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I don’t remember George Franklin’s 1990 murder trial, one of the nation’s first to hinge almost exclusively on the phenomenon of repressed memory, but I absolutely remember when suddenly every broadcast procedural started having regular plotlines built around repressed memory.
Or maybe I don’t? Maybe I watched a repeat of L.A. Law — probably “I’m Ready for My Closeup, Mr. Markowitz,” from 1992 — and conflated that into recollections of countless similar episodes? Maybe I only read an episode description from that L.A. Law and was able to imagine the rest of the episode?
Airdate: Sunday, Oct. 10
Directors: Yotam Guendelman and Ari Pines
Memory is a tricky thing, much more so as it relates to deep trauma rather than frivolous hypotheticals. Even psychologists, psychiatrists and other experts on the inner workings of the human brain have trouble explaining how memory works, what causes it not to work and how much we can trust our own memories, much less anybody else’s. The lack of clear answers fuels Yotam Guendelman and Ari Pines’ Showtime documentary series Buried, which explores the intricate twists and complications behind the Franklin trial, building three padded-but-compelling episodes of drama before an utter fizzle of a final hour.
In 1969, 8-year-old Susan Nason went missing from Foster City, just south of San Francisco. Her body was found 10 weeks later, and the murder went unsolved until 1989, when Eileen Franklin revealed that she remembered having been with her father, George, when he raped and murdered Susan, Eileen’s best friend. As Eileen told it, she had been playing with her daughter when her daughter’s similarities to Susan triggered a graphic series of memories. There was no evidence tying George Franklin, a former firefighter, to the crime, but on the strength of Eileen’s story, he was arrested and brought to trial for murder, a case that became a referendum on the very nature of memory. How reliable were Eileen’s recollections? How legally applicable were the circumstances in which the recollections resurfaced? And what would it take to convince a jury to believe Eileen and convict George?
For a brief period, Eileen Franklin was a national media sensation. She appeared on every available TV show, from Donahue to Oprah to Larry King. Those myriad interviews, plus her testimony at her father’s trial, are at the center of Buried. It’s completely logical that Eileen isn’t a participant in Buried, but it doesn’t make for good storytelling, because Buried wants to tell the most intimate and personal story imaginable, but it has to do so exclusively from the outside.
Buried wants to be about memory and repression, and instead it’s mostly about a trial. Its key participants include prosecuting attorney Elaine Lipton, George Franklin’s defense attorney Doug Horngrad, true crime writer Harry MacLean, trauma and memory experts from both sides of the case and an assortment of people with very remote connections to Eileen Franklin and the Susan Nason murder — neighbors, childhood friends and more.
Rather than sticking with a straight chronology, Guendelman and Pines use the trial as a pivot. You’ll watch the first episode convinced that one side is unimpeachably correct. You’ll end the second feeling like you were an idiot to think what you’d been thinking for the previous hour. You’ll end the third episode generally indecisive, and then you’ll end the fourth episode wondering why the directors thought they had a four-hour documentary to make from this story.
The events depicted took place 30 and 50 years ago, and it’s like people’s perceptions of them have been trapped in amber. That includes the directors, who make no effort at all to trace how the past two decades have altered perspectives on key pieces of information in the case. With nobody named Franklin appearing in the documentary, they can’t really trace the lives of the central figures beyond a certain point. They’re left without a cohesive argument, which might be weirdly appropriate given that it’s easy to go online — after you’ve watched four episodes, if you don’t like history being spoiled — and read articles by legal scholars, some arguing that the full saga proved one thing, others insisting on a diametrically opposed point of view.
The case and the legal schism it created are still so raw that figures like Horngrad and memory scientist Elizabeth Loftus are comfortable smirking and rolling their eyes when offering their perspectives on a case that came to involve incest and other taboo nightmares in addition to murder. I don’t know if the talking heads were told to process information like it was fresh, and not to be reflective and introspective, or if that’s just the approach they all chose.
I admire some of what Guendelman and Pines have attempted in terms of using reenactments to visualize the fragmented and capricious filtering that we go through whenever we look back. They use scenes shot with a hazy, nostalgic glow. They build imagery into elaborate split screens. They label everything with a Very ’80s font, straight off the binding of a Stephen King novel, to blur the lines between horror and real horror. They also use audio interviews and occasional news footage with no onscreen identification. Initially I was frustrated not knowing which material was real and which was fabricated, but after three episodes I opted to believe that intentionality was at play rather than shoddy filmmaking. But the fourth episode abandons all the early dramatic conceits.
The series is generally evasive, withholding some information just for episode-ending surprises, accepting certain statements as fact without any justification and introducing and then abandoning seemingly large details. Again, these things have some thematic ties to the story being told, but intentional irritation is still irritation when a harrowing and gripping story fizzles into something so indecisive. That Guendelman and Pines aren’t reporters or detectives and can’t get concrete answers to unanswerable mysteries isn’t their fault. I left Buried feeling like I’d watched an interesting saga unfold partially, and without any additional insight from the intervening decades. The result is awareness of a landmark case, a couple of hours of disturbing entertainment, but no insight.
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