“Inspired by true events” is like catnip for Lifetime movies, so it wasn’t a huge surprise when the cable channel almost immediately jumped on the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal that broke this past spring. Only seven months later, we now have the unimaginatively titled The College Admissions Scandal, which plays out likes a paint-by-numbers dramatized account of the headlines those riveted by the scandal are already familiar with. In case you’re not, here’s the gist: Several wealthy families have been indicted for enlisting the services of one Rick Singer, who pulled illegal strings to get their kids into prestige colleges like USC, Georgetown, and Stanford. Singer used methods like photoshopping teens’ pictures onto sports photos for fake extracurriculars, and having proctors either help them with their standardized testing or take the tests for them.
Once the jig was up, caught in the FBI dragnet were celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, which amped publicity levels considerably. This Lifetime movie offers reasonable facsimiles of the pair, as Penelope Ann Miller plays the more contrite mom who kept the scheming from her offspring (throwing herself on the mercy of the court, Huffman got away with a 15-day sentence), while Mia Kirshner is the more arrogant, Loughlin facsimile (in real life, the less-apologetic Loughlin rejected a plea deal and awaits trial). Singer does not get a stand-in, but is portrayed outright by Michael Shanks as the devious mastermind behind the whole scheme, which at the end involved about 800 families.
Those facts, while entertaining, play out pretty much as you’d expect—proctor waits for kid to leave the room after turning his SAT test in, then starts erasing his answers to replace them with the right ones. What The College Admissions Scandal has the chance to offer here is the reasoning behind these duplicitous and damaging actions. Huffman, ultimately caught up in a mail-fraud charge (much is made in the movie that payment was accepted as a donation to Singer’s 503c foundation so that parents could write it off, leading to charges of money laundering), told the judge she wanted her daughter to have a “fair shot” at college. Which begs the question: If the daughter of William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman isn’t going to get a “fair shot” at college, who will?
TCAS attempts to delve deeper into the impetus for why an already extremely privileged person would further extend that privilege by falsely inflating their child’s SAT scores. In the film, Danny (Sam Duke), the son of Miller’s Caroline, is (gasp) a musician who isn’t half as into his academic schedule as his mom is; she knows that his term paper on the Hundred Years’ War is only two weeks away. There’s helicopter parenting and then there’s a drone hovering right over your head at all times, and Danny’s parents are the latter. Caroline rants, “I’m scared for you. I don’t know how you’re going to make a living! You’re going to end up homeless and in the streets,” which seems like a quite a downward spiral for the only child of a lawyer and a high-end interior designer in Montecito, California. So Danny’s parents pay $100,000 for that proctor to boost their kid’s SAT score, which he doesn’t find out about until his parents get arrested.
As bad as Danny has it, Emma (Sarah Dugdale) might be even worse: Railroaded by her mother to pretend she plays soccer, she greedily accepts the proctor’s correct answers on her test. Her Machiavellian mother, Bethany (Kirshner), plays the Darwin card, pointing out that parents even wealthier than she is donate entire buildings to get their kids into Harvard and Yale. She also brings up how some low-income students don’t have the same high test score requirements: “They have their advantages and we have ours.”
These women live in a bubble where parents toss PSAT scores around over coffee, where hiring a “consultant” to get their kid into college is par-for-the-course. Where a perfectly reasonable public policy major at George Washington is dismissed outright as not as good as Yale. Meanwhile, Rick greedily cashes these desperate parents’ checks, offering kickbacks to the plethora of coaches who pretend they want these non-athletes on their teams. The mental gymnastics these parents go through to rationalize their illegal actions is impressive: “Are they bribes?” Caroline dubiously asks her lawyer husband. “They’re actually bribes,” he steadfastly confirms. But when he sees his law partner’s son get early admission to Princeton, he climbs aboard as well.
The College Admissions Scandal offers the brutal aftermath of the crimes of the guilty, which only get viewed from the wide angle of tabloids. The children are ostracized from their friends and understandably devastated, angrily asking their parents why who they are just wasn’t good enough. Caroline’s husband will be disbarred for committing a felony, and all her clients jump ship. The brittle Bethany finally cracks and winds up weeping in a closet, as she’s fired and her partners sue her. Worst of all, her daughter isn’t speaking to her, and will likely have trouble getting into any college at this point. Caroline’s son flees the family as well, leaving the parents to finally listen to some of his music, as that’s all they have left of him.
To its credit, The College Admissions Scandal doesn’t wrap things up in anything even remotely resembling a happy ending. Families are torn apart, and prison is looming. It plays like an after-school special of a cautionary tale (for the .001% who have six figures to toss around on fake test scores), but it’s still hard to muster up sympathy for even these destroyed characters at the end. The only reason that they express any regret at all is because they got caught; their presiding emotion before the feds show up is relief that their offspring are getting into the schools of the parents’ choice. Miller’s Caroline has momentary pangs, but only because she’s afraid Danny might find out all the strings they had to pull to make him think he was worthy of Stanford. There’s unfortunately much too little about the real victims here—the hundreds of kids those spots belonged to in the first place, which they were robbed of due to a heartless mercenary conspiracy rooted in class privilege.