“Before O.J. Simpson, the Preppy Killer — that was the trial of the century.” Former print and TV reporter Steve Dunleavy offered this quote when he was interviewed for the new AMC/SundanceTV docuseries The Preppy Murder: Death in Central Park.
Dunleavy was probably correct, as the 1986 killing of 18-year-old Jennifer Levin at the hands of 19-year-old Robert Chambers in New York City’s Central Park was a highly sensationalized case — the press nicknamed Chambers “the Preppy Killer.”
But as this intriguing five-part, three-night series shows, it is worth looking back on the “Preppy Murder” not for prurient curiosity about the details of a sex-related crime, but because the case typified and began to bring to the forefront themes and concepts we are still dealing with today. Sexism. Elitism. Racism. The concept of white male privilege. Over-the-top media coverage. The Preppy Murder does well in delving into how elements like these wove their way throughout the events.
Through archival footage and photos, the series also effectively sets up the different time and place that was the backdrop against which these familiar themes took place, a pre-9/11 New York City (the still-extant Twin Towers turn up a bit in archival footage) that still had the high crime rate for which it had become infamous in the 1970s and early ’80s. In an interview for the series, the woman who discovered Levin’s body recalls how, in the era before cellphones, she had to bicycle until she found a phone to call police. The use of DNA evidence in criminal trials was still in its infancy and still regarded by some as controversial and unreliable. The events transpired at the dawn of “tabloid television,” and we see how TV newsmagazines, like the newly launched A Current Affair, practically salivated at the chance to cover the sordid case.
It’s a fascinating look back at a world that is no more, but yet still is, in many ways, a lot the same.
The Preppy Murder: Death In Central Park
AMC & SundanceTV
Nov. 13-15, 8/7pm