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 weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.
After my attention had wandered from Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich for the fourth time, I paused the episode and began to make a list. Why wasn't Netflix's series about the pedophile billionaire working for me? Why was it failing to hold my interest?
Certainly there's no issue with who Filthy Rich is made by. It's based on a bestseller by James Patterson and John Connolly — one of Patterson's recent non-fiction overviews of headline cases — and while the bestselling author may not be the most elegant stylist of prose, he certainly has an ear for stories that sell. Likewise, directing each of Filthy Rich's four episodes is Lisa Bryant, who's worked on Unspeakable Crime: The Killing of Jessica Chambers and Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio. Both are above-average limited series that failed to make much noise.
The production also has excellent access to relevant interviewees, whether it's survivors of Epstein's predations, their attorneys, Epstein's attorneys (Alan Dershowitz looks vaguely nauseated by his involvement with Epstein, and he should), and various detectives and private investigators. So, it's not Filthy Rich's production pedigree, or its subjects that are lacking. Eventually, the narrative shifts away from Epstein's victims to Epstein himself, and it's there that I think Filthy Rich lost me. Not because of a failure to foreground the survivors, but because it's asking the wrong question. It's asking why Epstein did what he did, and the answer — that he was a sociopath, devoid of empathy — is profoundly unsatisfying for everyone involved.
People consume and respond to true crime for a number of different reasons, and I've talked about many of them in this space before. Sometimes it's about feeling a sense of power in knowledge — arming ourselves with information so we won't become victims ourselves. Sometimes it's a fascination with the craft of a crime, like how counterfeit money is made and passed, or the ways an art heist might be planned; we get to enter worlds that are alien to us. And sometimes it's about needing to believe that justice can and will be carried out; documentaries and series about wrongful convictions that get reversed, or long-cold cases that finally get cracked, let us feel like a corner of the world is in balance, like the good guys have a shot. Filthy Rich has none of that. Nothing we "learn" about Epstein's grooming behavior or emotional and literal blackmailing of his victims is particularly helpful. Nothing we learn about the power he wielded to shield himself from consequences is new. Certainly how Epstein identified vulnerable young girls from unstable situations and circled them off from the herd is neither new information for seasoned Law & Order: SVU viewers, nor "entertaining" in any sense of the word.
As for justice, that's also not on the menu. Whatever you believe about Epstein's manner of death while awaiting sentencing in a Manhattan jail cell, the survivors of his campaign of terror will never get the satisfaction of confronting him in court, like Larry Nasser's victims did; or of seeing him sentenced to centuries behind bars. Either he himself deprived them of that emotional restitution, inadequate though it might have felt, or people with even more to lose had him taken care of so their sins would remain in darkness. I don't have an opinion either way and wouldn't be surprised to see evidence in either direction. What I do know is that, when the "why" is "because he was a monster," a series like this has to have something else — some new information or naming of names — to leaven the bleakness.
Instead, Filthy Rich has nothing new to offer. It's well made, it has good intentions, and it attempts to answer not just the why but the how — how so many allowed Epstein to exert so much control over others for so long, how he got away with it for decades. (And continues to: I can't tell you how many articles, and reviews are still referring to Epstein as a "disgraced financier." "Disgraced"? He was a thieving extortionist who raped children. Enough with the sugarcoating.) But while various colleagues and victims attempt to explain Epstein's dark charisma, or how he managed to "build" his fortune by straight-up stealing it from another billionaire after skating on a massive Ponzi scheme he helped run, in the end, it always comes back to that same ugly answer: he was evil, and he largely went unpunished. With everything else going on in the world, a four hour slog to arrive at that answer is four hours too many for me.
Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich drops Wednesday May 27th on Netflix.
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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.