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What I'm Watching Now: HBO's 'Captivated' reveals why we love vilifying pretty girls

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If you’ve already binge-watched every critically acclaimed show out there and are wondering what to do next, TV critic Melissa Maerz has a few suggestions. Her column, “What I’m Watching Now,” is devoted to the best underhyped series on television (or Amazon, or Netflix, or whatever iDevice you’re using), whether they’re just premiering or have been lingering on your friends’ season pass queues for years.

Why do we love to watch pretty girls suffer?

I thought about that question a lot while watching Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart, a fascinating documentary that airs August 18 on HBO. Now, upon hearing the name “Pamela Smart,” your brain probably sorted through its file cabinet and plucked out this photo, recalling the 24-year-old blonde and her 1991 murder trial. I thought I knew all the details myself. Smart was a high school teacher who slept with her teenage student, Billy Flynn, right? She seduced Flynn with bikini- and lingerie-clad photos of herself, then told him she’d never sleep with him again unless he killed her husband, right? And Flynn and his friends did kill the husband, but Smart was the one who became infamous: Helen Hunt played her in a TV movie called Murder in New Hampshire, and then Nicole Kidman played her in Gus Van Sant’s 1995 film, To Die For. And now everyone knows the story by heart. Right?

Not so much. After watching Captivated, the only thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t know anything. And I’m not the only one: Even people involved in the case sometimes get the details wrong. As the first trial ever broadcast on television, Smart’s case sparked a media frenzy, making it difficult to separate the facts from the more salacious spin offered by the tabloid-driven talk shows whose popularity was peaking at the time. (Geraldo Rivera once asked, “Isn’t this trial by television?”) It turns out that Smart wasn’t Flynn’s teacher. He was a student at the same high school where she worked as an administrator. Those photos? They weren’t taken for Flynn’s benefit. Smart’s girlfriends snapped them, hoping to create a modeling portfolio for her. And the murder? Twenty-three years later, Smart still insists that Flynn acted on his own.

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