The promiscuous use of dramatic reenactments in pseudo-documentaries, via channels like Investigation Discovery and TruTV — and even the news — is a team of runaway horses that have long since left the barn. Even so, there’s something stomach-churning about “Final Witness,” an ABC docudrama produced by ABC News alum Rudy Bednar, which extensively uses actors to replicate grisly crimes, and features the murder victims “narrating” their stories (hence the title), much like the novel-turned-movie “The Lovely Bones.” It’s a skeletal construct, all right, but there’s nothing lovely about it.
The premiere (which actually aired on the network as a backdoor pilot in late 2010) details the 2008 murders of a Texas family, with the killers torching the house to obscure the crime. It’s all pretty standard fare — the kind of stuff newsmags like “48 Hours Mystery” feast upon — except for the narration by the wife, Penny, who dispenses wisdom from the great beyond.
“If you follow your heart without God, you can lose your way,” she says, talking about her daughter’s boyfriend, later introducing a segment with, “My boys and I had been dead and buried for six months.”
The mix of acted-out scenes with interviews of actual participants, from law-enforcement authorities to friends and family, is familiar, if regularly abused. “Final Witness” augments it not just with extensive reenactments but a punishing, relentless rock score, as if “20/20” were being funneled through an episode of “Miami Vice.”
This is, quite simply, another tumbling step down the ladder that has seen news-like programming bastardized to satisfy the itch once scratched by fact-based TV movies — just as lurid and sensational, but faster and cheaper, distilling these sordid tales to 40-some-odd minutes. Although this has become commonplace, ABC’s attempt to one-up the field with this summer filler (promoted during the NBA Finals) is, to say the last, disheartening.
“I’ve done all my forgivin’,” the dead Penny tells us as we learn more about how and why the crime was committed.
That forgiving spirit is considerably better than “Final Witness” deserves.