The weird pop-culture tailwind that has followed in the wake of FX’s hugely popular The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story has sent TV producers in search of other famous crimes to unearth, and the 1996 murder of six-year-old JonBenét Ramsey has suddenly taken on renewed prominence. There are new “investigations” being conducted by Lifetime, Investigation Discovery, and A&E, with Sunday night’s CBS entry into the poor girl’s life and demise being the most high-profile. Although we’ll see just how high-profile when we get the ratings for The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey after it airs opposite the Emmy Awards.
Sunday’s two-hour episode (a second, equally-long part airs Monday night) sets itself up like a cross between 48 Hours and Criminal Minds. We’re introduced to profiler Jim Clemente and Laura Richards, a former New Scotland Yard criminal behavioral analyst, as they ride in a car, talking about the importance of investigating the case as though they’d just met and happened to have a camera crew traveling with them.
The duo sets up what they call a “War Room” that contains what every crime story is obliged to have going back at least as far as the movie The Usual Suspects: a big board or two on which every suspect, every detail, is written out, with pictures and arrows and connections drawn. Clemente and Richards then haul in more experts, and they all sit around and jawbone about JonBenet, her parents John and Patsy Ramsey, and her brother Burke. At what was probably enormous expense for the network and/or the production company, the rooms that were part of the crime scene are meticulously re-constructed near the War Room, so that everyone can troop through and muse about the crime some more, with TV-friendly visuals.
The ransom letter is read at length, and then investigators write it out for themselves to see how it would take to write a really long ransom letter. There’s an excruciatingly long scene in which a sound expert tries to clean up a fuzzy recording of the 911 call made from the Ramsey home the night of the crime. I had barely followed this case when it first made national news, but I was bored stiff — so I can only imagine how viewers with some knowledge and interest in the case will feel watching the investigators go over what must be familiar material.
CBS had originally scheduled this to be a three-night, six-hour presentation, but scaled it back to two nights and four hours less than a week before broadcast. I wonder whether CBS programmers got a look at the project late in the editing process and said something like, “Nah, you don’t have enough here — let’s plug a new episode of NCIS: Los Angeles in that spot.”
Although my colleague Kimberly Potts is reporting that the investigators will name a suspect in the murder, I’m dubious that this is going to crack the case open: Doesn’t it seem as though if CBS was sitting on a solution, we’d have heard about it before now? Yes, it would be wonderful if justice finally arrived for JonBenét, but the first two hours of this production made available for review are singularly uninsightful. If Making a Murderer, The Jinx, and the first season of the Serial podcast heralded a new era of true-crime stories, this one is tediously told.
The Case Of: JonBenet Ramsey airs Sunday at 8:30 p.m. and Monday at 8 p.m. on CBS.