True-crime documentaries frequently walk the line between educational and ghoulish, and HBO’s gripping Mommy Dead And Dearest is no different. Director Erin Lee Carr explores the horrifying relationship between Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard, a mother and daughter whose entire existence was built around senseless lies and torture somehow disguised as parental love. Seeking attention, sympathy, and gifts, Dee Dee convinced the world—and Gypsy Rose—that Gypsy Rose had multiple ailments that she, in fact, didn’t, including muscular dystrophy and leukemia. Her entire childhood was spent in a wheelchair she didn’t need, being fed through a tube she didn’t need, being pumped full of drugs she didn’t need. It would be hard to imagine a torture so evil and complete, and there’s even a name for it: Munchausen by proxy, a mental disorder in which someone—usually a parent—fabricates another person’s—usually a child—illness in order to get attention.
Eventually, Gypsy Rose and her mentally disabled online boyfriend viciously murdered Dee Dee and were quickly apprehended. There’s no mystery to Mommy Dead And Dearest, no open-ended crime to be speculated on like Making A Murderer or Paradise Lost. It’s just a heartbreaking tale of what seems like pure evil and, some will argue, an understandable act of revenge. It’s interesting and telling that there’s not one talking head in the film that will stand up for Dee Dee—everybody, including her own father, seems to think that she got what she deserved. There are deeper motives to speculate on—like whether the now-jailed Gypsy Rose learned some manipulation tactics from her mother, but I’m not sure they’re worth thinking about. It’s a fascinating, horrifying story, and well told—but one you might want to put far into the back of your mind when it’s over.
Growing up, I used to hear stories about how, near my grandparents’ house on the Ohio/Pennsylvania border, restaurants and bars used to have machine gun peep holes in the walls, should the mob’s nightly hijinks get out of hand. The mob, it seemed, still operated in steel country to some extent, something that in part contributed to the long-running success of crooked, bewigged politicians like James Traficant. It was part of the region’s past and present, though hopefully not its future. That kind of personal connection is probably partly why I’m really enjoying Crimetown, though more of that love probably stems from the fact that it’s a great podcast. An 18-part Gimlet series that focuses on the criminal underbelly of Providence, Rhode Island, Crimetown is equal parts true crime and hard reporting. It’s like Serial but more varied, and with S-Town’s caliber of colorful characters. Episode topics vary from what it’s like to be the son of a hitman to how the city repeatedly elected a mobbed-up mayor named Buddy Cianci. It’s fascinating stuff even if you’re not into Goodfellas-style drama, but if you are—and especially if you’re into small-scale politics—you’re going to love it. Start from episode one and just let it take you over.
There are a lot of ways to consume news these days: Morning podcasts from The New York Times and NPR, billions of smart email digests and aggregation apps, even (gasp) weird folded pieces of paper containing words on them. It’s easy to hate TV news—lord knows I do—for devolving public discourse into “gotta hear both sides” shouting matches, sensationalized obsessions, conspiracy-theorizing punditry, and whatever the fuck Geraldo is doing these days. But the medium remains uniquely good at long-form embedded reporting, particularly on Frontline, and has coughed up a remarkable disruption to the nightly news format in the form of HBO’s Vice News Tonight. It’s smartly curated, featuring a mix of breaking daily news and slower-burning deep coverage, with helpful illustrations and a sort of delicately omniscient tone that feels like a sober, modern counterbalance to everything else out there.