say your piece

157 13 NOVEMBER 2003
"Made-for-TV" Sums Up CBS' 'The Elizabeth Smart Story'
By Rachael Sawyer
Wow, Smarts meet the Bizarro Smarts. And the actors from 'The Elizabeth Smart Story' look exactly like the people in real life. And by 'exactly,' we mean 'not at all.' Below, the abductee and new friends play dress-up.


uman suffering and made-for-TV melodrama: Were they made for each other?

Sometimes I ponder this and other deep questions as I invariably waste away lovely Sunday evenings watching TV, also invariably with a stunning literary achievement tossed aside on the couch next to me. (“Jesus,” I think to myself, “the least I could do is listen to NPR and get some dishes done…”)

But I think the answer to this—and most other profound questions about the nature of humanity—is maybe.

Let me explain: When it comes to Greek tragedy, that shit is just asking to be bastardized, stuffed with commercials and aired between reruns of “Joe Millionaire” and that one show where the guy tried to eat more hot dogs than a grizzly bear.

And had Aristotle thought up the Fox network, it would have been done centuries ago. Where else do schadenfreude and catharsis lend themselves so well than network TV?

But when the story involves real human suffering, such as the particularly horrifying ordeal survived by Elizabeth Smart, well, the first phrase that comes to mind is: “poor taste.” And a close second is: “financial exploitation.”

But we’re all sick and tired of people endlessly moralizing about TV. The fact is, I watched “The Elizabeth Smart Story,” and chances are good that you did, too. Chances that anyone was surprised by the handling of this drama are slim to nil.

CBS’s “The Elizabeth Smart Story” was exactly what we all expected it would be. Robbed as it was of any possibility for suspense, at times it bordered on boring. But the creepy experience (possibly even thrill), of watching your hometown portrayed in a made-for-TV movie more than compensated.

It’s truly weird to watch a movie portrayal of a city strewn with posters, buttons and newspaper articles so closely approximating those you encountered for months. You keep doing this mental double-take, superimposing the real image of real reward posters over the images on screen and wondering if maybe CBS cast an approximation of you to walk around in the background of the Salt Lake City set.

This set is a lush jungle of towering greenery that is TV-land Salt Lake City, as well as the black-and-white moral landscape of after-school drama. “The Elizabeth Smart Story” portrays the angelic Smart family’s heroic struggle against attacks on all fronts: lying media, cynical policemen and ever-encroaching loss of hope. (I guess my distinction between this and Greek tragedy loses a little credibility here.)

The highlights amid all the moral neatness were little shiny nuggets of irony, such as the movie’s staging of TV programs, including “America’s Most Wanted” and “Larry King Live,” and a distinct jab at Fox News. Shockingly, CBS asserts that some media corporations were seeking to use the Elizabeth Smart case solely to boost their ratings!

As I watched, I began to cringe at the movie’s generous smattering of buttons with TV-land Elizabeth Smart’s face on them, pleading “Pray For Me” in realistically cheap Photoshop fonts.

According to the movie, Elizabeth very well may have spent the entire nine-month ordeal listening to Brian David Mitchell strenuously pray psychotic prayers at her. With one of the worst cases of messiah complex ever known to America, constantly calling upon Jesus during his abduction of her, I’d think more prayers would be the last thing Elizabeth would want.

Perhaps the church bells sounding in the background of the scene in which Elizabeth is finally found also heralded enough irony to wince at.

Although “The Elizabeth Smart Story” constantly treats its audience to very clear markers of good religion versus evil religion, all that religion in a movie showcasing the most glaring image of a crazed and dangerous fundamentalist since post-Sept. 11 Osama bin Laden footage is just too much.

All in all, “The Elizabeth Smart Story” was everything made-for-TV movies promise to be—and may even be exactly what people who sit around wasting Sunday evenings in their living rooms deserve.

It contained the line, “Do what you feel in your heart!” And that’s really all Americans ask for—Americans without cable, that is.

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