Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her new weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.
The "fix" in the title of Erin Lee Carr's latest documentary project, How To Fix A Drug Scandal, works on two different levels. One meaning is to repair — repairing the damage done to trial outcomes and reputations by two separate state-lab scientists in Massachusetts whose results were, at best, unreliable. The other definition of "to fix" is "to manipulate," to rig an outcome, as it seems various people in the Massachusetts prosecutorial system tried to do once it became clear they'd have to throw out tens of thousands of drug cases.
I hadn't heard of the cases at the center of Drug Scandal before settling in for Carr's new four-parter on Netflix, which is odd in retrospect, because the story has a number of elements that are like true-crime-catnip. First of all, it's a scam/faker story in the Stephen Glass mold: Annie Dookhan, the first scientist to be unmasked, was a stereotypical "striver" (a very Edith Wharton way to describe this particular sort of frustrated overachiever, but one of the interviewees in Drug Scandal uses that exact word). Dookhan skipped procedures and mocked up results in order to look more productive than her colleagues, and even generated dummy emails in order to flirt by proxy with a handsome ADA, while dwelling in delusions of law-enforcement grandeur.
Then there's the simultaneously enraging and pathetic addiction story at the center of the second unmasking: Sonja Farak, a good student and the first girl in her state to play high-school football. Farak wasn't faking results, but she was raiding the drug lockup — first the methamphetamine used for comparative testing at the lab, then evidence assigned to her for testing. Farak even made her own crack cocaine, and while she later claimed that she always tried to do a good job on the tests, the better to avoid detection, obviously any lab report she signed off during that period is suspect... and those lab reports were myriad.
Drug Scandal also boasts several experienced talking-head commentators (including Rolling Stone's Paul Solotaroff, also seen in Amazon's Free Meek); and clear, process sequences that take viewers through the average day in the life of a bench scientist; how heroin travels from Afghanistan through the mid-Atlantic ports, gets branded, and arrives in New England; and how an overwhelmed scientist like Dookhan pulls off "dry-labbing," generating reports on testing she didn't actually perform. Carr's direction is at times too deliberate — an audience that chooses to watch Drug Scandal is likely versed in true-crime jargon, and doesn't need exculpatory evidence and Brady violations reviewed for them this carefully — and while it's always tempting to bag on The War On Drugs with quaint footage making (bigger) fools of past presidents, it's not a great use of time. But with those exceptions noted, Drug Scandal moves right along to that last critical element of a compelling true-crime narrative: the miscarriage of justice, which the miscarriers blandly assert was just a mistake, an oversight, or not a miscarriage at all. (The fact that much of the state's motivation to dissemble derived from a petty disdain for one particular defense attorney is both contemptible and sad... much like Farak's behavior itself.)
Drug Scandal is a worthwhile four hours spent covering a case that isn't as well known as it should be. Not only does it lend itself to Lifetime-movie fantasy-casting while you're watching, it's also well made; Erin Lee Carr is a very good director who's also exceptionally consistent in the quality of her output (see below), and Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) is one of the executive producers.
How to Fix a Drug Scandal drops Wednesday April 1st on Netflix
Whether or not you end up watching Drug Scandal, you may want to fill your furlough with other projects from Director Erin Lee Carr's résumé. There's nothing on her c.v. that isn't at least a pretty good watch. I've listed them here in order of increasing consequence.
Dirty Money Season1 - Episode 3, "Drug Short." Like other episodes in the series, this one's enlightening and infuriating — specifically on the topic of Big Pharma price-gouging — and expertly made. Carr doesn't seem quite as "dug in" on this subject as she gets on others, though; it's good, just not her best. (Netflix)
I Love You Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter. Carr's two-part investigation of the notorious "texting suicide case," I Love You Now Die understands that what fascinates us about the accusations against Michelle Carter — convicted of promoting Conrad Roy's death by suicide — is that we can never really know what happened. Well shot and paced as usual, but at times the doc's "first the prosecution side, now the defense" structure feels a little forced, like a network note. (HBO)
Thought Crimes: The Case Of The Cannibal Cop. Carr picked a complicated one for her debut feature: Gilberto Valle, aka "the Cannibal Cop," who was convicted of conspiring to kidnap (and consume) women in 2013. The grotesque nature of Valle's planned crime raised thorny Minority Report questions about where the line is between prosecuting a fantasy and preventing a tragedy. I wrote at the time that we shouldn't sleep on Carr as a director; this one's underrated. (HBO)
Mommy Dead And Dearest. Carr's unerring ear for the crime narratives that fascinate us brought Michelle Dean's outstanding exploration of the Gypsy Blanchard case from Buzzfeed to the screen. This is the documentary that made Carr's name, and with good reason; it's expertly assembled, and unpacks various issues — the Munchausen-by-proxy diagnosis; Gypsy's outre cosplay — without judgment or rubbernecking. (HBO)
At The Heart Of Gold: Inside The USA Gymnastics Scandal. A harrowing look at the bomb crater of damage Larry Nassar's years of abuses left in their wake, At The Heart Of Gold gets its arms around the entire story — not just the ugly particulars of what happened, but how, and what finally stopped him — while foregrounding the survivors in the narrative. A harsh viewing experience, but important. (HBO)
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!. She's also the editor-in-chief and publisher of Tomato Nation, and true-crime blog and podcast The Blotter Presents.