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.
When news of the college-admissions scandal broke back in 2019, the country was outraged — and fascinated. Rich, famous people like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman making under-the-table deals to get their children into extremely selective colleges, high-powered lawyers implicated in highly unethical payoffs... the story served up a veritable schadenfreude buffet for us peasants, many of whom didn't get into our dream schools and/or are still struggling to pay off student loans.
Then 2020 hit, and between the pandemic, the BLM protests, and the presidential election, the crackdown the feds code-named "Operation Varsity Blues" came to seem like a quaint, low-stakes relic of The Before Times. With Netflix's new documentary on the scandal arriving at a time when many of the high-profile figures at the center of the case have already pled out, done their time, and gone back to their lives, one can't help but wonder: is Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal too late and of too little consequence?
I'm here to tell you that it is not. A well-made, briskly paced feature, Operation Varsity Blues is very savvy about what it's trying to do, and for whom. Unlike briber-in-chief Rick Singer's so-called college counseling services, it's definitely worth your investment. Here's why:
The documentary has made an investment of its own in top-quality re-enactments. Writer Jon Karmen, a producer on Netflix's Fyre Festival doc Fyre, and director Chris Smith (Fyre's director) take the same approach Bart Layton did in American Animals, a hybrid documentary about a book heist: get "name" actors to handle the re-enactments. In this case, Karmen and Smith use actual government wiretap transcripts to script dialogue and scenes for Matthew Modine (playing Rick Singer), CSI's Wallace Langham (attorney Gordon Caplan), and others. It's also got the customary complement of interviews with case figures and experts, but having a proven entity like Modine holding down the reconstructed scenes makes everything flow more smoothly. Not every production budget has room for such a strategy, but if a doc can afford it, it's often best to find a name who looks something like the real-life figure they're portraying, and just let them work.
Operation Varsity Blues is also a very solid explainer. A lot has happened in the world since the admissions scandal was made public, so viewers may have forgotten (or never understood in the first place) why exactly the FBI waded into the scummy pond of academic "fund-raising" in the first place. Operation Varsity Blues uses the talking-head segments and Singer's own words to walk us through what he and his "clients" did, and why it's illegal and immoral. The film could get into more detail about Singer's background, aspects of which are alluded to by certain interviewees…
But it also understands that not every story requires granular detail spread out over four to six episodes. The model for upmarket true crime the last few years has been the limited series, the better to leverage FOMO for subscriptions — but not every case needs ten parts, or even two. Sparing the audience the Freudian audit of Singer's motivations is probably for the best, and Operation Varsity Blues does what it needs to do in an hour and forty minutes.
But what the film really understands is why people were, and are, absorbed in this particular story. The indictments and sentences were like seeing the jackass who spent two miles tailgating you getting pulled over by the cops for speeding minutes later. Privileged corner-cutters got busted, and punished. Operation Varsity Blues isn't exactly objective in its treatment of Singer's co-conspirators, especially not Loughlin and Massimo Giannulli's daughter Olivia Jade. The doc has one snarky and very effective smash cut from a disappointed Northwestern hopeful musing on social media that she knows "the people that got in are super-deserving"... straight to Olivia Jade, curling her lashes for the instruction of her YouTube followers. The Giannulli family has seemed particularly resistant to shame or consequences over the course of the prosecution, and the filmmakers understand why we resent people like that, and why we like to see them disciplined.
Of course, sending Aunt Becky to the joint didn't really begin to address the myriad problems with the college-admissions system, the institutional biases and income disparities that create opportunities for sleazy facilitators like Singer, which in turn reinforce good outcomes for the "haves" and their children, while shutting out generations of "have nots." Operation Varsity Blues makes note of that, but sticks to its subject (and also wisely avoids opening the can of worms that is college athletics driving fundraising for academic institutions).
Don't get me wrong: I love a far-reaching, decades-spanning documentary that takes a single major case and maps all the roads that led the participants and the culture to its courtroom. But I also love a self-contained, confident feature-length doc that reviews the facts, name-checks the larger issues, and rolls credits without trying to do too much. That's exactly what Operation Varsity Blues doe, and it does it well..
Operation Varsity Blues drops on Netflix March 17th.
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.