The Girl from Plainville: the unease of TV’s latest true crime hit

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<span>Photograph: Steve Dietl/Hulu</span>
Photograph: Steve Dietl/Hulu

The reasons to watch and to question The Girl from Plainville, an eight-part Hulu mini-series based on the infamous “texting suicide” case from mid-2010s Massachusetts, are both contained in the final scene of the first episode. The camera hovers behind Michelle Carter, played mesmerizingly by Elle Fanning, who stares at herself in the mirror, face distorted by grief. It’s summer 2014, a few weeks after Conrad “Coco” Roy III (Colton Ryan), with whom Carter had a years-long text-based relationship, killed himself via carbon monoxide poisoning in a K-mart parking lot. Michelle appears to be practicing a speech for his memorial. “I loved him, and he loved me, and he loved all of you guys. I know he did,” she says through tears.

Related: I Love You, Now Die: behind the text suicide scandal that shocked America

But then the tears abruptly stop. Michelle turns around to her laptop to restart a scene from Glee in which Rachel Berry, played by Lea Michele, sings a tribute to Finn Hudson, the character played by Michele’s on and off-screen boyfriend, Cory Monteith, who died of an accidental overdose in 2013. Michelle’s heartfelt words are actually, we realize, merely heartfelt mimicry; her monologue is lifted near-verbatim from Glee. Michelle follows Lea Michele’s monologue to the end of the scene, singing To Make You Feel My Love with operatic gestures, voice raw.

It’s a fascinatingly circular, deeply uncomfortable scene: a teenage character obsessed with a famous TV character inspired by tragic real-life events – a disturbing, weird detail lifted from the real-life Michelle Carter story – played for provocation on a TV show assumedly aimed to sketch in the blanks of a well-publicized, polarizing tragedy. There’s a lot here. Is Michelle a psychopath looking for sympathy? A delusional narcissist? An unwell teenage girl so devoid of self-worth that she psychotically over-identifies with a fictional character? Someone deeply moved by television? You could find evidence for any of those readings. The moment is The Girl from Plainville at its best: an exploration of the human behind a seemingly monstrous act (Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in a precedent-setting case in 2017 for telling Roy, in several text messages for weeks before his death, to kill himself).

It’s also indicative of the fundamental awkwardness of this show, an overlong deluge of unease which gestures at a lot of thorny, circular issues but barely digs into the mess of the real story. Some of this discomfort – the mysterious, bizarre darkness of abnormal psychology, the power of digital communications to warp one’s sense of reality, too-strong identifications with celebrities – feels earned, suggestive, rich. But a lot of it stems from the show’s premise, in making what is fundamentally entertainment out of the deeply tragic digital union of two very wounded, very fragile teenagers. The Girl from Plainville, as a recent true crime series, continually raises the question for its justification – what does this add to a story we already know? Can entertainment illuminate without exploiting? – and doesn’t seem to know the answer.

The Girl from Plainville, created by Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus, exists at the intersection of several popular TV subgenres. It’s another example of a 2010s headline turned popular documentary/podcast/exposé turned limited series – a narrative second draft of history, as in The Dropout, WeCrashed, Super Pumped and Inventing Anna. (The Girl from Plainville is based on an Esquire article on the real trial, which is also the subject of the 2019 two-part HBO documentary I Love You, Now Die, directed by Erin Lee Carr.) It’s interested in the psychology of chronic lies, such as in the aforementioned true-scam shows, HBO’s Winning Time (on a business level) and Hulu’s The Act (about an infamous 2010s Munchausen-by-proxy story, also explored in Carr’s first documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest). It offers a complicating, if not redemptive, character study of a publicly villainized woman, a la Pam & Tommy, Impeachment: American Crime Story or documentaries on Britney Spears, Janet Jackson and Lorena Bobbitt. There’s the interest in teen mental health and suicide, as in the controversial Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why and the moral panic over HBO’s hit Euphoria. In The Girl from Plainville and most of the aforementioned shows, there’s also the evergreen and uncanny frisson of seeing a well-known actor transform through hair, makeup, costume and prosthetics into a well-known figure.

In other words, much of what The Girl from Plainville is doing is familiar, on a thematic and narrative level; it employs some well-worn prestige TV tropes for better (an interest in the brittle grief of Coco’s mom Lynn, played wonderfully by Chloe Sevigny; meticulous costuming and set design that captures the vibe of suburban 2012-2014) and for worse (muddled multiple timelines, a lagging eight-hour runtime that could have been four). The show is most novel and intriguing in its attempt to convey the emotional realism of consistent texting. In the first three episodes – the immediate aftermath of Coco’s suicide on one timeline, and the initiation of their relationship on a Florida vacation on the other – the phone screen is a haunting presence. Michelle hovers over hers with near-religious fervor, typing and retyping and staring at messages; Lynn’s grief is patterned by texts and calls; Coco buries his chronic depression and loneliness into his phone.

Michael Mosley and Elle Fanning
Michael Mosley and Elle Fanning. Photograph: Steve Dietl/Hulu

By the fourth episode, which dropped last week (the remaining four will air weekly), Coco and Michelle are deep in their secret correspondence – nebulous, toxic, psychoactive. The couple, who only met in person a handful of times, were less lovers than voices in each other’s heads. The show captures some of that blurriness, and why adults just didn’t get it, by putting the texts in the actors’ mouths. Their digital conversations (pulled, it seems, from the real texts) play out as fantasy sequences, one imagining the other in the room with them, staring ravenously at them, as they type.

But we barely get to feel it, as the spliced timeline undercuts their exchanges. A fourth episode scene in which Coco tells Michelle that he attempted suicide, for example, cuts to a standard procedural scene in which the prosecutor mulls over zero-sum strategy for how to best pursue Michelle at trial. It’s a frustrating watch; the show’s quality, particularly Fanning and Ryan’s instinctive performances, masks the shallowness of too many ideas, not enough clarity. The first half of the season mostly keeps Michelle a cipher, perhaps necessary for a person who has never participated in a formal interview since her 2015 indictment and did not speak at trial, but an ultimately uncomfortable decision.

The intentional, interesting discomfort – reconciling what Michelle said with the vulnerable character on-screen – quickly elides with discomfort over the whole project. Michelle Carter was 17 years old when this all happened. There’s a version of this story that is even more sympathetic to her, a girl who long struggled with eating disorders and anxiety (suggested but not overt in early episodes) who also experienced suicidal ideation as a teen. How much creative license is fair with these real stories? Which truth gets the most bearing? Does audience or truth matter more?

These are all messy questions without easy answers, and I say that as someone who will watch the whole series. It’s fitting, I suppose, for an incredibly messy story; the deeper you go – and with all the coverage of the trial, its thousands of pages of text message records, you can go very deep – the messier it gets. Yet you can somehow watch The Girl from Plainville and forget how tragic this whole story is, which is maybe the most uneasy thing of all.

  • The Girl from Plainville is on Hulu on Tuesdays and will air in the UK later this year

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