Captive Audience Review – IGN

Captive Audience premieres April 21, 2022 on Hulu.

True Crime documentary about True Crime, the three-part Hulu series Captive Audience follows a real-life 1970s kidnapping case, which it recounts not just through first-hand accounts, but through contemporary news clips. , scenes from a two-part TV movie made about the events, and interviews with the people who fictionalized the tale. It’s a show about how stories are told and remembered, and while its third episode – about semi-related crimes that took place more than two decades later – doesn’t feel as focused or demanding, its first two entries are as deeply touching as they are oddly seductive.

At the start of its first chapter, the series lays out its broad outlines in a (rightly) captivating montage. In 1972, Steven Stayner was kidnapped at the age of 7; his story hit the airwaves, but he disappeared as if without a trace. In 1979, he miraculously returned home, and when the story should have ended there, he became the center of a pervasive media frenzy that left a lasting impact on his family. As if that weren’t enough, in 1999 – a decade after Steven’s tragic death in a car accident – ​​the media spotlight would once again return to the Stayner family, for deeply unpleasant reasons. The show divides each of these story phases into its own 45-minute episode, and while the facts are all widely available, it coyly plays with the details of the latter, only hinting that someone from Steven’s own family was involved. in some rather disturbing crimes, bringing cameras and reporters back into the Stayners’ lives.

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Captive Audience stands out as a story about stories and how media shapes them – not just news media, but film and television as well. While it begins like most other True Crime documentaries, with family members talking to the director just off-camera, its first episode begins to take on an extremely self-reflective form halfway through. Steven, long dead at this point, is only a fleeting memory for his surviving daughter and a mere concept for his living son, who was too young to remember him. Most only know him from the 1989 hit miniseries I Know My First Name is Steven, in which he is played by actor Corin Nemec. The majority of Steven’s living relatives all have their say, but Steven himself cannot give an opinion from beyond the grave. And so, in a strangely hard-hitting decision, director Jessica Dimmock recasts Nemec as Steven and has him read transcripts of actual interviews conducted with Steven (both by the authorities and the miniseries creators). ) while he was still alive.

In this way, Captive Audience makes a fascinating companion to Casting JonBenet, Kitty Green’s stellar Netflix documentary that re-enacts the JonBenet Ramsay murder case through the interpretations of many different actors in order to arrive at different versions of the truth. Dimmock’s show is more focused – the events of Steven’s case aren’t quite as controversial – but pulling together real and fictional tales of the Stayner clan, and looping back to some of those tales asking the actors to revisit their former parts (now with a more detailed knowledge of the people they played), she is able to highlight not only the various untruths created for dramatic license, but also the many truths that were missed.

Dimmock’s goal, however, isn’t to poke holes in the miniseries (which the real Steven ignored as entertainment), but rather to question how stories persist and transform in consciousness. public. In one particularly moving moment, Steven’s mother tries to remember a specific detail about a mundane object; she cannot, yet this detail is preserved in amber by the film about her son; whether this version is factual or not, it now remains the only record. The event is minor, but it introduces a fascinating dilemma for every subsequent footage used by the series – be it interviews, film scenes or newsreels – inviting us, at every turn, to ask us what details were left. and why.

In this way, it also recalls another recent documentary about media narratives and crimes against children, Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers, though it doesn’t quite punctuate its findings with as much punch or possibility. persistent. That’s partly because the third episode feels less like an expansion of the story already covered by the miniseries — to which Captive Audience adds valuable emotional context — and more like a loose appendix. In attempting to make the connection between what the Stayner family went through in the 70s and the media circus that resurfaced in 1999, the show goes beyond too much detail on this latest case and rushes to definitive conclusions without leaving its questions strange dig their way under the skin. Indeed, it loops back on itself in a way that doesn’t seem intentional: after two episodes that challenge the nature of standard True Crime drama, it ends up becoming one of those stories, inadvertently sensationalizing certain elements of the existing media narrative without stopping to scrutinize them – as he does so expertly in the first two episodes.

Captive Audience is a True Crime story about True Crime.


Maybe it’s because Captive Audience already has a definitive roadmap, in the form of I Know My First Name Is Steven: The documentary’s first two episodes are split along almost exactly the same narrative lines as the miniseries. in two parts. This derived structure is hardly a criticism; Captive Audience is essentially about the relationship between fiction and reality, and the way it grafts its own narrative onto existing ones helps develop that dynamic. This also extends to the aesthetic construction of the show; the way Dimmock and editor Ian Olds craft the first two episodes, overlapping real and fictional footage until they’re virtually indistinguishable, makes analyzing fact from fiction a more difficult and engaging process . Even the little touches they add along the way, like condensed montages of news anchor heads turning to interview subjects, make the scene transitions in the first two chapters come alive with anticipation.

The third episode is not without merit. While it arrives in the body of a more traditional, more clinical True Crime saga, certain aesthetic elements remain centered around the themes of earlier installments. For example, recurring interview topics begin to be reintroduced – via text on the lower third of the screen – in slightly different contexts, changing their place in the story. However, it’s practically the only effective flourish, and the rest of the episode weaves its way through a hastily constructed postscript to the original events. On the one hand, it seems like the series should have ended where the miniseries did, but it’s also impossible to tell the story of the Stayners, all these years later, without expanding on all the tragedies that happened to them after Steven’s return. Rather, the series doesn’t spend enough time on its 20-year-old section, and by the time it ends, it becomes clear that its truncated final third really should have been a whole second half – a darker reflection of them. first two chapters, and a more detailed exploration of what (including the media) shapes families and individuals.

That said, Captive Audience remains an intriguing watch throughout, even if its latest installment plays like its own, a separate True Crime story without much to say about the genre. The first two chapters remain a unique and often moving retrospective of how stories – like people – can be stolen, twisted, and ultimately rediscovered.

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