All parents want the best for their children. But sometimes, somewhere along the way, what’s best gets co-mingled with their own personal need for validation and status. You see it on the soccer field with the parents who wonder if their kindergartener, clearly already a gifted athlete, is getting enough field time. You see it in school with the parents who never think their child, clearly the personification of perfection, is to blame for bad behavior.
“Operation Varsity Blues,” the FBI sting that blew open an intricate pay-off system that involved forged SAT scores, fabricated sports records, and bribes to college athletic coaches—resulting in the indictment of 52 people—is the pinnacle of this parenting phenomenon. Nothing will stop them from getting what’s best for little Johnny and Jane. Money is power and leverage.
As a result of “Operation Varsity Blues,” sullied college acceptances have been revoked. Students who benefited from this scheme before it was discovered have been expelled from their colleges. Those who have plead guilty are serving jail time.
“Operation Varsity Blues” had everything a good scandal needs: wealth, privilege, entitlement but most importantly it had two well-known actresses at its center. Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin both knowingly paid thousands of dollars to get their children into college. It’s hard to know if the scandal would have gained such notoriety without them.
Wisely, the not-so-creatively titled Lifetime movie The College Admissions Scandal doesn’t feature Huffman or Loughlin at all (although let’s be honest, Loughlin could have totally starred in the movie if the circumstances were different.) The movie instead chooses to focus on two composite characters— Caroline (Penelope Ann Miller) and Bethany (Mia Kirshner), mothers obsessed with getting their children into Stanford and Yale respectively.
They both meet counselor Rick Singer (Michael Shanks) who starts off advising them on how to beef up their children’s application before he lays bare his true system. They pay his nonprofit, he fixes SAT scores and bribes athletic directors. Bethany has never met a problem her vast wealth can’t solve and goes for it immediately. Caroline and her husband Jackson (Robert Moloney) are initially reluctant until their son Danny (Sam Duke) scores in the 1200s on his SAT. Danny wants to be a musician. He thinks his life will be fine if he doesn’t go to Stanford. His parents do not agree. In the end they decide the cheating the system via a $250,000 “donation” is cheaper than endowing a library and will end their constant battles with their son.
Bethany’s daughter Emma (Sarah Dugdale) agrees to go along with her mother’s scheme (even posing for fake soccer action shots) because she wants to be able to join her boyfriend at Yale. “It’s normal. Rick’s done it hundreds of other times,” she tells her daughter.
Given the speed in which this movie was made (the scandal broke exactly seven months ago), one can’t expect a nuanced script. The dialogue is clunky and cliched. “How does it feel to be a match than burns down the forest?” an FBI agent says at one point. “I’m trying to think of an unmelodramatic way of walking out of here, but nothing is coming to me,” Danny’s friend says to him after he discovers what he’s done. There’s also slow motion and montages—two hallmarks of a Lifetime movie.
The parents motives are simplified. According to the movie, they want bragging rights with their wealthy friends. How embarrassing to say that your child didn’t get into Yale and instead is going to go to George Washington University. The horror!
What saves The College Admission Scandal from total camp is Miller, who really rings true as a mom who loves her son and is deeply ashamed about what she’s done. Kirshner goes big as the woman who, instead, doesn’t understand the consequences. She’s right out of a primetime soap, but Kirshner keeps her grounded. Bethany compares what she’s doing for her daughter to Darwinism. “Some species survive and some don’t. Some people can do this for their kids and some people can’t,” she says.
Even though Emma was complicit in what was happening, the children are presented with sympathy. After all, it is your parents who are supposed to teach you right from wrong. The villain of the story is clearly Rick Singer, who like a reverse Robin Hood wheels and deals to get more privilege for the privileged. In one particularly cynical scene, he dismisses parents who are social workers. He’s only “helping” those with a couple hundred thousand to spare.
The College Admissions Scandal does, rather ungracefully, try to say something about loving and supporting your children for who they are not who you want them to be, while condemning those who think they are above not only the law but above the normal rules of society. In the end, you might even have sympathy for the parents who have clearly done so much wrong.
The College Admissions Scandal premieres October 12 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. 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).