Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—or, actually, don’t. You’ve heard it; having heard it is the point. It’s that story that was all over the news a couple years back, first as a magazine article and then as a podcast, or maybe it was the other way around. Now it’s a TV show, a docuseries—no, a scripted series—no, a docuseries destined to become the basis for a scripted show. Eventually, it will be someone’s job, somewhere, to write the TV recaps. The comedian Jordan Firstman conjured this ceaseless churn in a recent video. Playing “an exec at a streaming service,” he describes how he found “this amazing story,” which is already the subject of “an extremely successful podcast.” His eyes grow wide as he imagines how events that happened in a single day might spawn two TV shows and yet more podcasts. “So if we found one story a day,” Firstman says, “we can have eight hundred and seventy years of content every year.”
The exaggeration here is only slight. Today’s entertainment marketplace is defined by its faith in the limitless potential of preëxisting intellectual property. There are sprawling franchises (Marvel, “Star Wars,” “Game of Thrones,” “Harry Potter”) that cater to legions of already devoted fans. There are reboots, dark and gritty or comic and winking, of properties that have barely had time to recede into nostalgia. (“Gossip Girl” already, “Scrubs” imminently.) There are sequels; there are spinoffs; there are live-action retellings; there are brand extensions that verge on the mystifyingly abstract. Greta Gerwig is slated to direct a Barbie movie whose IMDb summary read, for a time, “Barbie lives in Barbie Land and then a story happens.” This fall, the creator of DeuxMoi, an Instagram account devoted to the world’s least scandalous gossip, will publish a novel about running an Instagram gossip account, which HBO Max has already optioned.
A recent crop of based-on-a-true-story streaming series has arrived onscreen after cycling through various combinations of print, documentary, and podcast. Among them are “Joe vs. Carole,” a Peacock series drawn from a Wondery podcast about the same larger-than-life characters captured in Netflix’s hit “Tiger King,” who were also featured in two earlier magazine stories; “Inventing Anna,” a Netflix series about the socialite scammer Anna Sorokin (a.k.a. Anna Delvey), based on a New York magazine story that chronicled events which also spawned a Vanity Fair personal essay and a best-selling memoir; and “The Dropout,” a Hulu series about the rise and fall of the Theranos founder, Elizabeth Holmes, spun off of an ABC News podcast that drew on the same material as an HBO documentary and the best-selling book “Bad Blood.” Compared with, say, “Star Wars,” these ripped-from-the-headlines juggernauts are franchises only on a modest scale. Yet the very narrowness of such cases is what makes them striking. This is not a matter of reinventing a beloved character or expanding a so-called cinematic universe. This is a matter of a specific story, told and retold, for an audience presumed to have a toddler-like eagerness to hear the same story again, again. Writing in The Baffler, in January, 2020, the journalist James Pogue worried about the effects of Hollywood’s I.P.-ravenous era on magazine journalism. A dwindling field of publications with dwindling budgets had made the prospect of selling an option on a story one of journalism’s rare paths to financial stability. With such powerful incentives, Pogue feared that analytical rigor, literary merit, and political accountability would get lost in the endless quest for swashbuckling yarns. But what about the culture that emerges from the I.P. pipeline’s other end?
Two streaming-saturated years later, one result would seem to be a lot of fancy true crime. Crime is, after all, a reliable source of the conflict and suspense necessary for a studio executive to envision a nonfiction narrative onscreen. But these adaptations aren’t procedurals or Lifetime reënactments. They have movie stars; they have witty music cues; they have exceptional wigs. They have the trappings of prestige TV, if rarely the ambition—and, indeed, it’s hard to see how they could. The frisson of golden-age TV in the era of “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men” came, at least in part, from getting something you did not expect. The mandate of I.P. TV, meanwhile, is getting exactly what you expect, because you’ve got it before. “Law and Order” has been ripping from the headlines since time immemorial; now, though, there exists an audience and critical ecosystem inclined to approach such productions with an eye for themes, relevance, and other markers of quality. I.P. TV can deliver these markers—it will scramble a time line, cast a beloved character actor, offer a potted disquisition on the nature of “truth”— but ultimately it will leave the audience with little impression beyond “Wow, pretty crazy.” (It is crazy because it is true.)
A dead wife—the ultimate true-crime fodder—is the crux of HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” a scripted series starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette that is based on an award-winning documentary, and which aired its finale on June 9th. The murder case that it concerns has become a staple of true-crime podcasts, already so well known that its fan theories inspire merch. Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the first installments of “The Staircase” documentary series appeared in 2004, and followed the 2003 trial of the North Carolina author and newspaper columnist Michael Peterson, who was accused of murdering his wife and whose case unfolded in a series of startling plot twists. The documentary offers an examination of the American justice system, but it’s also a portrait, and Peterson is a man with the combined self-regard and self-pity to let a film crew sit in on his criminal defense. His bearing onscreen makes this uneasy combination palpable—as much as the increasingly outlandish murder mystery, it’s what gives the documentary its pull. Colin Firth’s Peterson is respectable but slightly redundant. Why bother playing someone who already played himself so well?
On the most basic level, a good character for a journalist or documentarian is somebody who is willing to talk. Joe Exotic was a tirelessly self-mythologizing eccentric and local-news star when he captured the attention of the filmmakers behind “Tiger King.” His eagerness to speak and theirs to listen created a vortex of exhibitionism and voyeurism that sucked in millions of viewers in the pandemic’s early weeks. But, as a subject makes its way from fact to light fictionalization, the value of a willing source shifts. Elizabeth Holmes did not participate in “The Dropout,” the 2019 ABC News podcast that chronicled her downfall. And so, although that project provided the forensics of the Theranos business, the woman at the center of its reporting—present only through deposition tapes and previous interviews—remained mostly a void. This provided a useful opening for the filmmakers of a scripted Hulu adaptation, also called “The Dropout.” Amanda Seyfried, as Holmes, ventures into an imagined inner life, inaccessible to any journalist, to make sense of the Theranos C.E.O.’s mesmerizingly weird affect. Holmes’s famous Muppet baritone becomes a facet of her effortful social clumsiness. “This is an inspiring step forward,” Seyfried’s Holmes repeats miserably, alone, after experiencing a professional setback.
In contrast to this deft approach to character and medium, there is “Inventing Anna,” a Netflix series adapted from an article in New York magazine. (In the interest of disclosure, I was working at New York when it ran.) That story, like the original “Dropout” podcast, contained relatively little of its central character—in this case, the would-be socialite Anna Sorokin. It succeeded as a portrait by capturing Sorokin in glimpses, while mapping out the slice of society that she hoodwinked. One of the insights of the piece was that Sorokin herself was in many ways unremarkable—not especially beautiful, not especially charismatic, not especially pleasant to be around. Perversely, for a con artist, these qualities seem to have worked in her favor. From the right angle, and to the people who would know best, she looked like somebody too rich to care. But charmless and unprepossessing won’t cut it on TV: there, Sorokin becomes a brash antiheroine who looks like a beautiful TV star, because she’s played by Julia Garner, a beautiful TV star. Instead of developing the mysteries left by its source material, the series forecloses on them.
Among all these stories, it’s worth noting the preponderance of subjects intent on selling some version of themselves. Joe Exotic was filming homegrown reality shows before Netflix came knocking. Michael Peterson ran an underdog campaign for Durham mayor. Elizabeth Holmes made herself the face of her company, perhaps most memorably in Theranos ads filmed by Errol Morris. Anna Sorokin cultivated an Instagram presence befitting the kind of figure who could name her business (“the Anna Delvey Foundation”) after herself. All these efforts go some way toward explaining how they wound up as fodder for journalists and documentarians in the first place: they were literally asking for the attention. And, while shows like these—along with productions such as the duelling Fyre Festival documentaries of 2019, or the avalanche of documentaries about the sex-trafficking cult NXIVM in 2020—have sometimes been classified as scam stories, they can also be understood as stories of salesmanship. Maybe a general hunger exists for tales of personal branding and mythmaking self-promotion (because of the much lamented façade of performance that social media elicits, because of the ongoing obligation to market oneself in a gig economy, et cetera), but I suspect this particular drama exerts a stronger hold on media and entertainment professionals than it does on anyone else. It is not an uninteresting kind of story, necessarily, but it does seem overrepresented. There is something bleakly recursive in watching as these stories are sold, and sold, and sold again.