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.
It pains me to say this about a story I hold in such high regard, but HBO's six-episode docuseries Catch & Kill: The Podcast Tapes just isn't necessary. For the uninitiated, the original Catch & Kill is Ronan Farrow's 2019 book about Harvey Weinstein's notorious — and notoriously difficult to prove — predatory behavior. Farrow's account isn't just the story of a rapist finally called to account; it's also the story OF the story, at times reading like a text version of an Alan J. Pakula thriller a la All The President's Men, and I tore through it in a day.
Not long after Catch & Kill hit bookshelves, Farrow debuted a podcast of the same name. It isn't bad, and Farrow isn't a bad host, but it didn't work quite as well for me in podcast form as it did on the page, so I didn't expect much from HBO's The Podcast Tapes, which is basically the podcast, but with visual aids. And The Podcast Tapes isn't bad either. The series comes from the World Of Wonder filmmaking team of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, who've brought us documentaries like The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Party Monster as well as numerous reality shows (including RuPaul's Drag Race), so clearly they know how to make compelling narratives.
And what Catch & Kill did well as a book, it does well as a docuseries adaptation. It continues to center the experiences of survivors of Weinstein's assaults and of the threatening and corrupt actions Weinstein took to cover them up; even already knowing their stories, hearing and seeing women like Ambra Gutierrez and Rowena Chiu deliver their painful testimonies in an attempt to protect others is quite affecting. The Podcast Tapes is very good at illustrating the particulars of predatory grooming, the rationalizations of trauma, and how bullies like Weinstein normalize their sexual misconduct. It's also very good at using the agonizing process Farrow's report went through before finally finding a home at The New Yorker to highlight the importance of thorough, ethical journalism, and the many ways that powerful people and corporations have of controlling or burying stories like Farrow's. (Ordinarily this where where I would object yet again to the use of Matt Lauer in a contemporary-footage montage, but given the timing of NBC News' killing of Farrow's reporting and Lauer's subsequent ouster for sexual misconduct of his own... for once he's being used to make a larger point.)
How difficult it was, and still is, for women to be believed; how difficult it was, and still is, to speak truth to power in investigative reporting... it's important to revisit these concepts, and viewers who haven't read the book will get a lot out of The Podcast Tapes. Viewers who HAVE read the book may be interested to see how the docuseries reorganizes the material, but in the end, it's just that: a reorganization of the material. The last episode visits with Igor, the subcontracted P.I. assigned to tail Farrow who had a crisis of conscience along the way. Farrow's conversation with Igor, and his voice-over about the corporate investigators that Weinstein hired to fight allegations and bad press, are very enlightening about the extent to which P.I. "fixer" outfits like Black Cube make it difficult for the press to shine light into dark corners.
I found myself wishing that series had made "The Spy" the FIRST episode instead of the last, and that it had been a jumping-off point for an entirely new narrative about reporters living in fear, and how the powerful are able to pervert their stories before they reach the public. As it is, the series mirrors the podcast and the book, stopping well before the criminal proceedings and extraditions of the past year — this, despite the fact that Farrow has had a production deal in place with HBO since early 2018. It's disappointing to see a reporter as good as Farrow paired with a documentary division as legendary as HBO's and have the product simply be a rehash. Still, as rehashes go, this one remains as eye-opening, infuriating and important as it ever was.
Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes premieres with two back-to-back episodes tonight at 9:00 PM ET on 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!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.