[3 November 2010]
Investigation Discovery’s The Will begins by revisiting two of the most thoroughly overworked celebrity family scandals of the last half-century. The premiere episode dissects the reported cruelties of Joan Crawford and the resulting feuds among her children, while the second trudges in the footsteps of Jett Williams as she retells how she found notoriety and a hefty inheritance as the illegitimate daughter of Hank Williams.
But, unlike vengeance, gossip is not a dish best served cold. Neither is it served by lack of imagination. Christina Crawford first stripped her mother Joan bare more than 30 years ago, in the tell-all memoir, Mommie Dearest (subsequently filmed with Faye Dunaway as Crawford), while Williams published her own poor-girl to rich-girl saga 20 years ago. When a vestige of curiosity flickers, as it does occasionally in Williams’ tale, the production hammers it down through third-rate reconstructions, repetitive editing, and sonorous narration.
The series opener, “The Estate of Joan Crawford,” unfolds as low-budget, prepackaged TV at its worst. The primary interviewee is Christina Crawford, who regurgitates her familiar story of abuse and fear and being cut out of her mother’s will as if even she is bored by it. The show presents the only other interviewee, Casey LaLonde (the son of Christina’s younger, and more favored sister, Cathy), as the challenger to her orthodoxy, but he was only five at the time of his grandmother’s death. Apart from some goofy psychobabble about his grandmother’s putative state of mind near death, all he can add to the story is that his mother saw her family life differently than Christina did. Both Christina and Casey are shot against a dark background, with a curious halo effect around their heads, a trick repeated for the lengthy interview with Jett Williams in the second episode. The interview subjects end up looking as if they are speaking from beyond the grave.
Other visuals designed to fill out the grossly wordy voice-over include silent reconstructions, in which actors mime the actions described. Inept acting in slightly soft focus is never pretty, but when edited along with a dogged literalness to cover an overlong narration, it is downright ugly. Almost every time the voice-over in the Joan Crawford episode mentions The Will, viewers see the same shots of vacant-faced actors, playing the four Crawford siblings, shaking their heads in wooden disbelief. If Jett Williams says that she and her lawyer listened to her adoption papers being read by an official, three actors on the screen faithfully illustrate the words with their actions. Even when the reconstructed images on the screen speak for themselves, such as Hank Williams’ handwritten note acknowledging Jett as his daughter or Crawford’s alleged beatings of Christina with a wire coat hanger, the voice-over narration describes the shots over and over again.
In the Williams episode, the tacky expedience of reconstructions seems particularly gratuitous. First, the story of how the illegitimate child born five days after her father’s death lost and then found her connection to his family twists and turns like a fictional tale. The episode features several interviews, including not only Jett Williams, but also her lawyer (and, subsequently) husband, Keith Adkinson, as well as members of the Alabama judiciary. Williams tells her story as if she followed a solid, if intermittent, paper trail, to her share of the Williams estate. Very little of this original evidence appears in the show, though it would have injected a welcome credibility, and saved the reconstruction actors from unflattering overexposure.
The cumulative effect of these production decisions is nothing more than television as talking wallpaper, a sequence of flickering lights and anodyne noise to cover over an hour. Shows like The Will are portents of the beast that the proliferation of 24/7 TV on hundreds of channels has bred, the symbiosis between small- and medium-sized production companies and behemoths like National Geographic and Discovery. These production companies can cut budgets to the bone by offering basic salaries in over-manned creative and technical markets, and thus provide cheap product for distributors, who cycle packages intensively through their schedules. Even as such practices drive down the quality of material, they also eliminate opportunities for the training of new talent for the future. That is the real revelation of The Will, not the sleazy secrets of the almost famous and long dead.