“48 Hours” has turned out some good work, in the finest tradition of CBS News, since its 1986 debut as a network special on crack addiction, but the newsmag opens its 13th season with a story of a Southern California scam artist that hardly seems worthy of in-depth coverage.
Admittedly, Matt Mathews is a prolific Don Juan who preyed on vulnerable women, often by marrying them and raiding their bank accounts while they weren’t looking. The “Mr. Wonderful” seg reported by Susan Spencer follows Mathews’ 23-year saga as a low-down Lothario who wound up with a nine-year prison sentence.
But the telling of this tabloid-ish story suffers from a lack of clear focus early on, and the drama that is there is not set up particularly well. The intriguing element of the assistant district attorney in Santa Barbara who kept tabs on Mathews for years after prosecuting a case brought by one of Mathews’ ex-wives in 1977, isn’t introduced until nearly 20 minutes into the piece.
Seg is best at detailing the behind-the-scenes effort of a group of 15-20 former victims who came together to help convict Mathews of theft and fraud in an Orange County courtroom last year. Interviews with victims paint a picture of a charming rake who claimed to be living off a trust fund and boasted about his background as everything from a Navy SEAL to a race car driver to a paramedic.
In the words of one private investigator: “This guy is a lemon in the used car lot of love.”
But beyond ID-ing Mathews as a guy to stay away from in a singles bar, what’s the point? There’s no effort to use the specifics of the Mathews case to make any broader point about, say, a new trend in fraud crimes or the sociological implications of his victims being primarily divorced, middle-aged women with children.
There’s little discussion of the psyche of the compulsive con artist. Mathews’ own motivations are barely fleshed out in a background seg that reveals he was crushed by the death of his mother when he was 14 and was probably intimidated by the stepfather who raised him.
Conversely, there’s no attempt to find common threads among the parade of victims interviewed for the story. Each one asserts that they were madly in love and devastated when Mathews left them flat broke, but there’s no lengthy exploration of how any one of these 30-ish/40-ish women could be snookered by a smooth-talking guy who started hinting at marriage after the first date.
Seg ends on an upbeat note with shots of the victims savoring their hard-earned victory at a post-sentencing party — a casual but organized affair complete with customized coffee mug souvenirs. Regular “48 Hours” viewers may wonder if their time would’ve been better spent, to say nothing of the time, money and resources allotted by CBS News.
Tech credits are fine.