TThe final scene of the first episode contains reasons to watch and question “The Plainville Girl,” an eight-part mini-series called Hulu based on the infamous “Suicide SMS” case in Massachusetts in the mid-2010s. The camera hovers behind Michelle Carter, charmingly played by El Fanning, who looks at herself in the mirror with her face distorted with grief. This is the summer of 2014, a few weeks after Conrad “Coca” Roy III (Coltan Ryan), with whom Carter had a long-term text relationship, killed himself through carbon monoxide poisoning in the K-Mart parking lot. Michelle seems to be training in a speech for his memorial. “I loved him and he loved me and he loved all of you guys. I know that, ”she says through tears.
But then the tears stop abruptly. Michelle turns to her laptop to restart a scene with Glee in which Rachel Berry, played by Leo Michelle, sings a tribute to Finn Hudson, a character played by Michelle’s boyfriend on and off, Corey Montait, who died of an accidental overdose in 2013. We understand that Michelle’s sincere words are in fact just sincere mimicry; her monologue is almost literally taken from Glee. Michelle follows Leo Michelle’s monologue to the end of the stage, singing To Make You Feel My Love with operatic gestures, her voice raw.
This is a fascinating circular, very awkward scene: a teenage character obsessed with a famous TV character, inspired by tragic events in real life – a disturbing, strange detail taken from the real story of Michelle Carter – played for provocation in a TV show, supposedly directed at . There are many things here. Michelle a psychopath looking for compassion? A magical daffodil? A bad teenage girl, so deprived of self-esteem that she mentally over-identifies with a fictional character? Has anyone been deeply impressed by television? You can find evidence of any of these readings. This moment is “The Plainville Girl” at its best: investigating a man for a seemingly horrific act (Carter was convicted of manslaughter in a precedent case in 2017 for telling Roy in several text messages a few weeks before his death : to kill yourself).
It’s also a testament to the fundamental awkwardness of this show, too long a stream of unrest that points to a host of painful, round issues, but barely delves into the mess of true history. Part of this discomfort – the mysterious, strange darkness of abnormal psychology, the ability of digital communications that can distort the sense of reality, too strong an identification with celebrities – seems earned, suggestive of the rich. But much of the show’s premise is to make what is essentially entertainment, from the deeply tragic digital union of two very wounded, very fragile teenagers. The girl from Plainville, like a recent real crime series, constantly raises the question of her justification – what does this add to the story we already know? Can entertainment be covered without operation? – and doesn’t seem to know the answer.
The Plainville Girl, created by Liz Hannah and Patrick McManus, exists at the intersection of several popular television subgenres. This is another example of how the 2010 title turned into a popular documentary / podcast / revelation that turned into a limited series – the second draft of the story, as in The Dropout, WeCrashed, Super Pumped and Inventing Anna. (The Plainville Girl is based on Esquire’s article about a real trial, which is also the subject of a 2019 HBO documentary “I Love You, I’m Dying Now” directed by Erin Lee Carr.) She is interested in the psychology of chronic lies, as in the above shows about true scams, HBO’s “Time to Win” (on a business level) and Hulu’s “Law” (about Munchausen’s infamous 2010 power of attorney story, also explored in Carr’s first documentary, “Mom is Dead and Dear”). It offers a sophisticated, if not redeeming, study of the character of a publicly vicious woman, a la Pam and Tommy, Impeachment: An American Crime Story or documentaries about Britney Spears, Janet Jackson and Lauren Bobbitt. There is an interest in the mental health and suicide of teenagers, both 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 is also an evergreen and unusual passion when a famous actor with the help of hair, makeup, costume and prosthetics turns into a well-known figure.
In other words, much of what The Plainville Girl does is familiar on a thematic and narrative level; it uses several worn-out prestigious TV stencils for the better (interest in the fragile grief of Coco Lin’s mother, played brilliantly by Chloe Sevigny; meticulous costume design and scenography depicting the suburban atmosphere of 2012-2014) and for the worst (mixed miserable, mixed performance, which could be four). The show is the newest and most intriguing in its attempt to convey the emotional realism of consistent texting. In the first three episodes – right after Coco’s suicide on one timeline and initiating their relationship while vacationing in Florida – on the other – the phone screen haunts presence. Michelle hovers over her with almost religious passion, typing, reprinting and looking at messages; Mount Lin is a sample of texts and calls; Coco hides her chronic depression and loneliness in the phone.
Until the fourth episode, which came out last week (the other four will be released weekly), Coco and Michelle are deep in their secret correspondence – foggy, toxic, psychoactive. The couple, who met in person several times, were less lovers than voices in each other’s heads. The play captures part of this blur, and why adults just didn’t realize it by putting lyrics into the actors ’mouths. Their digital conversations (seem to be taken from real texts) are played out as fantastic sequences, one imagining the other in the room with them, eagerly staring at them as they type.
But we will hardly feel it, because the merged deadlines undermine their exchange. For example, the scene of the fourth episode, in which Coco tells Michelle that he tried to commit suicide, moves to the standard procedural scene, in which the prosecutor reflects on a zero-sum strategy on how best to prosecute Michel in court. This is a nasty watch; The quality of the show, especially the instinctive performance of Fanning and Ryan, masks the shallowness of too many ideas and lack of clarity. The first half of the season mostly holds the Michelle cipher, possibly needed by a man who has never participated in a formal interview since being indicted in 2015 and has not appeared in court, but ultimately is an awkward decision.
Deliberate, interesting discomfort – reconciling what Michelle said with a vulnerable character on screen – quickly disappears with discomfort throughout the project. When it all happened, Michelle Carter was 17 years old. There is a version of this story that is even more sympathetic to her, a girl who has long struggled with eating disorders and anxiety (suggested but not obvious in the early episodes) who also experienced suicidal thoughts as a teenager. How fair is a creative license with these real stories? Which truth makes the most sense? Is the audience more important?
These are all chaotic questions with no simple answers and I say this as someone who will watch the whole series. I guess it’s appropriate for an incredibly chaotic story; the deeper you go – and with all the coverage of the trial, its thousands of pages of text messages, you can go deeper – the dirtier it gets. However, you can somehow watch “The Girl from Plainville” and forget how tragic this whole story is, which is perhaps the most difficult of all.