Initially, seeing that TLC is devoting two hours to the 10-year anniversary of D.C. intern Chandra Levy’s disappearance felt like a relief, if only by signaling the end of the network’s tedious build-up to the Royal Wedding. But no, “Who Killed Chandra Levy?” is a royal travesty all its own — an icky hybrid blending extensive TV-movie reenactments with interviews and archival footage. Billed as a “docu-movie,” it pushes further into blurring the documentary/TV movie boundary than almost anything preceding it, and does a shameful disservice to both genres.
Produced, written and directed by Bruce David Klein, this TLC project draws heavily from the book “Finding Chandra: A True Washington Murder Mystery,” by journalists Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz. Yet in addition to being interviewed extensively, the authors are shown “investigating” the case — sifting through documents, etc. — which might qualify them as the first talking heads to also need a SAG card.
Pushing past other programs that make liberal use of recreated scenes, “Who Killed Chandra Levy?” has actors playing out badly written dialogue instead of just silently miming along to voiceover narration. It also announces upfront that it contains “modified or fictionalized” moments, so believe it — or not — when Chandra (Sarah Baskin) is shown threatening her married lover, Rep. Gary Condit (Joe Leon), by saying, “I wonder what the people in Condit Country would think if they knew about us?”
The sad part is the Levy case seems timelier than ever, with its mix of tabloid headlines, sex and salacious crime. There’s also an interesting sequence (yes, in two hours, there’s one) where camera crews staking out the Levy home suddenly pack up and leave, as the Sept. 11 attacks siphoned the media’s attention away from the case.
Mostly, though, “Who Killed Chandra Levy?” provokes a visceral sense of distaste, while underscoring how the made-for-TV movie has been reconfigured into something quicker, cheaper, and (as impossible as this might sound) even tawdrier than it was back in the ’90s. Between TLC, TruTV and Investigation Discovery, true-crime stories are being given elaborate docu-style treatment, scratching the itch once served by telepics.
Still, TLC — the home of “Extreme Couponing” — got what it paid for. The dramatized parts look cheap, and the acting is stilted. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Levy’s friends and family who participated through interviews, only to have her story exploited in this fashion.
TLC’s success has helped earn prexy Eileen O’Neill a promotion to oversee the flagship Discovery Channel as well. Whatever that means for Discovery’s future, “Who Killed Chandra Levy?” is a cut-rate example of stooping to conquer.