Right now, television loves nothing more than a skilled liar.
The first three months of 2022, an era of Must-Deceive TV, have centered series on a variety of falsehood perpetuators: CEOs of start-up companies who tell fibs both small and massive in their quest for market dominance (Super Pumped, The Dropout, WeCrashed), scam artists who con unsuspecting individuals out of major cash (Inventing Anna, The Tinder Swindler), team owners who are not up front about their financial situations (Winning Time), and suburban busybodies who try to frame other people for murder (The Thing About Pam). The Girl From Plainville, a new Hulu limited series debuting today, introduces yet another depiction of a master of fraud: a teenager who misrepresents her role in and sadness over the untimely death of her boyfriend.
Like the previously cited examples, The Girl From Plainville is based on a true story, the so-called texting-suicide case in which Michelle Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to take his own life. The series opens on July 13, 2014, the day of Conrad’s death, and starts by depicting the shock and anguish experienced by his mother, Lynn (Chloë Sevigny); his father, Conrad II, or “Co” (Norbert Leo Butz); and Michelle (Elle Fanning), a girl from a nearby Massachusetts town whom no one in Conrad’s family knew, as they learn that Conrad (Colton Ryan) is gone. The narrative then follows the events that transpire in the wake of that loss, as Michelle becomes fixated on acting the part of the grieving widow while police and, eventually, prosecutors begin to investigate the circumstances around Conrad’s demise. Flashbacks that explain how Conrad and Michelle met, and provide insight into the young man’s preexisting anxiety and depression, are folded in as well.
All of that adds up to a series that is as much about how these two teens process feeling misunderstood and marginalized as it is about what Michelle Carter did and why she did it. If you come to The Girl From Plainville seeking answers to questions that start with why, you’ll be disappointed. One of the flaws in this well-acted but overly drawn-out limited series is that we never get sufficient insight into Michelle’s behavior. Considering that creators Liz Hannah (The Post) and Patrick Macmanus (Dr. Death) adapted this from an Esquire article about a widely publicized case, the lack of added perspective may make some wonder why they need to watch a scripted version of a story they already know.
That said, the first three episodes that drop on Hulu today — the remaining five will roll out weekly — make a strong case for The Girl From Plainville as a character study, particularly of Michelle, played by Fanning with instinctive fluidity. As a high-schooler who is included but not necessarily embraced by her peers, Fanning’s Michelle comes across as vulnerable and insecure with many of her girlfriends but fixated and disturbed in more private moments. Her defining characteristic, at least as the series tells it, is a desire to attract attention and be liked. To that end, it’s implied, though never confirmed, that she stoked Conrad’s thoughts of suicide for the sake of being showered with sympathy.
The scene that closes episode one makes a persuasive case for this interpretation. In her bedroom alone, Michelle watches herself in the mirror while trying to re-create the scene from Glee in which Lea Michele’s Rachel sings “Make You Feel My Love” as a tribute to Finn, who died on the Fox musical-dramedy shortly after the actor who played him, Cory Monteith, died of an accidental overdose. On Glee, this was an art-imitating-life moment, so it’s weirdly appropriate that here, Michelle attempts to imitate Michele, trying on her anguish to see if she can channel it as effectively. Fanning is fascinating and disturbing as she demonstrates how quickly Michelle can switch heightened emotions on, off, and back on again.
While Michelle is obviously a big focus in Plainville, the show devotes a good share of time delving into Conrad’s psyche and his relationship with his parents, who believe their son is doing better after recovering from a previous suicide attempt. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the series is the depiction of their grief, guilt, and alternating attempts to blame and support each other. Sevigny, who portrays Lynn as a woman foggy and exhausted with sorrow, is excellent, and so is Butz.
One of the challenges facing the series is that so much of the relationship between Michelle and Conrad played out via text messages, which could have been more conventionally illustrated by watching Fanning and Ryan thumb their phones from separate locations. Instead, The Girl From Plainville dramatizes those conversations by having the two speak the lines from their text messages face-to-face, a choice that both highlights the intimacy and bluntness of their back-and-forths and conjures the illusion that they spent a lot of time in each other’s presence. They did not. They were voices in each other’s heads. Fantasy sequences of all kinds, sometimes even musical in nature, are a running thread here, and they underscore, for Michelle in particular, a profound dissociation from reality. All of the series directors, including Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Hannah, gracefully slide in and out of those more imaginative, slightly chilling sequences in a way that is seamless.
Yet as the episodes move forward, particularly when the trial begins, the amount of time it’s taking to tell this story begins to weigh more heavily. It also becomes clear that things are eventually going to involve a fuller revisitation of the day Conrad died, which inevitably feels a bit ghoulish even though the showrunners and their creative team handle the material with sensitivity. By the end of the series, Michelle, her eyebrows now dark and unintentionally menacing, has built such a hard fortress around herself that it seems impossible to get inside and understand her heart. As much as Fanning’s performance illuminates and informs our ideas about her character, The Girl From Plainville can never fully explain the person its title references. Ultimately, this series has to settle for the fact that all it can tell us is exactly what happened when the real mystery, still, is what made Michelle Carter tick.