There are enough gripping and disturbing stories partially told in FX’s Children of the Underground to keep the five-part documentary series watchable (exclusively on Hulu), with a unifying argument made sufficiently to be persuasive.
At the same time, it’s a documentary about a moment of moral and legal chaos that confuses narrative messiness with narrative ambiguity. Children of the Underground is marred by inconsistent sourcing, a lack of overall focus and the fact that its overarching thesis, however convincing it may be, is forgotten entirely through most of the series’ journey.
Children of the Underground
The Bottom Line
Potent elements, but insufficiently cohesive storytelling.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Blackfish) and Ted Gesing, Children of the Underground is ostensibly the story of Faye Yager, who parlayed her experiences with a legal system unprepared to deal with family accusations of sexual abuse into a vigilante network designed to protect mothers and children from predatory fathers too often protected by the courts. For years, Yager was the public face of a movement that most Americans only knew from sensationalistic segments on daytime television, hailed as a liberator in some circles and accused of criminality in others.
While Yager is very much alive today, her participation in the documentary borders on nil, and you have to wait until the last of five episodes to get a fleeting explanation for her absence — one that Children of the Underground might have treated as poignant if it weren’t so distracted by other things and people. The decision to focus on Yager, even in her absence, and to let people with no real knowledge of her psychology speculate aggressively was a bad one. There’s a much, much bigger story here and I understand the desire to find a point of entry. But all the rank speculation about Yager, coupled with an almost total lack of insight into anything she actually did as part of the underground, consistently upstages much more candid and emotionally grounded characterizations from figures including Yager’s daughter Michelle and several other now-grown kids. Those kids moved through the underground and lived lives that simultaneously scarred and saved them.
With her on-camera absence, Yager should be a chapter in this story, not the story. It’s part of my ongoing docuseries frustration — regular readers have heard variations on this before — but there’s a decent 90-minute documentary to be made on the evasive Yager and a spectacular 10-part documentary series to be made about the moment in the early ’80s when incest and sexual abuse went from conversational taboo to headlines, shocking the world and, specifically, a legal system that didn’t have a clue how to cope.
Instead, Children of the Underground splits the difference, and it’s a five-hour documentary about Yager that’s constantly losing track of chronology and character-driven profiles to be like, “Oooh, remember Satanic Panic?” or “Man, the way daytime TV tackled and perpetuated this topic was somewhere between fearless and journalistic malpractice!” You can afford detours like those if the main thread you’re returning to is cohesive enough, which it isn’t here.
I think there’s some intention to have viewers make the connection between these ’80s and ’90s panics and currently conspiratorial paranoia like all things QAnon? Maybe? But there are no real dots connected, and that prevents Children of the Underground from giving full context. We’re supposed to be able to trace Yager and her actions through a multi-decade evolving perspective on victimhood and spousal rights, complete with backlashes and backlashes to backlashes. But we’ll need the 10-hour series to get that instead of a too-often one-dimensional look at one clearly complicated woman.
Was Yager a hero or a villain? Children of the Underground wants to leave you with the opportunity to believe either — to think her moral absolutism was the only viable solution to an untenable crisis or to worry that somewhere between aspiration and execution, she was a wronged woman whose choices weren’t always right. Not making this straight-up hero worship is smart and pragmatic, even if too often the reason you struggle to pass judgment on Yager is because of the myriad details that the documentary just doesn’t have access to. Meanwhile, I was often thinking that stories like Michelle’s or the very complex feelings of Kaylee, who spent her youth in the underground with her grandparents, really could have supported whole documentaries alone. Given the vulnerability and exposure that their presence represents, I wish the filmmakers could have gone deeper with them.
If Children of the Underground has a real and important point, it’s that allegations of in-family abuse are too often handled in a family court meant to handle custody and not criminality. This is important and beyond dispute. That the documentary keeps needing to put up title cards telling us that nearly all of the alleged predators deny the accusations and have never been charged with any crimes is a punch in the gut each time. It’s all a little disappointing since Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish, whatever flaws it had, spectacularly delivered a cohesive argument and call to action. Instead, Children of Men plays like an instigation for more research and more curiosity.