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February 11, 2016

Vanity's Humanity

Moguls and miscreants move from the pages of Vanity Fair to ID's true-crime series.

Ann Farmer
  • Mark Bowden

  • Jeffrey Tuchman

Readers of Vanity Fair magazine have long prized its in-depth features on celebrity crimes, sex scandals and real-life mysteries.

Now, for a second season, Conde Nast Entertainment, True Entertainment and Investigation Discovery have partnered to crack open the magazine's archives and retrofit its page-turning, true tales for the ID series Vanity Fair Confidential.

"I feel like the guy who found King Tut's tomb," says Henry Schleiff, group president of Investigation Discovery, American Heroes Channel and Destination America.

Season two of VFC kicked off with "Nightmare on Elwood Avenue," about a financial analyst who appears to be living the American dream in New York City, then suddenly vanishes. Before viewers learn her fate, however, the documentary dispatches them on a roller-coaster ride involving medical fraud, drug dependency and other factors that led to her disappearance.

"It speaks to something bigger," says True Entertainment's vice-president of programming, Stephanya Bareham, an executive producer on the series with True's COO Brenda Hurley and co-presidents Glenda Hersh and Steven Weinstock. She and her colleagues probe the Vanity Fair library for stories that offer more than a scintillating saga.

Another recent episode, "Code of Dishonor," for instance, investigated what it calls a covert war against women by members of the U.S. Air Force,

Also this season: an episode narrated by Beverly Johnson, who was Vogue's first black cover model in 1974. Her story builds on a personal essay she penned for Vanity Fair in 2014 alleging that Bill Cosby drugged her years ago, similar to accusations made by scores of other women.

The passion of the writer of the original piece can influence producers' choices.

"When the writer spent months and years on a story, it's very personal," says Michael Klein, an executive producer for Conde Nast Entertainment with Dawn Ostroff.

Each production wrings further emotional juice by enlisting the writers to narrate on camera the twists and turns of their journalistic investigation. Contributing writer Buzz Bissinger, for example, provides a fervid retelling of his 1995 feature, "The Killing Trail," which sought to connect a string of gay murders in Texas. He also introduces a more recent crime of cruelty to update the 20-year-old story,

"These stories are not just a straight iteration of the article," says Jeffrey Tuchman, the documentary filmmaker largely responsible for the TV rendition of Mark Bowden's 2009 Vanity Fair article, "A Crime of Shadows."

Through two stories, a decade apart, the hour examines the gray areas of policing online sexual predators: when is someone intending to commit a crime or just indulging in lurid fantasy?

Tuchman fleshed out Bowden's story with a look back at the first case of online predation to be prosecuted, one that shows what can happen when young people patronize online chat rooms where they can't be sure whom they're really connected to,

One hurdle Tuchman faced was how to visually impart a story that largely occurs in cyberspace. "So we really had to dig deep creatively," he says.

Contrary to the usual way this television genre is packaged, the producers of VFC decided not to include crime-scene reenactments. "We felt the story and the journalism were enough to hold the audience," Klein says.

Instead, they bolster the narratives with archival footage, interviews with friends and family of the victims as well as law enforcement, dramatic soundtracks and newly shot crime-scene images, often taken by photographers from the distinguished Vanity Fair stable.

"When you think of Vanity Fair," Hersh says, "you think of great writing, storytelling and photography. We're trying to mirror that on TV."

Viewers who missed any episodes can catch up via V0D or Discovery GO, or download-to-own from iTunes or Amazon — and supplement that viewing with back issues of Vanity Fair. Confidentially, though, not all episodes this season initially appeared in print. "Buried Alive" — another Buzz Bissinger true-crime tale — skipped the magazine and went directly to air.

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