"This is a work of fiction," an onscreen prologue says. "It is not 'based on a true story.' It is a drama inspired by actual persons in a trial, but it is neither an attempt to depict the actual persons, nor to comment upon the trial or its outcome."

Some of those words are surely there at the suggestions of lawyers, but they also force viewers to think critically about what they are about to see — to question the conventions of docudrama that TV has taught us to accept with the line, "Based on a true story."

A group called Friends of Lana Clarkson wrote to me on March 6 when I first blogged about the film and expressed concern "about how Lana is portrayed." Saying members of the group had not seen the film, a spokesman asked me to share details with him, something I could not do under terms of the screening agreement.

But there was a real person named Lana Clarkson who died in the real mansion of a real guy named Phil Spector in 2003. How will this work of "fiction" affect that reality? That's a complicated question, and I can't answer it.

The takeaway for me is that "Phil Spector" is another example of television, more than any other medium, raising such questions in American life these days.

After 30 years of being told by people who claim not to watch TV that it is "dumbing down" the culture," I can't help but feel vindicated when I see films like this being made by folks like Levinson, Mamet, Pacino and Mirren.

Rather than the medium for "vidiots," as it was once called by some critics, TV has become not only the principal but also the most engaging, sophisticated and provocative storyteller in American life.




"Phil Spector" premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO, with encores.

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