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.
HBO's eminently watchable new docuseries The Lady and The Dale tells the extraordinary story of Elizabeth Carmichael, the entrepreneur behind the three-wheeled "Dale" automobile that became a brief marketing sensation in the mid-1970s. The car itself would be subject enough for a stand-alone doc, but there's much more to this story.
Over four smartly-constructed episodes, Lady chronicles Carmichael's rise to fame, her subsequent fall from grace, and the many other twists and turns her life took, including before the mid-1970s — when she was known by her dead name, Jerry Dean Michael, and went on the lam with her family to escape a 1961 counterfeiting charge. It's also about Carmichael's life after she went on the lam, again, until an Unsolved Mysteries segment got her caught. Finally, it's about father-and-son "journalism" team Dick and Tucker Carlson's toxic preoccupation with gender binarism, and their shared history of "trying" trans people in the court of public opinion.
Somehow The Lady and The Dale — exec produced by Duplass Brothers Productions, which also brought us Evil Genius and Wild Wild Country — balances all of these stories without confusing the timeline or getting bogged down in details. The portrait that emerges is of a woman born before her time, and of two families with completely different ideas about acceptance.
I first learned about Carmichael in the same Unsolved Mysteries episode that got her nabbed in Dallas by a viewer tip, but Lady is far more thorough and nuanced than the network-newsmag version of this story. It's also suspenseful, even for a viewer like me, who knew the outlines and ending going in. Directors Nick Cammalleri and Zackary Drucker get fantastic access to many figures in Carmichael's life, and augment those interviews with comments from historians, ADAs and defense attorneys, jurors in the '70s fraud trial, and even Dick Carlson.
The series mixes up the usual doc visuals with collaged animations using old photos that manage to stay on the right side of the twee line (there's even a clever montage of Carmichael's Department of Justice file). And Lady is unique in how much time it spends with Carmichael's kids' experience of living on the run: the Army-brat-like, unsettled existence; the home-schooling and the identities stolen from various dead children around the country; the "disaster plan" that went into effect every time someone heard that telltale clicking on the telephone line that meant the phone was bugged. It's fascinating, all the more so because her adult children don't seem to resent Carmichael at all; mostly, they miss her.
I personally could have used a little more color on how Carmichael — distinctively tall, inevitably clad in loud-even-for-the-era tropical-colored pantsuits, openly taunting the Big Three automakers in Detroit with promises of a 70-miles-per-gallon auto revolution — successfully eluded law enforcement multiple times. But Lady answers that tiny quibble with a perfectly illustrated (and enraging) snapshot of how culture viewed trans people in 1975... and how little has changed, lo these many years later.
Susan Stryker and other commentators talk about the fact that transitioning "wasn't a well-known process" back then, with Stryker wondering if there isn't a connection between Carmichael's living as herself and Carmichael's various cons, noting that, "if you feel society is not organized" to recognize you as yourself, it's not entirely surprising that "so-called antisocial behavior" might result.
I started feeling a bit "antisocial" myself when Lady turned its focus to KABC's incessant coverage of the Dale, Carmichael, and the resulting legal proceedings (which may or may not have involved a juror, bribed with a fur coat, faking an illness). Led by anchor Dick Carlson — Tucker Carlson's father — the LA-based station ran dozens of stories on Twentieth Century Motor Corp., but while Carlson denied having it out for Carmichael and her company, it seems clear that he was consumed by the idea that Carmichael had defrauded her investors... and that what he really viewed as fraud wasn't her sketchy bookkeeping, but her gender.
The filmmakers seem to agree that it's not just a coincidence that Carlson had outed Renée Richards not long before seizing on the Dale story. And while the series is somewhat noncommittal on Carmichael's guilt — a number of her intimates insist, with little pushback, that she fully intended to build and produce the Dale — it's definitely sympathetic to her reasons for fleeing, on the theory that, really, she wasn't tried for the swindle, but for being trans.
The Lady and The Dale effectively transports viewers from four or five decades ago, when Carmichael's transhood was often described as part of larger cons, to the present day, and the idea that Carmichael's transhood may have necessitated the cons — without either rushing or dwelling too long on one idea. It's a compelling and detailed picture of the time and the woman, and the series makes it look easy.
The Lady and the Dale premieres on HBO Jan. 31st at 9:00 PM ET, with new episodes airing Sundays through February.
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.