Review: Fall River 2021 Tv Series
Lizzie Borden has legs, as they say in show business, and has since 1892, when a vicious double murder in Fall River, Mass., gave birth to a famously twisted children’s rhyme:
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
The fact that Borden was acquitted of having murdered her parents is a detail that tends to get lost in the folklore. But it makes her a not entirely inappropriate teaser for “Fall River,” a four-part docuseries on Epix about a trio of more recent killings that make the Borden murders seem like a kitchen accident. Questions of guilt, innocence and public perception are part of the mix. So is that relic of 1980s crime culture and fretful parenting, the “Satanic panic.”
The introduction to “Fall River” is about a working-class city on the skids, where prostitution flourished within blocks of the police department and a subculture of seriously damaged people exploited an overextended city and each other. Alan Silvia, a veteran Fall River homicide detective who recalls being involved in 40 or so homicide investigations, says that, if asked for career advice, he’d tell people that police work is “the worst job in the world.” It’s hard to argue given the particulars of “Fall River.”
On Oct. 13, 1979, a female body was found beneath the bleachers of Diman Vocational High School, brutalized to the point that no immediate identification could be made. She turned out to be Doreen Levesque, a runaway from foster care, whose eventual ID led investigators to a lineup of usual suspects and Fall River ne’er-do-wells, including Carl Drew, a pimp and small-time criminal, and Robin Murphy, Drew’s ostensible rival in control of Fall River prostitution. As she’s initially presented, Murphy could be a miniseries herself: A troubled young woman and a probable victim of domestic sexual abuse, she terrorized her turf, fought with her fists like an angry man, and controlled a large part of the Fall River prostitution business. All at 17 years old.
It’s difficult to say what exactly Murphy was all about, though, given her role in the Levesque murder and the killing of her lover Karen Marsden, especially without scattering spoilers throughout this review. (The body of a third victim would be discovered months after Levesque’s.) “Fall River” is quite happy leading viewers down blind alleys and feeding them red herrings. The director is James Buddy Day, something of a true-crime specialist in an increasingly true-crime-happy medium, who has made multiple documentaries on the Charles Manson case—something with which the Fall River cases share some similarity. Was the Satan-worship aspect of the Fall River murders something people actually believed in? Was it merely Carl Drew’s way of controlling vulnerable women? Was it, as happened so often during the late ’80s and early ’90s, something that created media furor, public hysteria and led to miscarriages of justice? There are certainly instances of those in the public record.
“Fall River” is telling a sad story and a fairly old one, in which the principals no longer have much to fear, or much at stake, with the exception of Drew, who is interviewed in a Massachusetts prison. Some of the visual elements of the series—the clips that provide background for the interviews that are really providing the narrative—seem almost random at times. The scudding clouds and spooky church towers are used to “Exorcist” effect, as is the music: The chimes are a giveaway. All the same, the setting of eastern Massachusetts—with its history of damnation-spewing preachers, Salem witch trials, Melville’s haunted whalers and, yes, Lizzie Borden—provides something of a welcoming atmosphere for imaginary demons, and very real murder.