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Of all the famous frauds carried out in the United States over the past few decades, few are as complex, enlightening and intriguing as the Dale. It was a three-wheeled, two-seater automobile launched in 1973. It was promoted as slick, safe and cheap to run – alleged to get 70 miles on a gallon of gas, at a time when an oil crisis had made Americans highly aware of how much gas they needed to run a conventional car.
The Dale was presented as the creation of a business whiz named Liz Carmichael, the widow of a NASA engineer and a tall, imposing woman, easy with quips claiming she wouldn’t just take on the big auto companies, she would “whip ‘em.” Carmichael and the Dale got lots of TV coverage for a while and an early model was presented as a superspecial prize on The Price is Right.
The Lady and the Dale (Sunday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m., two episodes) begins with that Price is Right moment and then briefly reveals that Elizabeth Carmichael was in fact known to authorities as Jerry Dean Michael, a con artist long sought on multiple fraud charges. Taking the name Liz Carmichael wasn’t part of the fraud, mind you, because she was a transgender woman at a time when nobody understood that concept.
The four-part doc series – concluding episodes next Sunday – is so full of colourful storytelling, it’s hard to know where to start. For a while it is mainly the story of an immensely gifted grifter. Jerry was a very bright, persuasive and suave salesman. He figured out ways to make money quickly and disappear just as quickly, with his wife and several kids. (He was married multiple times.) We get the memories of those kids today. As middle-aged figures they fondly remember the endless moving from town to town and the schemes their father concocted.
The sense of the person they knew as their dad being a conflicted figure who really felt he was a woman comes early on in the series, but there’s still a long way to go. It’s utterly engrossing, this tale of escapades and fleeing when the cops or FBI are on their tail. What you admire is the sheer audacity.
Exactly how Liz Carmichael was treated is another story, a reminder of how recently it was near-impossible for a trans woman to function. Liz was treated horrendously by the standards of today. At the same time, her precocity and recklessness make a unique anti-heroine. Liz landed a job at a marketing company that told inventors how to proceed with their invention. There she came across one Dale Clift, who had created a lightweight, aluminum-tubing car. She took over the product and spun a fictional company from it, claiming to have major investors. She did have investors, but she just took their money and the car never progressed beyond the creation of three prototypes. She went on the run again, was even featured on Unsolved Mysteries, but was found, charged and convicted of fraud.
Those details sound enthralling as is, but you can find them on the internet already. What’s transfixing here is the truly detailed story of Liz Carmichael’s extraordinary life. The series, produced by the Duplass brothers and co-directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker, is as inventive in storytelling technique as Liz was in inventive grifting. By the fourth hour you are still being stunned by the remarkable turns and twists. Thoroughly recommended.
Also airing this weekend
The Long Song (Sunday, PBS, 10 p.m. on Masterpiece) is a three-part BBC adaptation of Andrea Levy’s acclaimed novel. Set on a sugarcane plantation in Jamaica in the final, chaotic days of slavery there, followed by the early days of freedom, it stars Tamara Lawrance as the unconquerable slave July. The story is told from her perspective and is filled with as much sly wit and corrosive comedy as it’s filled with rage. Hayley Atwell is outstanding as the cruel but beleaguered Miss Caroline, who takes July from her mother on a whim. The tone is strangely mischievous, which doesn’t mean it lacks heart; it’s just packed with a touching, dreamlike poignancy.
Bonding (Netflix) has arrived for Season 2 and is as sassy as ever. What is this oddball but delightful series? This: “A New York City grad student moonlighting as a dominatrix enlists her gay BFF from high school to be her assistant.” Tiff (Zoe Levin) and Pete (Brendan Scannell) are back in business, having adventures both daft and deadpan in the BDSM world. Most episodes come in at about 20 minutes and it is very entertaining drollery.
Join Globe and Mail television critic John Doyle and veteran writer Bill Brioux for a live webcast on Friday Feb 5th at 12 p.m. ET as they discuss the latest on the TV streaming battleground and what shows to add to your must-watch list. Globe and Mail subscribers can register at tgam.ca/experiences.