The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime TV.
[Content warning: this review contains references to violence against children and animals. Please read with care.]
Fall River is a tough one to categorize, except to say that it's not about its namesake city's most legendary true-crime name, Lizzie Borden. The new four-part docuseries from Blumhouse Television (The Jinx) looks at the horrific murder of a young sex worker in Fall River, MA, and the Satanic cult the police uncovered as a result. From there, Satanic panic and false testimony got the wrong guy, Carl Drew, convicted of a different, but related, murder, for which he's now served nearly 40 years.
If you got to "Satanic cult" and groaned, "Not again," I get it. As I noted in my Sons Of Sam review, "the phrase 'satanic cult' tends to immediately slam a door in my head," and nothing has changed in the last week. Fall River doesn't linger too long on these toxically goofy theories, though, and it takes the opportunity in its second episode to talk about the history of moral panics — in particular the Satanic panic of the '80s and '90s, its roots in the Cold War, and how it presents today in QAnon conspiracy theories and elsewhere. (Director James Buddy Day, whose past work includes Catching A Serial Killer: Bruce McArthur and Oxygen fare like Manson: The Women, makes a — possibly overdone — point of dismantling a self-styled police satanic-cult expert from off-camera.)
Sympathetic as it is to our contemporary impatience with Satanic-ritual theories that let real killers go unpunished while letting law enforcement celebrate "closed" cases, Fall River is a tough watch for other reasons, including graphic crime-scene photos, the murder of a puppy for extortion purposes (fortunately this isn't shown) — and the numerous testimonies from women (mere girls at the time) who were raped, molested, and exploited by the same known local predator. When the women tried to report what happened, police didn't care. Their parents, absent for whatever reason, didn't care. The testimony is important for them to share and for us to hear, because this of course is the dark heart of Fall River, the real story: that local law enforcement preferred to focus on "satanic" aspects of the crime and on performatively addressing a non-problem rather than the fact that abuse and neglect pushed every single central figure in the Carl Drew case onto the streets and into the paths of predators. One of those figures, Robin Murphy, has given constantly shifting, often self-damning testimony over the years, against not just Carl Drew but others. Partly coerced by an assistant district attorney eager to wrap up a messy series of murders, Murphy was also motivated by a desire to get Maltais and Drew (who almost certainly did not kill Doreen Levesque or Karen Marsden, but came from the same hopeless background as the victims and was not estranged from trouble) off the streets by any means necessary. Only 17 at the time, Murphy saw that she could blame Satanic-cult thrall and make it stick, so she did. And it did. In this way, Fall River is an activist documentary, aiming to get Carl Drew a new trial, and to indict everyone who didn't listen to and protect the girls of Fall River back then — not just Levesque and Marsden and Barbara Raposa, but other shattered witnesses and victims like Robin Murphy, who did what they had to do to survive.
Remarkably, as emotionally difficult as is, Fall River is also very watchable — I don't think I moved for the first 40 minutes, which is the height of the Satanic nonsense that should have had my eyes rolling. Director Day makes some risky choices in the last episode that don't entirely work, although I'll grade on a curve for those thanks to COVID-related interruptions, and the fact that he's transitioned nicely from more clichéd network material to a prestige-like setting. Day may have felt emboldened to try a bunch of things for an Epix docuseries because nobody's going to know how to find an Epix docuseries. I reviewed the network's Manson miniseries favorably last summer — it wasn't perfect, but it was confident, well-paced, and interesting — and Epix's original programming lineup has a number of well-regarded offerings like Pennyworth, and some great music docs. But when I say "well-regarded," I feel like I mean "by TV critics, the only people who know where or what the damn channel even is," because... you don't know where it is, admit it. You've scrolled past it; maybe clicked on it when you saw an interesting movie listed; saw it wasn't in your cable package; and forgot about it almost immediately. I've done this a dozen times myself, and it's a shame, because Epix has a number of interesting true-crime docs and series in its library, but I was today years old when I discovered you could add it to an Amazon Prime membership, which probably isn't the best work by the marketing team.
But hey, maybe that's how the programmers at Epix like it. Maybe they don't want their parent company, MGM, to "pay attention" to them in the form of meddlesome notes like "that photo is too gory" or "nobody cares about that case, what about the Lindbergh kidnapping?" But when a solid true-crime series like Fall River comes along that hangs a light not just on the stupidity of Satanic panic but on the high cost to real, unheard victims of sexual violence, people should be able to find it more easily. I recommend signing up for the Epix NOW app free trial and giving it a look.
Fall River premieres on Epix Sunday May 16th at 10:00 PM ET
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.