entries last year at exactly this time with Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle. The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park fits into one of the most common categories, that of a great story somewhat forgettably told.

Airs: Wednesday-Friday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (AMC and SundanceTV)