‘Surviving Jeffrey Epstein’ pivots toward the next phase of the story

After a pair of Jeffrey Epstein docuseries aired in May, Lifetime seemingly weighs in late with “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein.” But this two-part production — which borrows its title from the network’s R. Kelly documentaries — takes on a new dimension with the July arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell, the late financier’s alleged accomplice in his sex-trafficking crimes.

Much of the material and interviews here were covered in “Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich,” which aired on Netflix; and to a lesser degree an Investigation Discovery project that tilted toward Epstein’s death while in federal custody called, “Who Killed Jeffrey Epstein?”

The one-year anniversary this month of his death provides the ostensible hook for this followup. But the filmmakers have done additional work — including interviews conducted remotely due to Covid-19 concerns — to significantly and quickly advance the story up to and beyond Maxwell’s arrest.

Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to charges of helping groom, recruit and sexually abuse minors, and has been jailed pending trial.

Against that backdrop, perhaps the most distinctive aspect of “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein” resides in its emphasis on Maxwell and others who allegedly abetted Epstein’s abuse of underage girls and young women. That includes survivors of Epstein’s abuse who were pressured to recruit for him, and the feelings of guilt associated with that.

“He groomed me to be exactly what he wanted me to be,” says Epstein victim Courtney Wild, who tearfully recalls bringing two or three girls to Epstein in a day, and later discusses her activism along with other survivors who fought to see Epstein brought to justice.

The documentary also details how Maxwell — the daughter of British media tycoon Robert Maxwell — introduced Epstein to “high society,” as journalist Daniel Bates puts it, saying that she “opened doors for him.” Forensic psychiatrist Barbara Ziv, who testified in the Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein trials, describes the relationship between them as having appeared to be “mutually parasitic.”

The interviews highlight the extent to which Epstein’s high-profile associations validated him in the eyes of those he preyed upon — almost uniformly girls from disadvantaged backgrounds, who were dazzled by the sprawling estates, private jets and famous people with whom he interacted. Epstein further used his wealth to essentially launder his reputation through philanthropic donations.

The second part devotes considerable time to Virginia Roberts Giuffre’s allegations against Prince Andrew, who has stated that he has no recollection of meeting her and denied the allegations; and the non-prosecution agreement Epstein’s attorneys negotiated with Alex Acosta, who had been the U.S. Attorney for Florida’s Southern district.

Addressing the media on Aug. 3, directors Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern discussed their efforts to amend the project by incorporating recent events, with Stern noting that Maxwell’s arrest “adds a much more uplifting end to the story, and it’s just the beginning.”

Despite the abundant coverage already devoted to the case, the circumstances surrounding Epstein’s death have fueled speculation about what shoes will potentially drop next, and who else could be implicated.

“We need her to talk, but she doesn’t deserve a plea deal,” Giuffre says regarding Maxwell, in an interview conducted after her arrest.

“Surviving Jeffrey Epstein” inevitably covers a lot of familiar territory, such as clips from Epstein depositions previously shown in the earlier docuseries. Still, it’s a sober update — especially for those who haven’t closely followed the case — that emphasizes the perspective of the survivors whose determination exposed Epstein’s predatory behavior while drawing strength and comfort from each other.

In that sense, this four-hour project isn’t exactly the beginning, but rather the latest phase of the story, which, hopefully, marks the beginning of the end.

“Surviving Jeffrey Epstein” will air Aug. 9-10 at 8 and 9 p.m. ET, respectively, on Lifetime.

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