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After Lifetime’s explosive R. Kelly docuseries, it’s doubling down on the ‘Surviving’ brand with ‘Surviving Jeffrey Epstein’

Can the network make lightning strike twice without getting burned?

After Lifetime’s explosive R. Kelly docuseries, it’s doubling down on the ‘Surviving’ brand with ‘Surviving Jeffrey Epstein’
[Photo: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images]

As a follow-up to Lifetime’s cultural milestone docuseries Surviving R. Kelly, the network announced this week that it’s expanding its “Surviving” brand with Surviving Jeffrey Epstein.

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The billionaire financier, who has a long history of sexual abuse cases and is a registered sex offender, is currently awaiting trial for the alleged sex trafficking of underaged girls. Surviving Jeffrey Epstein will explore how he “allegedly hid in plain sight while enablers protected him for over two decades,” according to a press release. The series is in development with Robert Friedman’s Bungalow Media + Entertainment (Panama Papers) and will be directed by Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern (Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing).

But can Lifetime make lightning strike twice . . . and not get burned?

Despite prior investigations and rumors that have circulated through his career, Kelly seemed impervious to any legal repercussions until the media frenzy around Surviving R. Kelly. Now he’s facing federal charges of sex crimes during a hearing set for August. Surviving R. Kelly proved to be a turning point in the longstanding allegations against the singer, as well as a turning point for Lifetime.

The series broke network records, averaging 2.1 million total viewers and was recently nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Informational Series or Special. For all the accolades, however, Surviving R. Kelly also received a fair amount of backlash for seeming exploitative. Several critics pointed out one scene in particular where a mother had to call off the camera crew as she was trying to rescue her daughter from a hotel.

In any documentary, there’s always a line to walk with when to film and what to show, so as the lens turns toward Epstein, the question becomes just that.

Director Barry Avrich (Prosecuting Evil, Unauthorized: The Harvey Weinstein Project) had been developing and shopping around an Epstein documentary since 2017 but ultimately scrapped the idea. “As I began to dig further into the story, the subject matter became more distasteful to me and I honestly felt there wasn’t much of an audience who would be interested in this film,” Avrich said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

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Yet Lifetime is betting there’s going to be audience, as is Netflix: The streamer ordered a four-part docuseries of its own earlier this month.

It’s clear that Hollywood smells a new avenue of public fixation in alleged sex offenders. Led by the fallout surrounding the #MeToo movement, there’s been a widespread reckoning that’s become impossible to ignore—and easy to cash in on. While documentaries have proven to be invaluable at effecting change and/or justice, there’s a certain gold-rush feeling as of late when it comes to high-profile figures like Epstein.

Here’s hoping that in the scrum for viewers and media attention, sensitivity toward the victims isn’t lost.

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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