Get Your Tabloid Television On and Revisit Serial Killers, Karen Carpenter
Tired of prestige dramas? These two guilty pleasures have you covered.
Karen Carpenter: Goodbye to Love. Reelz. Saturday, November 5, 9 p.m.
People Magazine Investigates: The Long Island Serial Killer. Investigation Discovery. Monday, November 7, 9 p.m.
With the world a good bet to end Tuesday—at least, if we're lucky—this is not the week to be wasting your dwindling time on esoteric PBS costume dramas or earnest public-access-channel poetry slams. Go with your primal instincts and wallow in tabloid culture as God and Jerry Springer intended.
The purest essence of tabloidiana, of course, is the true-crime show, a cruelly underserved market in the United States. It's hard to believe we've gotten along all these years on a thin diet of Forensic Files, Dateline NBC, The First 48, Wives with Knives, The Hunt with John Walsh, Dead Silent, Swamp Murders, and a scant two dozen others.
Fear not, though. People Magazine Investigates, in which the Woodward-and-Bernstein of botched boob jobs and celebrity liposuction turns its keen journalistic eye on crime with the same relentless energy with which it has pursued The Sexiest Man Alive and 100 Most Beautiful People all these many decades.
People's true-crime adventures start with a two-hour episode on a serial killer known variously as the Gilgo Beach Killer (for the remote coastal strip of Long Island where he's stashed some of his bodies) or the Craigslist Ripper (for the place he apparently found his victims in the escort-service ads).
As homicidal maniacs go, the Gilgo Beach Killer isn't a bad candidate for true-crime TV investiture. Between 2007 and 2010, he strangled (not ripped; the true-crime community isn't over-obsessed with literalism) at least four women working as escorts, then wrapped their bodies in burlap and hid them in the brush just off the beach.
Because the women all disappeared from different jurisdictions—and perhaps also because missing hookers aren't necessarily a high police priority—nobody even realized a serial killer was at work until a fifth escort suffered a paranoid meltdown while at the home of a client near Gilgo Beach and ran off into the night, babbling that "they" were plotting to kill her.
The search for that woman, 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert, led to the discovery of the other four victims—and, eventually, six other bodies not necessarily connected to the Gilgo Beach Killer. Serial killers apparently compose one of the major local demographics, and I'd guess it won't be long before they're pressing for tax breaks, crop subsidies, and speech codes establishing their right to be referred to as de-metabolizers rather than murderers.
Unfortunately, People magazine's long immersion in what might be termed the soft-core side of tabloid culture ("FAMILY SECRETS: BRAD AND ANGELINA'S EMOTIONAL BATTLE OVER THEIR KIDS!") has left it without ability to generate the clipped, quasi-sociopathic narrative punch necessary for a story like this. The show can't even sort out which of the victims died at the hands of the Gilgo Beach De-metabolizer, much less anything about him. The script has more potholes than a Bill de Blasio freeway, including an off-handed mention near the end that one of the main on-screen interviewees got murdered a couple of months ago by the sister of one of the victims. In the end, I drew two lessons: 1) despite what you probably think, there's a lot more to true-crime shows than cheesy recreations and mournfully tinkling piano riffs, and 2) the CDC should forget about zika and try to find a vaccine for whatever they've got in Gilgo Beach.
If true-crime is the meat and potatoes of tabloidiana, anorexia show-biz martyrs are its dessert, to coin a really unfortunate metaphor. Cue to the Reelz cable channel's documentary Karen Carpenter: Goodbye to Love, a breathlessly melancholy account of the crack-up of the soprano balladeer who starved herself to death in 1983, leaving behind a body that was "77 pounds of dehydrated skeleton" in the words of the narrator. (Now that's quasi-sociopathic narrative punch!)
We'll pause now for your obligatory sneer. Filmmakers documenting the 1970s have long ago given up hope of locating a single person who either voted for Richard Nixon or bought a Carpenters record. (Full disclosure: My high school class song was "We've Only Just Begun," sort of. We actually voted for "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place," but the administrators used the opportunity to teach us a useful lesson on the limits of democracy.)
But somebody bought those 100 million records. And despise the sentimental lyrics and lush arrangements all you want, but Karen Carpenter's supple, effortless vocals were a marvel, especially to other singers of any stripe. When producers in 1994 started putting together a collection of alt-rock covers of Carpenters records by bands like Shonen Knife, they had to turn groups away.
In some ways, Karen's story is the prototypical music-biz tragedy: A teen idol makes a meteoric run up the charts, sells a zillion records, then reels off the tracks into drugs and self-destruction. There are, of course, a couple of distinctions. One is that the drugs in this case weren't to get her high but to make her thin.
And another is that the Carpenters were a disastrous mismatch with the rock and roll culture in which they moved. Not for nothing did Richard Nixon call them "young America at its very best." They took the stage looking like they'd been dressed by their mom, and sometimes scrubbed suggestive lyrics: In their version of the groupie ballad "Superstar," "I can hardly wait to sleep with you again" became "I can hardly wait to be with you again." Industry people mostly assumed this was all PR schtick. But when one of Karen's publicists started dating her, he says in some astonishment, "she was normal, which I wasn't used to, really."
Perhaps most insidiously, they were brother and sister—terminally unhip, as sibling groups from Nino and April to Donny and Marie have learned to their chagrin. Goodbye to Love includes footage of the horrified Richard and Karen agape as a Canadian radio host asks if they're sleeping together.
All this culture clash only magnified the difficulties of the road, which has done in many a musician. Both Richard and Karen came unglued. On a tour featuring 118 gigs in five months, he acquired a Quaalude habit; she, anorexia. He eventually got better; she got worse, lethally so.
Most of this is duly reported, however briefly, in Goodbye to Love. But tabloid TV requires a mustache-twirling villain, not a zeitgeist breakdown, and as the only survivor, Richard is the inevitable target. Everybody thought he was talented and she wasn't! (Not even the most crushing inferiority complex could have fostered the belief "Close to You" sold umpty-gazillion copies because everybody wanted to hear Richard play the piano.) He didn't like her boyfriends. (She didn't like his girlfriends, either.) He wouldn't let her release a solo album. (The bosses at A&M records also hated it—and when it was finally released 13 years after her death, so did critics and audiences.)
For every reasonable interview in Goodbye to Love, there's one with a shrieking childhood friend of Karen's with a score to settle against her brother. But if you were thinking of hate-watching, there's a better bet—a detestable, sick and, okay, fascinating little bit of character assassination called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a 1987 film by Todd Haynes that uses Barbie dolls to act out a maliciously fanciful account of her life. A legal blitzkrieg by the Carpenter family kept it from ever being released, but the internet—it's like a tabloid on steroids.