Captive Audience premieres April 21, 2022, on Hulu.
A True Crime documentary about True Crime, the three-episode Hulu series Captive Audience follows a real kidnapping case from the 1970s, which it retells not only through firsthand testimonials, but through contemporary news clips, scenes from a two-part TV movie made about the events, and interviews with the people who fictionalized the tale. It’s a show about how stories are told and remembered, and while its third episode —about semi-related crimes that took place over two decades later — doesn’t feel as focused or exacting, its first two entries are as deeply affecting as they are alluringly strange.
Early into its first chapter, the series lays out its broad strokes in a (fittingly) captivating montage. In 1972, Steven Stayner was kidnapped at the age of 7; his story hit the airwaves, but he disappeared as if without a trace. In 1979, he miraculously returned home, and while the story ought to have ended there, he became the center of an invasive media frenzy that left a lasting impact on his family. As if that weren’t enough, in 1999 — a decade after Steven’s tragic death in a road accident — the media spotlight would return to the Stayner family once more, for deeply unpleasant reasons. The show divides each of these phases of the story into its own 45-minute episode, and while the facts are all widely available, it plays coy with the details of the latter, hinting only at the fact that someone in Steven’s own family was involved in some rather disturbing crimes, bringing cameras and reporters back into the Stayners lives.
Captive Audience establishes itself as a narrative about narratives, and the way the media shapes them — not only the news media, but cinema and television too. While it begins like most other True Crime documentaries, with family members speaking to the director just off-camera, its first episode begins to take a wildly self-reflexive shape about halfway through. Steven, long dead by this point, is but a fleeting memory to his surviving daughter, and a mere concept to his living son, who was too young to remember him. For the most part, they know him only through the hit 1989 miniseries I Know My First Name is Steven, in which he’s played by actor Corin Nemec. The majority of Steven’s living relatives all have their say, but Steven himself can’t offer an opinion from beyond the grave. And so, in an oddly impactful decision, director Jessica Dimmock casts Nemec in the role of Steven once more, and has him read out transcripts of real interviews conducted with Steven (both by authorities, and by the miniseries’ creators) while he was still alive.
In this way, Captive Audience makes for a fascinating companion piece to Casting JonBenet, Kitty Green’s stellar Netflix documentary that re-stages the JonBenet Ramsay murder case through the interpretations of numerous different actors in order to arrive at varying versions of the truth. Dimmock’s show is narrower in focus — the events of Steven’s case aren’t in nearly as much dispute — but in drawing together real and fictional tellings of the Stayner clan, and in looping back around on some of these tales by having actors revisit their old parts (now with more detailed knowledge of the people they once played), she’s able to highlight not only the various un-truths created for dramatic license, but the many truths that were missed as well.
Dimmock’s purpose, however, isn’t to poke holes in the miniseries (which the real Steven shrugged off as entertainment), but rather, to question the ways in which stories linger and morph in the public consciousness. In a particularly stirring moment, Steven’s mother tries to recall a specific detail about a mundane object; she can’t, yet that detail is preserved in amber by the movie about her son; whether or not this version is factual, it now remains the only record. The occurrence is minor, but it introduces a fascinating dilemma for every subsequent bit of footage the series uses — whether interviews, film scenes, or archival news reels — inviting us, at every turn, to question what details were left in, or out, and why.
In this way, it also recalls another recent documentary about media narratives and crimes against children, Tim Wardle’s Three Identical Strangers, though it doesn’t quite punctuate its findings with nearly as much “oomph” or lingering possibility. This is, in part, because the third episode feels less like an extension of the story already covered by the miniseries — to which Captive Audience adds valuable emotional context — and more like a loose appendix to it. In attempting to thread the needle between what the Stayner family experienced in the ’70s and the media circus that re-erupted in 1999, the show breezes past too many details of the latter case, and rushes to definitive conclusions without letting its eerie questions burrow their way beneath the skin. In effect, it loops back on itself in a way that feels unintended: after two episodes that question the nature of standard True Crime drama, it ends up becoming one of those stories, inadvertently sensationalizing some elements of the existing media narrative without stopping to scrutinize them — the way it does so expertly in the first two episodes.
Perhaps this is because Captive Audience already has a definitive roadmap, in the form of I Know My First Name is Steven: the documentary’s first two episodes are divided along almost the exact same narrative lines as the two-part miniseries. This derivative structure is hardly a criticism; Captive Audience is essentially about the relationship between fiction and reality, and the way it grafts its own narrative onto existing ones helps expand on that dynamic. This extends to the show’s aesthetic construction too; the way Dimmock and editor Ian Olds craft the first two episodes, overlapping real and fictitious footage until they’re practically indistinguishable, makes the act of parsing fact from fiction a more challenging and more actively engaging process. Even the little touches they add along the way, like condensed montages of news anchors’ heads turning towards interview subjects, make scene transitions in the first two chapters come alive with anticipation.
The third episode isn’t without its merits. While it arrives in the body of a more traditional, more clinical True Crime saga, some aesthetic elements remain focused on the themes of the previous episodes. For instance, recurring interview subjects begin to be re-introduced — via text on the screen’s lower third — in slightly different contexts, thus changing their place within the story. However, it’s practically the only effective flourish, and the rest of the episode zips its way through a hastily constructed postscript to the original events. On one hand, it begins to seem like the show should have ended where the miniseries did, but it’s also impossible to tell the Stayners’ story, all these years later, without expanding on all the tragedies that befell them after Steven’s return. If anything, the show doesn’t spend enough time on its 20-years-later section, and by the time it wraps up, it becomes clear that its truncated final third ought to really have been an entire second half — a darker reflection of the first two chapters, and a more detailed exploration of what (including the media) molds families and individuals.
That said, Captive Audience still makes for an intriguing watch throughout, even if its final episode plays like its own, separate True Crime story without much to say about the genre. The first two chapters remain a unique and often moving retrospective on the way stories — like people — can be stolen, twisted, and eventually, re-discovered.