If, like me, you’re a fan of reading sensational and chilling true-crime stories, then you’ve probably spent your fair share of time dipping into the Vanity Fair crime archives. The magazine has featured compelling stories detailing everyone from Lou Pearlman to The Craigslist Killer to the “Bling Ring,” which was expanded first into a book and then into a movie directed by Sofia Coppola. Now, there is Vanity Fair Confidential on Investigation Discovery, a new series where each episode tackles a different mystery from the pages of Vanity Fair magazine — and the result is, surprisingly, about as interesting as the original stories.
Vanity Fair Confidential is well timed; thanks to the podcast Serial, the public has a renewed interest in true crime stories, and especially ones with engaging individuals at their center. What works in the case of Vanity Fair Confidential is that it combines the inherent fascination of a real crime story with featured players from said story, and the necessary cheesy reenactments that a series like this demands.
The first episode, which aired last night, was inspired by “The Runaway Doctor” by Buzz Bissinger, originally published in 2011. The episode tells the story of a woman named Michelle who was suddenly abandoned by her husband, Mark Weinberger, during her birthday trip to Greece. At night he was there; the next day, he had vanished. With first-person accounts by Michelle — including a home video featuring some of the couple’s time together — as well as other people who factored into Mark’s life and disappearance, and interjections by Bissinger, Vanity Fair Confidential provides a complete, well-rounded narrative that engages rather than exploits.
The episode takes its time revealing important details, choosing instead to have Michelle and Bissinger weave a confusing tale. The narrator takes up the ominous voice-over duties by informing us that Michelle has “no idea where Mark is and soon she’ll be wondering who he is, as well.” At first, Michelle suspects foul play, believing that maybe Mark was abducted. But there’s too much mystery: She calls his phone, and he hangs up; she visits his office and finds shredded papers that she painstakingly spends hours taping together; she hops on a plane to Paris to follow a lead. It’s then that she realizes that Mark is gone on purpose and that he planned the whole thing. He “literally threw me away like a piece of trash,” she mourns.
The mystery of Mark’s disappearance only gets deeper from there. Before his disappearance, Mark was a doctor who would lie to his patients in order to swindle them out of money for unnecessary surgeries. (We learn this through the combination of first-person accounts from patients and their families, court documents, and dramatized shots of X-rays and medical-ish computer images.) When a patient of his dies, Mark vanishes about a week later.
The best thing about Vanity Fair Confidential is that, because it picks up these stories years after they appeared in the magazine, we get updates on everything. The magazine story ended in 2011; this one ends in 2015, after Mark has been caught and jailed — his release is scheduled for this month, which is probably why his story was presented as the introductory episode.
Investigation Discovery isn’t a household name, and probably won’t be for a while, but if it continues to host intriguing and successful programming like Vanity Fair Confidential, it has a chance of becoming the go-to network for well-produced true crime stories.