The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey
presents as something akin to
OJ: Made in America
, the ESPN documentary series, or
HBO's supremely creepy examination of the crimes of a millionaire New Yorker.
JonBenet Ramsey has the ingredients to sustain that kind of treatment. A 6-year-old pageant queen from the pretty mountain town of Boulder, Colorado, she was allegedly victim to a botched kidnapping attempt which ended in her death from head injuries at Christmas in 1996.
The case became an immediate worldwide media sensation, due to both the myriad photos of a heavily made-up 6-year-old with which to illustrate it, and the mystery which swirled around the case: an epic and very unconventional ransom note; a bizarre 911 call; the body being found inside the house hours after the kidnapping; and the strange behaviour of the family in the aftermath.
Most notably of all though, is the fact that despite a tiny pool of potential killers and one glaringly obvious suspect, no one has ever been charged with her murder. All that would have made an incredibly compelling, richly reported documentary series.
That's not what we've got with The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey, screening in two parts on Prime. Instead we have a murder investigation as reality TV, a lurid superteam of investigators spanning different eras and specialties tasked with re-examining the evidence and trying to solve the case once and for all.
Even this conceit isn't necessarily flawed - the idea of following actual FBI and Scotland Yard agents down a rabbit hole like this is fascinating. It could serve to show the challenges faced by investigators in assessing evidence, the difference between knowing and proving and the limits of forensic science even today.
The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey does not perform any of those functions - but is still wildly entertaining television, if not for the reasons its makers intended. The two key investigators are Jim Clemente, a retired FBI special agent and Laura Richards, ex-New Scotland Yard behavioural analyst.
They are terrifying creatures - always conjecturing wild theories, listening to ancient whispers and hearing full sentences, watching old interviews and ascertaining interior lives and generally speculating with an alarming freedom.
More frightening again are the ancient crime fighters they consult, a group of old men sitting around a table who collectively hark back to some of the most sensational crimes of the 20th century.
Werner Spitz is the most spectacular example: a venerable old silver hair with a severe bowl cut and reminiscences of his time working on the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King. He doesn't make a lot of sense, but is an electrifying television presence.
The centrepiece interview of the episode is telling: the dispatcher who received the original 911 call from Patsy Ramsey (JonBenet father's name? John Bennet, which makes him guilty of . . . something anyway). She's a sweet middle American, rosy of cheek and big of hair - and she definitely thought something was up when she got the phone call.
Much is made of the fact she hasn't been spoken to since the events occurred, but based on the interview it's not like there were any piercing insights left on the table. All we get from her is what anyone hearing the audio already knew: that the phone call was a bit off, and Patsy didn't hang up the phone very well at the end.
At the end of the two hour special we're left with some clear markers as to who the prime suspect is, no confidence in senior investigators as being any smarter than your average domestic cat and a show which had a chance to be great but ended up a very addictive shambles instead.
The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey airs on Prime on Sunday at 8.30pm