We’re right to be skeptical when it comes to television documentaries that promise the “untold story’’ of a dramatic event, especially when its various scenes were revealed in the public eye in real time and have been revisited frequently since.
So it was with some dubiety that I sat down to watch the first two hours of Oxygen’s two-part, four-hour series titled “Aaron Hernandez Uncovered,’’ a deep dive into the life and death of the former Patriots tight end and convicted murderer. (The series premieres Saturday night at 7 p.m, with the conclusion airing Sunday at the same time.)
The standard in the small and rather specific genre of documentaries on former NFL stars charged with murder is the ESPN eight-part “30 for 30’’ series “O.J.: Made in America.’’ Director Ezra Edelman’s Academy Award-winning masterpiece on O.J. Simpson and the culture of America in different places and times was spectacularly ambitious, and it pulled off every bold move.
The Hernandez series is not “Made in America,’’ nor does it aspire to be. What it is, especially in the second hour of Saturday’s edition, is a detail-rich retracing of Hernandez’s life up to and through the night of June 17, 2013, when Odin Lloyd, the boyfriend of the sister of Hernandez’s fiancee, was shot to death in an industrial park approximately a mile from Hernandez’s North Attleborough home.
Don’t let the stark black-and-while graphics and melodramatic background music that sounds like it comes from an Eli Roth slasher film fool you. “Uncovered’’ is superior in quality to celebrity documentaries such as “E: True Hollywood Stories’’ or the old “Behind the Music’’ docs from VH1. It’s not quite on the level of ESPN’s best conventional “30 for 30’’ films, but it’s close, and that is an achievement.
There are many jarring and affecting moments. Lloyd’s body is shown multiple times, and not from a distance. But it’s the subtleties the film captures, as the North Attleborough Police Department’s investigation unfolds, that are most compelling. On the night Hernandez was first brought in for questioning, surveillance cameras outside the police station catch him removing the batteries from his phone as he’s waiting in the passenger seat of his lawyer’s car to go home.
“He probably wouldn’t think we’d see any of that because it’s nighttime and he’s inside the car, but the lawyer was doing something in the back seat of the car and the door was open, so the dome light was on,’’ says North Attleborough police Captain Joseph DiRenzo in the film. “It was a great video to have because it showed he was a suspicious person.’’
A timeline of surveillance video in the documentary reveals how easy it was for the police to retrace Hernandez’s steps on the night Lloyd was killed. We see Lloyd getting picked up in Dorchester. We see Hernandez, with Lloyd and two other men, Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace, stop for gas, and buy gum — later found at the scene of the crime — inside a convenience store. And we see him arriving back home, with Ortiz and Wallace.
“Uncovered’’ offers a diverse group of talking heads — Boston 25 reporter Ted Daniel is especially informative. But it is Hernandez’s fiancee, Shayanna Jenkins-Hernandez, who is the documentary’s major get. She explains why she stuck by Hernandez’s side up until he hanged himself in prison in April 2017. “This is someone you love, who you just had a child with, and you think about your future and what’s happening,’’ she says. “I wasn’t going to let him experience it alone. I was going to stick by his side every step of the way.’’
Oxygen did not make part two of the documentary available for review, and perhaps it won’t be as well-done as the first part. Oxygen teases a “secret [Hernandez] held onto until death,’’ and brief clips of an interview with his college girlfriend suggest rumors about Hernandez’s sexuality will be addressed. Perhaps Oxygen has a salacious scoop on its hands. But the documentary doesn’t need exaggerated drama. The smart retelling of a familiar tragedy is good enough.
Aaron Hernandez Uncovered
On Oxygen, Saturday and Sunday at 7 p.m.