I never really know what people are looking for when they tune into these cable made-for-TV movies on channels like Lifetime, based on recent, salacious media stories and scandals. But that audience does seem to have an appetite for something very specific when it comes to these things, which was certainly evident by the salivating all over social media for a movie like The College Admissions Scandal nearly immediately after the Operation Varsity Blues news broke.
Does it deliver? Well it delivers something. You could charitably rule it a SparkNotes, Reader’s Digest summary that captures the spirit of the events. Enough facts are changed to presumably avoid litigation, but also, then, true representation of what happened. But then again, there’s nothing particularly spirited about this telling of the story at all. It’s essentially a regurgitation of the scandal’s basic talking points, letting the outlandishness play at face value.
It’s not trashy or seedy, or even that campy in any way. There’s no dialed-up intensity of the kind we might see in a topical episode of Law & Order: SVU, for example. Are any of those things what people wanted when they turned giddy over the news that Lifetime would be turning the saga into a movie? Or, given the real-world gravity of what happened, is this what we really craved: a straightforward distillation of one of the more outrageous stories of wealth, privilege, and celebrity that has played out in recent years?
If that’s true, The College Admissions Scandal seems as pointless as it is, I suppose, satisfying. It’s about as good as you might expect a film to be when it premieres seven months to the day after the events it is based on took place. So, congrats to Lifetime on its speed?
Here’s the rudimentary catch-up: Earlier this year, over 50 people including 34 parents and a number of college coaches and athletic administrators were indicted as a result of an FBI sting called “Operation Varsity Blues.” The investigation uncovered that more $25 million in bribes had been paid in a scheme to game SAT scores, fake sporting achievements, and scam entrance into some of the nation’s top colleges and universities, including Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, and USC.
Rick Singer, who orchestrated many of these illegal payments and facilitated the cheating and fraud, claims to have provided his services to nearly 800 families. Among them were the families of Full House star Lori Loughlin and Emmy-winner Felicity Huffman, two jarringly recognizable names, underscoring just how grotesque an abuse of privilege and entitlement this operation was. Recently, Huffman was sentenced to 14 days in jail for her involvement. Loughlin is still awaiting trial.
Loughlin and Huffman, likely to the disappointment of everyone who is excited to tune in Oct. 12 for the film’s premiere, are not characters in The College Admissions Scandal. While some real-life players and details from the operation are dramatized in the film, their stories, which have captivated the country, have been replaced with those of two fictional mothers: Caroline, an interior designer played by Penelope Ann Miller, and Bethany, an owner of a hedge fund firm played by Mia Kirshner.
That Rick Singer and so many of the scandal’s actual, wild details are in the film but Loughlin and Huffman aren’t—instead, these fictional avatars that purposefully sort of resemble the actresses—turns the whole endeavor into a bizarre exercise of historical fiction.
If I’m being honest about our culture’s impulses, I think many of us were probably excited to tune in and laugh at the boneheadness of two celebrities delusional enough to participate in this fraud, savor the schadenfreude, and then shake our heads and tsk-tsk at a broken, unjust, and corrupt college admissions system.
This approach, then, becomes a dizzying viewing experience. Are we watching to witness these women being humanized, and their actions justified? To go all-in on vilifying and crucifying them? Or just to spend a few hours mindlessly reliving the scandal, happy enough to shrug, “Yeah, that whole thing really was crazy,” and let that be that? There’s no value-add here.
Though Caroline and Bethany are fictional, their beats are familiar. We meet Caroline in the throes of a panic. Her son, Daniel, isn’t studying for his algebra test and is playing his guitar instead. “Your grades junior year are everything!” she wails. “If you don’t ace Algebra 3 then you don’t get into AP next year and you know what an important piece of the puzzle APs are for Stanford!”
Grabbing coffee together after school drop-off, the way that only seems to happen in movies and TV shows about rich people like this, Caroline and a bunch of local parents gather to compare and fret over their kids’ SAT scores, volunteer resumes, and tutors.
Bethany arrives touting that she has found a savior. A consultant named Rick Singer (again, based on the real person) has gotten three kids into USC and two into Stanford last year alone. One of her friends has a daughter whom the school counselor “had pegged for Skidmore at best” and now she’s “picking out curtains at Stanford.”
They go to meet Rick, who is played by Michael Shanks, and encounter something between a spiritual guru and cult leader, dressed in a periwinkle blazer and white polo shirt. They are transfixed.
Bethany is immediately on board. Caroline makes the decision after receiving Daniel’s latest SAT scores, which she frowns at on her computer as if she’s just received terminal cancer results. Bethany is in for $500,000, Caroline for $250,000. She and her husband justify the expense: “Cheaper than a library.”
In the beginning, everything plays out as half-realism and half-satire of privilege, which is kind of how this story unfolded in the first place. But as the film goes on, it sprints through the FBI catching wind of the fraud and the arrests of the parents and Rick, not pausing for any sort of tension in the tick-tock of the investigation. Instead, it moves directly to how getting caught has ruined these women’s lives. It’s a weird note to explore, all things considered.
You’re at a loss over how much to view these women as villains and how much to empathize with them as well-meaning mothers who got in over their heads. That’s entirely fair, and would be fascinating, had there been enough investment in that part of the story. There’s certainly a film to be made that takes us behind closed doors and, in an intimate way, explains the delusion and the desperation that led to these women being seduced by Singer’s promises—especially if it’s in the service of putting on blast the entire, despicable college admissions system in the process.
But it’s not until the final act, amidst the fallout, that this more human aspect of the scandal is explored. It’s unclear what we’re supposed to take away from this at all. There’s no resolution; we don’t see the trials. Only title cards at the end explaining the vast scope of the scandal hint at how egregiously the university system benefits the wealthy over the underprivileged. Instead, there’s a bizarre insinuation that perhaps the most heartbreaking result of all of this is that one teenage boy’s dreams of a music career might be dashed forever.
Like I said, I’ve never quite understood the value of these express-produced scandal movies, or what tone we want them to hit—just that I’ve certainly recognized how much people seem to want one, and fast, when a story like this breaks. But when there’s so much to be mined from this particular controversy, you can’t help but think how much an approach like this is, ironically, leaving us cheated.