This review originally published on March 12, 2022.
Where is the line between entertainment and exploitation? Do television producers have any moral obligation to the real-life people whose lives serve as fodder for their series?
These are questions I found myself grappling with while I watched the new Hulu limited series The Girl from Plainville. After I finished watching the eight episodes, I procrastinated writing my review. Something about reviewing a recent real-life tragedy just seemed wrong. Because unlike other recent true crime TV series including Inventing Anna, The Dropout, or WeCrashed, the victim in Plainville didn’t lose money or status. He lost his life.
Plainville, from executive producers and showrunners Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus, tells the story of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts native Conrad “Coco” Roy (Colton Ryan), a recent high school graduate, who on July 13, 2014 committed suicide. Soon after his death, it was discovered that his girlfriend Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning, who also serves as an executive producer on the series)—who lived in nearby Plainville, Massachusetts—had encouraged him to kill himself, and at one point even told him to get back into his car which was filled with carbon monoxide.
Roy’s death is a gut-wrenching tragedy. He died less than eight years ago, and I would assume that the loss of a beloved brother, son, and grandson still is felt deeply and daily by his family. The profoundly disturbing nature of Carter’s texts combined with the groundbreaking legal ramifications of bringing Carter to trial made the case the perfect tabloid fodder. News crews descended onto the courtroom. Carter was on the cover of People magazine. There has already been a 2018 Lifetime movie, Conrad & Michelle: If Words Could Kill, starring Bella Thorne and Austin P. McKenzie, and HBO had a two-part documentary series I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth V. Michelle Carter in 2019. Roy’s tragic death has been explored (exploited?) over and over again.
So the question really becomes what can Plainville offer viewers? Most TV series don’t need to justify their existence. This one does and, for the most part, rises to the challenge. The series, which is based on an Esquire article of the same name written by Jesse Barron, is never sensationalistic. It seeks to explain but never justify the circumstances that lead to Roy’s death.
Ultimately, the truly outstanding performances make this series. Both Fanning and Ryan portray their characters with a palpable empathy that transcends the ripped-from-the-headlines source material. They take their characters beyond the sensationalistic soundbites. Fanning makes Michelle a fully realized character and gives her depth beyond the image we all know of a sullen girl with blond hair and unnaturally dark eyebrows. Before the truth came out, just being the girlfriend of a boy who killed himself thrust Michelle into fame, making her the sympathetic heroine and giving her the attention she so desperately craved. (Michelle is so desperate for love and validation that she even worries if the judge likes her.) Ryan, for his part, gives Conrad such profound sadness. He’s a boy who loves his family and has goals and dreams, but the day to day battle with his inner demons became insurmountable.
The entire cast is terrific, but Chloë Sevigny is a true standout as Coco’s mom, Lynn. Her pain is so raw. Her devastation at her inability to save her son is gut-wrenching. Coco’s parents and Michelle’s parents aren’t perfect, but they are loving and involved and want the best for their children. What Plainville makes clear is that there is so much gray area to this story; nothing is as black and white as the news headlines may have made it seem.
Coco and Michelle first met while on vacation with their families in Florida, but their relationship is forged over texts. Conrad struggles with depression and has previously attempted suicide. Michelle has an eating disorder and struggles to fit in at school. She’s not the girl people include. No one considers her a close friend. Michelle is obsessed with the show Glee often acting out scenes from the Fox series in the mirror or saying monologues as if they are her own words. The hyper realized world of Glee offered her comfort, but Michelle is also delusional. “The jury needs to understand our love story,” she tells her lawyer at one point.
Plainville uses several clever devices to convey its difficult tale. When the two characters are feverishly texting, the show has them talking face to face. It brings to life how, even though the two teens mostly communicated via words on a screen, they truly felt like they were talking to each other and bearing their innermost thoughts and fears. The pair created a world only they knew about.
I remember studying adolescent development in school, and one of the facts that always stuck with me is how it’s hard for a teenage brain to fully comprehend the long term consequences of their actions. While watching Plainville it becomes clear that Michelle may not have fully internalized that Conrad’s death would be permanent.
At one point, Michelle’s parents Gail and David Carter (played so brilliantly by Cara Buono and Kai Lennox) are grappling with the texts they now know Michelle sent to Conrad. “We don’t know the context,” Gail says. “Can you think of a context in which any of this is okay?” David responds.
And the truth, which Plainville acknowledges, is that there is no context where anything that happened in this devastating story is okay. But it is a provocative series that provides perspective and will make you think about how willing the news media is to exploit a tragedy, how difficult it can be to be a teenager, and how hard society is on young women.
I’m still not sure this is a story that needed to be told, but if so, I’m very glad Hannah and Mcmanus were the ones to do it.
The first three episodes of The Girl from Plainville premiere March 29 on Hulu.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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