by Billy Nilles | Sat., Mar. 17, 2018 3:00 AM
Bringing a true story to life on the small screen is hard work.
There's an intense amount of work that must go into researching the story as fully as possible, securing the rights to someone's life, finding actors who look similar enough and is also the best choice for the role, and walking the increasingly fine line of being respectful to real-life folk, some of whom are still living, while still being as entertaining and dramatically propulsive as possible.
And as FX has begun learning the hard way, there's the added pressure of both legal ramifications and PR nightmares should the subjects of the projects—or their families—truly not be on board with your vision for their story.
The network was almost single-handedly responsible for the true crime scripted docu-series resurgence TV fans are currently living through, thanks to the arrival of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story in 2016. Ryan Murphy's re-telling of the Trial of the Century, based on Jeffrey Toobin's book The Run of His Life, was an overnight smash hit, becoming a major ratings success for the network as well as an award season darling. The anthology series' first installment earned hardware for Murphy's muse Sarah Paulson, introduced us to Sterling K. Brown, and redeemed lead prosecutor Marcia Clark in the public conscious in the process. And just like that, a craze was born.
FX quickly gave the greenlight to a second installment centered around Hurricane Katrina (which has had its concept severely reworked and still hasn't gone into production) and a third surrounding the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace. A second true-life anthology series from Murphy, Feud, was put into production, focused on the famed feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And a third anthology series, this time from writer Simon Beaufoy and director Danny Boyle, was ordered. Trust, which is due to tell the story of "one of America's wealthiest and unhappiest families, the Gettys...over multiple seasons and spanning the 20th century" beginning in 1973 with the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, is set to debut on March 25.
And that's just how FX responded to O.J.'s success. NBC and prolific producer Dick Wolf also got into the game with the awkwardly titled Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, CBS dipped a toe in the waters with two-part unscripted special The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey, Discovery dramatized the FBI's search for Ted Kaczynski with Manhunt: Unabomber, Netflix teamed with David Fincher for Mindhunter, a fictionalized account of the FBI's early days of criminal profiling, Paramount Network brought the tragic standoff that pitted the FBI and the ATF against David Koresh's Branch Davidians in the mini-series Waco, and USA just premiered Unsolved, an anthology whose first season takes on the murders of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.
And as the return on investment for these types of shows continues to diminish—nothing listed has managed to reach the peaks that The People v. O.J. Simpson ascended to during its run—FX has found itself under increasing scrutiny and scorn from its subjects. The headaches began in June of last year when the legendary actress Olivia de Haviland sued Murphy and the network over her portrayal by Catherine Zeta-Jones in Feud, which had finished its run in April. The only living person featured in the series, de Haviland claims the series violated her privacy and publicity rights. Appellate arguments on the case begin on Tuesday, March 20, per The Hollywood Reporter.
Murphy and the network were next dinged in the lead-up to the January 17 premiere of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. The family of the late fashion designer, portrayed in the series by Edgar Ramirez, issued a statement a week prior to the debut, slamming the series as "a work of fiction." "The Versace family has neither authorized nor had any involvement whatsoever in the forthcoming TV series about the death of Mr. Gianni Versace," they claimed.
While neither FX nor the producers has ever claimed the family was involved in the project, the responded with a statement of their own.
"Like the original American Crime Story series The People v. O.J. Simpson, which was based on Jeffrey Toobin's non-fiction bestseller The Run of His Life, FX's follow-up The Assassination Of Gianni Versace is based on Maureen Orth's heavily researched and authenticated non-fiction best seller Vulgar Favors which examined the true life crime spree of Andrew Cunanan. We stand by the meticulous reporting of Ms. Orth," Fox 21 Television Studios and FX Productions said in a statement.
That didn't sit well with the family, who issued another statement two days later, saying it was "sad and reprehensible" for the producers to have based their project on Orth's book, which they allege is "full of gossip and speculation."
While it's hard to tell if the Versace family's dismissal of the project is to blame or simply true crime fatigue, the damage was done. The Assassination of Gianni Versace debuted to three million less viewers than The People v. O.J. Simpson did and has seen its numbers dwindle in subsequent weeks.
And now, just ahead of Trust's debut, the network is facing legal ramifications and further PR worries thanks to Ariadne Getty, the sister of John Paul Getty III, who is demanding that FX hand over episodes of the series for her review while claiming that the show makes it look as though her family was complicit in her brother's infamous kidnapping.
In a March 15 letter to the network obtained by E! News, Getty's lawyer Martin Singer claims that the 10-part series, which stars Donald Sutherland, Brendan Fraser and Hilary Swank, is a "a cruel and mean-spirited defamatory depiction" of the family.
"It is ironic that you have titled your television series Trust," Singer writes. "More fitting titles would be Lies or Mistrust, since the defamatory story it tells about the Gettys colluding in the kidnapping is false and misleading, and viewers rightly ought to mistrust it."
As was the case with Versace, Singer says neither Ariadne's "consent or input" was sought out before "proceeding to concoct" Trust.
FX did not return immediate request for comment.
The jury's still out on what sort of damage Getty's letter might do to the potential success of Trust, but it stands to reason that these unwanted reactions to their scripted docu-series might have FX thinking twice about their enthusiasm for them. And you can be sure that other network executives are watching these skirmishes very closely as they play out in the press and in court. The question remains. What will kill TV's true crime craze first, viewer fatigue or these unwanted headaches?
Trust premieres Sunday, March 25 at at 10 p.m. on FX.
(E!, NBC and USA are all part of the NBCUniversal family.)
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