'Final Witness:' Grim march through a terrible crime

Morgana Shaw as Penny Caffey, episodic screenshot taken

Morgana Shaw as Penny Caffey, episodic screenshot taken from the premiere episode of "Final Witness." (Credit: ABC)

THE SHOW "Final Witness," Wednesday night at 10 on ABC/7

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This seven-part true-crime series launches Wednesday with a rebroadcast of a 2010 special called "The Kids Aren't Alright," about a horrific triple homicide in east Texas in 2008. In the early morning of March 1, Penny Caffey, 37, and her sons Matthew, 13, and Tyler, 8, were killed by armed home invaders; Penny's husband, Terry, survived multiple gunshot wounds, and crawled to a neighbor's home as his house was engulfed in flames. He had seen one of the killers, Charlie Wilkinson, the boyfriend of his daughter, Erin, 16, later found hiding in his home and charged as an accomplice, along with two others. The special twist in this telecast: it's largely told from the perspective of Erin's dead mother.

MY SAY "Final Witness" is a particularly virulent strain of news documentary that emerged back in the early '90s when the networks were eager to blast out of the confines of the time honored he-said-she-said (now-go-to-the-clip) format. This new type used actors, scripts and highly stylized reimaginings that pushed off from the shores of journalism into the choppy open waters of balderdash. The news divisions later decided they didn't want to be in the business of faking stuff, nor did viewers much want them to either, and such recreations went away -- though not entirely. But "Witness" goes one big -- and vaguely horrifying -- step further by getting the dead involved. "My name is Penny Caffey and now I see what I couldn't see before," says someone pretending to be Penny Caffey. "They took our lives and the fire took everything else." From the grave, so to speak, Penny is wise, forgiving and calm. But the problem -- one of many really -- is that Penny has no say in the matter of whether she wants to be any of those things. She's been pressed into the service of a show that doesn't really know what she might think on the matter of her own demise. If that doesn't subvert, entangle and even demolish all sorts of standards for fairness -- or basic decency -- I'm not entirely sure what does.

BOTTOM LINE A grim, macabre march through a terrible crime, deploying a bad twist -- the voice of the deceased.

GRADE C-

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