Barbara Walters clearly isn’t ready to retire, and Investigation Discovery is nothing if not resourceful when it comes to trading off the equity built up by TV news folk. So close on the heels of “Killer Instinct With Chris Hansen” comes “Barbara Walters Presents American Scandals,” a pretty enterprising and ingenious way of repurposing the former ABC News star’s old “get” interviews, in slightly repackaged and updated form. Beginning with JonBenet Ramsey and moving on to O.J. Simpson, the Menendez brothers and Robert Blake, it’s the cable-TV equivalent of using every part of the chicken.
Produced by Lincoln Square Prods. – the more entertainment-oriented production arm of ABC News (although that distinction means less with each passing day) – “American Scandals” makes liberal use of Walters’ hard-earned reputation for landing interviews with high-profile subjects, most of which happened long enough ago as to feel minty fresh all over again. Still, the 86-year-old newswoman isn’t phoning it in, not only providing on-camera memories and intros but going out and revisiting some of those involved.
In the case of the premiere, devoted to the 1996 Colorado murder of pageant tyke Ramsey, Walters catches up with her father, John Ramsey, who along with the girl’s late mother, Patsy, became a suspect in the eyes of the Boulder police. In perhaps the most interesting side note, the documentary suggests that coverage of the killing remained local before the release of pageant photos and video of the slain girl, which were sold to the tabloids and promptly propelled the case into becoming a national story.
The episode also details how the Ramseys seemingly invited suspicion due to their reluctance to speak to the authorities, with author-producer Lawrence Schiller noting that after your child’s murder, “Why wouldn’t you want to cooperate with the police?” “Scandals” also builds a case that local cops botched the investigation, made all the more sobering by the fact that the murder remains unsolved.
Beyond the subjects already mentioned, “American Scandals” has a nine-week run that reads like a who’s who of “Stories that inspired TV movies,” revisiting the lurid tales of Jean Harris, who killed diet doctor Herman Tarnower; Mary Kay Letourneau, who famously slept with her teenage student; Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s killer; Kimberly Mays, one of two Florida babies who were switched at birth; and disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker.
All told, the series will hardly win any points for originality, but it does offer an object lesson in how to make some noise – without spending very much – amid the din of channels crying for attention. And not incidentally, it’s a reminder that even in the less-crowded, not-too-distant past, when it came to wading elbow-deep into the muck of salacious news, Walters knew how to wallow in it with the best of them.