It was hard not to experience a sinking feeling as the first installment of “The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey” progressed.
This two-part investigation of the 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey, which aired its first installment on CBS Sunday, comes on the heels of the true-crime wave that bubbled up from the lower tiers of cable TV and from broadcast network newsmagazine programs, which have long had a penchant for dredging up seamy or disturbing murder cases that quite often involve feuding family members and lovers with grudges. The kinds of murder “investigations” on those shows and on an assortment of basic-cable channels — many of which have also cooked up their own JonBenet specials — are often deeply cheesy, but they can also have the contrived and greasy appeal of a fast-food item you know you shouldn’t eat but do anyway.
So as the team of investigators assembled for this special began to lay out the undoubtedly strange facts of the Ramsey case and parse that odd ransom note, the 911 call and other elements of the case, it wasn’t hard to sink into a state of semi-complacency about what was transpiring on-screen. “The Case Of” relied on fuzzy re-enactments, sonorous music, old photos, grainy video clips and earnest talking-head moments, mixed in with footage of the investigators on the case in the present day, thus right from the get-go, it felt different from “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx.” Those classier true-crime documentaries used some of those elements, but they were, for the most part, able to signal that they had loftier things in mind than mere exploitation (even if they did, on occasion, lapse into hyperbole or self-importance).
“The Case Of” didn’t try for the kind of measured tone or distanced perspective seen in the more prestigious tiers of the documentary world. The investigators were the stars, and viewers were told that they collectively have 250 years experience of law enforcement experience; the presumption was that they’d be able to crack a case that has stumped the authorities for two decades. Jim Clemente, a former FBI agent, said he wanted to get at “the truth on behalf of JonBenet,” but that assertion began to ring hollow as the special began to wear out its dubious welcome. That sinking feeling grew as the search for “the truth” was revealed to be a quest to revel in the death of a child whose personality and individual humanity was buried some time ago in an avalanche of prurient and melodramatic speculation. This “docuseries,” ultimately, engaged in more of the same.
“The Case Of” had its share of pacing issues; some roundtable discussions and interview segments featuring the experts ran far too long, and watching a sound technician play with the audio recording of the 911 call began to feel like watching paint dry. Originally, “The Case Of” was going to air on three nights, but it was cut down to two, and it’s hard not to wonder if it might have been better as a one-night event.
Or perhaps a zero-night event. One of the more disturbing tendencies of “The Case Of” was to take an element of the case that may be open to debate or doubt and come very close to presenting it as fact. For instance, viewers were told that “statements” made to authorities asserted that JonBenet’s father, John Ramsey, called out that he had found his daughter’s body before he turned on the light in the room in which she was found. Who made those statements? How credible are they? That information wasn’t presented, and there were other elements — for instance, a former family friend describing statements that JonBenet supposedly made to the woman’s daughter — that were hard to assess because they have only hazy connections to the known facts of the case.
It got creepier. There were multiple shots of a white blanket bunched up on a concrete floor, and one of the blanket images appeared to be a crime scene photo of JonBenet’s covered body as it looked when it was found. But that wasn’t enough for the producers of “The Case Of”: On a soundstage, they built re-creations of several rooms in the Ramsey house, and there were a seemingly endless number of shots of a similar white blanket on a concrete floor. The number of ways this production found to revisit the final moments of that child was really something (naturally, there were extensive discussions of what role a garrote may have played in her death).
There were disclaimers all over “The Case Of” — viewers were warned that it contained graphic imagery, and at the end of the first night, a title card informed viewers that John Ramsey and JonBenet’s brother, Burke, who was nine at the time of the murder, have “denied any involvement” in the death of the child (her mother, Patsy Ramsey, died in 2006). It’s not hard to understand why that statement was necessary, considering the single most demoralizing moment of the first half of “The Case Of.”
It occurred late in the second hour of the broadcast, in which investigators tested their theory that JonBenet was killed with a certain kind of flashlight. It wasn’t enough that they assembled a surreal, ghoulish object for their test — a human skull covered in pigskin, topped by a cheap blonde wig. They also brought in a 10-year-old boy and handed him a flashlight, so they could see if he had the strength to bash in the skull.
There’s no viewer discretion that quite can truly prepare a viewer for that kind of moment, nor does “The Case Of” ever answer, at least in its first half, the larger questions that surround the very existence of this special. It is, of course, tragic when any child is killed. But why is the death of this one little girl deserving of so much attention? Is it because she was white and her family was wealthy, or because of that seemingly endless array of beauty-pageant portraits? Aren’t there other unresolved murder cases — and tormented families — deserving of answers and the “justice” the investigators kept bringing up?
Connections were made, and theories were bandied about, but a lot of what transpired came off as attempts to cover as many true-crime bases as possible. On two different occasions, “The Case Of” linked the hoopla over the JonBenet Ramsey case to the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, and not just to make the quite reasonable point that both became fodder for the fledgling 24-hour news cycle. The producers of the special also felt duty-bound to let viewers know that Patsy Ramsey, who is not around to speak for herself, thought O.J. got away with murder.