The true story of a teenage love affair that ends in tragedy serves as the basis for the premiere episode of Final Witness, a new crime series that launches this Wednesday on ABC. Lush visuals and a strong cast combine to create a dramatic recreation of the shocking murders of a God-fearing Texas family, and the subsequent investigation of the crime. The program’s high production value supports a more engaging recount of events than the typical hour-long network crime exposé tends to offer.
We quickly find out in the premiere episode that Charlie, the boyfriend of Penny and Terry Caffey’s teenage daughter, Erin, killed Penny Caffey and her two sons before burning their home in East Texas to the ground in 2008. What we don’t find out until later is the shocking motive behind his heinous act. Terry Caffey, who was also shot and left for dead during the home invasion, survives and helps investigators finger Charlie as the killer. Through interviews, Terry recalls the worry he and Penny felt about their daughter dating Charlie, a local boy who seemed to always find trouble. Devout Christian church goers Terry and Penny noticed Erin’s increasingly rebellious acts, and eventually discouraged her from dating Charlie. Interviews with actual law enforcement officials who worked the case are interspersed with dramatic reenactments, and provide details about the prosecution of the case.
Meanwhile, the voice of Penny, her dialog from an imagined afterlife delivered in a slightly affected Texas accent, ruminates on the meaning of faith and religion in her life, and seeks a reason for her own untimely passing. Time will tell whether or not voice-from-beyond-the-grave narration will work for all viewers. Each episode uses fictionalized narration by one of the murder victims, which does succeed in setting Final Witness apart from similar shows, but also relies heavily on conjecture from the writers and producers. These musings are a clear stylistic departure from other more realistic elements of the show, like interviews with survivors, acquaintances and investigators. As a storytelling device, however, hearing from the victims helps us to feel closer to their plight, and offers a fresh approach that makes this series unique.
The indie-rock soundtrack, the cinematic quality of the reenactments and the brisk pace of the plot, help draw the viewer into the Caffey’s tragic tale. The closing credits too display the relationship between the cast and their real-life counterparts in an engaging way. The same devices yield similar success in subsequent episodes, including the murder investigation of a young woman in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and the fatal devotion of a young Michigan wife to her murderous husband.
Ultimately Final Witness proves engaging in the way it humanizes the victims of crime, and realistic in its telling of notorious crime stories.