THE DOCUMENTARY “The Lost Tapes: Son of Sam”
WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on Smithsonian Channel
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Beginning on July 29, 1976, David Berkowitz — aka Son of Sam — began a serial killing spree that left six dead and seven critically injured in New York City over the next year. As part of its “Lost Tapes” series, Smithsonian Channel collected TV footage from various archives to reconstruct that year’s media frenzy. Smithsonian says some of these tapes have never been seen, while most haven’t been seen in years.
MY SAY These “lost tapes” are more precisely the “dust-covered tapes.” There’s nothing new here, nothing revelatory, nothing that doesn’t jibe with our collective memory, assuming that memory coalesced around the TV set (which it mostly did). The summer of ’77 certainly was a summer spent around the set, as viewers leaned forward whenever a “breaking news” alert popped up or “bulletin!” was announced. Without CNN or Fox News around to offer what cable news networks offer when there is no actual news — opinion — area viewers hung on those words as if their lives depended on it. Local TV news made certain they believed that it did.
Forty years later, it’s hard to imagine just how crazy the coverage was during that 378-day stretch, but “The Lost Tapes” does at least make it easy to recall. The reliable go-to man/woman on the street interview was used relentlessly and, if this short sampling is at all representative, pointlessly. Average New Yorkers talked to one another through the airwaves, and no one knew anything. “How do you feel?” they are asked over and over (and over) here. They felt scared, naturally, but the endless repetition created an echo effect. Fear was everywhere and suddenly the threat — to use a currently fashionable word — was “existential.” A “generalized anxiety disorder” crept over the great city. Local TV kept pressing the pedal to the metal.
Forty years hence, it’s also hard to judge how responsible that TV coverage was, or how representative “The Lost Tapes” is of that barrage. Tapes from only two stations are replayed here — WPIX/11, and WCBS/2, but mostly the former. What is abundantly clear, however, is that they did an excellent job of scaring the bejesus out of everyone. A reporter from Ch. 11 approaches random women with shoulder-length hair to ask whether “you would ever think of cutting your hair” because of the killer. Cameras are allowed into the NYPD’s Son of Sam control center, where detectives look busy, but not exactly confident.
In this telling, Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin becomes the most famous person in New York because he receives letters from the murderer. Mayor Abe Beame becomes the most beleaguered. In various talk show appearances, Breslin is seen as a voice of nonchalant calm. When another “Sam” letter arrives at the Daily News offices, he recalls that he told the editor to hand it over to the police. He’s busy with other stuff, he explains. But when the cameras finally find the elusive Beame, he stutters through prepared notes that he reads at a lectern. On TV, per “Lost Tapes,” the city has gone mad and its leader has gone AWOL.
Then . . . it’s over. On Aug. 10, 1977, Berkowitz is caught, and “The Lost Tapes” dusts off some more “How do you feel?” interviews. People feel relieved. The trial wraps, then “Lost” wraps. How will you feel at that point? Relieved.
BOTTOM LINE A fleeting snapshot of a terrible, long-ago summer as it played out on TV. Otherwise, nothing new.