Vanished With Beth Holloway: TV Review

Vanished With Beth Holloway Still 2011
Riveting when recounting the saga of Natalie Holloway's disappearance, "Vanished With Beth Holloway" loses steam when Holloway's role shifts from eyewitness to host and chronicles other grim tales

Hosted by Natalee Holloway's mother, the new documentary series uses re-enactments, interviews and conjecture to shed light on unsolved disappearances.

During the summer of 2005, Natalee Holloway’s face became a fixture on television news programs. A pretty 18-year-old, who graduated at the top of her class, Natalee had traveled with friends to Aruba for a five-day vacation, but mysteriously failed to return to her hotel room the night before the group was set to fly home.

Back in Birmingham, Ala., Natalee’s mother, Beth, received the call described as “every parent’s nightmare,” telling her that her daughter has gone missing after last being seen entering a car with three young men. In that moment, the elder Holloway’s life was transformed, and she launched a search for answers that continues to this day, and which has now morphed into the new Lifetime series Vanished With Beth Holloway.

Like John Walsh (America’s Most Wanted) before her, the disappearance and probable death of Holloway’s child has turned her into a victim’s rights crusader and given birth to a gripping and grim television show that attempts to shed light on unsolved vanishings.

“My search for answers gave me a new mission in life: bring the missing home and criminals to justice,” a gaunt Holloway says in the show’s lead-in. Given that the premiere of Vanished follows a Justice for Natalee Holloway, a TV movie airing on the same network, Lifetime is betting that audiences will want to be reminded of the details of the case, and invite Beth back into their homes on a regular basis.

Told in the premiere’s first segment, Holloway’s own saga does make for compelling viewing. Relayed with a mixture of interviews of friends and family, tasteful re-enactments, and ample news footage, a taught, informative narrative of Natalee’s final hours emerges. Having given hundreds of interviews, Beth proves a capable story teller, and recounts the details of her daughter’s case with chilling anguish and precision.

In part, Holloway’s story is so riveting because we have a villain, Joran van der Sloot, a Dutch student and avid gambler who is the prime suspect in Natalee’s disappearance. In addition to the boy’s evolving account of what happened to Holloway, his attempt to extort $250,000 from her mother in exchange for what he claims is information on where to find Natalie’s body make you want to reach through the television and personally wring his neck. By the time we see hidden camera footage of Beth confronting Van der Sloot in a Peruvian prison cell, where he is being held on murder charges in the death of 21-year-old Stephany Flores, it’s hard to believe Beth can restrain herself from doing just that.

“I know you want to make a plea deal in Peru and Aruba and in the U.S. And I’ve met with the prosecutors and I’ve met with the Flores family,” Holloway tells Van der Sloot. “And, Joran, I won’t do anything until I get some information about Natalee.”

Alas, Van der Sloot refuses, and Holloway’s search to locate her daughter’s remains hits another dead end.

“There’s not an ounce of compassion or an ounce of feeling or warmth or concern or guilt or anything in that body,” John Kelly, Holloway’s attorney says of Van der Sloot during the meeting. “Nothing. Cold as ice.”

Produced by Stephen Land and Jupiter Entertainment (Sons of Guns, City Confidential) Vanished With Beth Holloway struggles to match the exhaustive detail and rage that Holloway’s personal story has built up in the first half of the show. The second case details the sudden disappearance of the McStay family, who have, without warning, left behind a posh house in the suburbs San Diego, jobs and a bank account with over $100,000 that hasn’t been touched in months. Were they abducted or did they simply drive their S.U.V. to the Mexican border and walk away from their old lives?

Their story is told with the same potent mix of interviews, re-enactments, and conjecture found in the first segment, but this time around we don’t ever get a visual or any hard evidence to prove that the McStays are victims of foul play. Instead, we’re left to imagine the Mexican drug lords that are floated as a possibility. Given that the vast majority of cases involving missing children in the United States turn out to involve family members rather than total strangers, however, we’re never really sure what to believe.

“Someone out there knows something,” Holloway says with a stiff delivery as she describes the motivation behind her new gig. But will Vanished With Beth Holloway be as successful America’s Most Wanted in helping solve missing persons cases?  Probably not, especially given that each program only takes up two cases. On the bright side, with the skillful presentation of its material, Holloway’s show is less sensational than that of Nancy Grace, whose nightly championing for victim’s rights was inspired by the murder of her own fiancé.

Yes, the first person account of tragedy and how it changes those left behind can yield affecting television.

“Just thinking about Natalee, and what a fireball she was, maybe that came from Beth,” Claire Fierman, a friend of Natalee’s says. “Maybe that was deep down inside of her. She was an average mom and that superhero got a chance to come out.”

There’s no doubt that Holloway is a role model. But if she’s going to follow in the footsteps of Walsh and Grace, and indeed become a television fixture in her own right, she will need to polish her skills as a host. Recounting the loss of a loved one is wrenching business, but making them feel empathy toward others on a weekly basis is a tad trickier.

Twitter: @writerknowles