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Lifetime Gives Jeffrey Epstein the Surviving R. Kelly Treatment

The network's new limited series gives voice to Epstein's (many) victims.
  • A promotional image for Surviving Jeffrey Epstein. (Lifetime)
    A promotional image for Surviving Jeffrey Epstein. (Lifetime)

    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.

    [Content warning: This article, like the docuseries it discusses, contains references to sexual violence. Please read with care.]

    Surviving Jeffrey Epstein faces a number of challenges. Chief among them, perhaps, is another figure at the center of Epstein's sickening case: Ghislaine Maxwell, now in custody as his accomplice in myriad sexual assaults. Maxwell's story is still in progress, and as a result, Surviving Jeffrey Epstein — much like its predecessor, Surviving R. Kelly — has to construct a narrative as best it can without knowing what a key variable is going to add (if anything; Maxwell seems, to date, quite determined not to share information helpful to anyone but herself).

    But also like Surviving R. Kelly, the "point" of Surviving Jeffrey Epstein isn't necessarily to lay out a linear or chronological account of Epstein's predatory sexual behavior across decades and state lines. Nor is it to explain that behavior and its motivations to us, one of the approaches taken in another Epstein docuseries from earlier this year, Netflix's Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich. The point of this series is to give survivors of Epstein's assaults a place to speak out, and maybe to start to heal; it's to give us a chance to bear witness, and maybe to do better going forward at recognizing these abuses of power and refusing to be unwitting enablers to rich monsters. It's to explain to the audience, via the victims, attorneys, and psychologists on-camera, how a serial sexual predator operates — and why victim-blaming isn't appropriate.

    That's a worthwhile goal for a true-crime series, to get at the root of the Epstein case and not merely gawk at the size and scope of its horror; but is it enough? In 2020, is "it forces us to confront the ways we've failed to protect and believe survivors" enough of a reason to watch Surviving Jeffrey Epstein? Or is it just one more thing to feel bad about?

    To be sure, it isn't an easy watch, and it is probably going to make you feel bad. But generally speaking I think it's important to recognize victims of crime by consuming documentaries and series that center those experiences. SJE specifically isn't a perfectly crafted document:. Like so many in its genre, it reuses the same pictures of Epstein over and over, and seems to linger on the ones with high-profile friends like Donald Trump and Prince Andrew; Alan Dershowitz appears, as he did in Filthy Rich, and is a revolting apologist for the practice of attacking Epstein's victims' credibility again, smirking that "complaining witnesses are fair game." But the filmmakers also brought us The Preppy Murder, the first doc about the murder of Jennifer Levin that put her in focus instead of the man who killed her, so they have the necessary experience in foregrounding victims instead of criminals. SJE is also good at highlighting exactly how Epstein and predators like him identify potential targets, starting with the "broken ego structure" of many survivors of childhood abuse; and how they groom victims, and sometimes manipulate them into becoming accessories and co-conspirators, too.

    Unlke Netflix's Filthy Rich, Surviving Jeffrey Epstein doesn't really try to explain Epstein himself, which is smart. Analyzing sociopaths doesn't go anywhere; it just puts the attention back on the killer or rapist, and doesn't tell us anything about recognizing and avoiding grooming behaviors. Surviving Jeffrey Epstein seems to understand that while Epstein's deeply bizarre entanglement with Limited honcho Les Wexner is fascinating, it's a job for a different documentary, one that concerns itself with Epstein's financial misdeeds. (Which, for the record, I would also watch. The man's con artistry was formidable.) THIS doc is trying to do one thing: let the survivors, and what they survived, be heard and counted... at least in the first half of the series.

    Not knowing what bombshells the second half might explode is another reason to tune in to SJE. I don't THINK we can "look forward to" anything actionable against various rich and powerful men alleged to have joined Epstein in his depravity, and then (presumably, allegedly) agreed to cover for him lest he blackmail them — BUT you could argue that the R. Kelly iteration of Surviving threw the wheels of justice into a higher gear, so it's not impossible. Again, that's not the point of SJE; if anything, the docuseries is trying to push away all the conspiracy theories about Epstein's death and all the tabloid chatter about his famous friends... because there's one more obstacle in SJE's path, and that's cultural fatigue with the case. Everything about Epstein's blast radius of trauma is so tawdry, triggering, and bleak that it may make some viewers reluctant to engage — understandably, with the year we're all having. There's also ample evidence that law enforcement let itself be deterred from pursuing justice for the girls and young women Epstein assaulted. But Surviving Jeffrey Epstein is respectful of those women's stories, and it's willing to wade into those narratives knowing that Ghislaine Maxwell may yet furnish a plot twist. There is a difference between grief and grime in difficult true-crime programming, and SJE stays on the right side of the line. It's difficult viewing, but it won't make you feel dirty.

    Surviving Jeffrey Epstein premieres on Lifetime on August 9th at 9:00 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.

    TOPICS: Surviving Jeffrey Epstein, True Crime