It is here. It has arrived. The Lifetime movie version of the college admissions scandal – evocatively titled "The College Admissions Scandal" – aired Saturday night. And it is, as anticipated, pretty bonkers. (Even if the real-life story might be crazier than any film Lifetime could produce.)
The main thing you need to know: No, sadly, this movie isn't about Lori Loughlin or Felicity Huffman, the highest-profile names in the FBI's sensational Operation Varsity Blues in which nearly 50 wealthy parents were accused of facilitating bribes to get their children into prestigious universities. Last month, Huffman was sentenced to two weeks in jail for paying $15,000 for someone to correct her daughter's SAT answers. Loughlin's case is still pending, but she is accused of paying $500,000 to get her daughters enrolled as crew recruits at the University of Southern California, although neither rowed crew.
Instead the film focuses on the fictional "Caroline" and "Bethany," an interior decorator and a money manager obsessed with getting their kids into Stanford and Yale, respectively. Of course, this backfires spectacularly when they get involved with Rick Singer, a "consultant" who promises parents he knows exactly what these prestigious schools are looking for in applicants – and for a few extra hundred – thousand dollars, he can throw in some "extra" services, like inflated SAT scores or bribes to athletic coaches who will recruit your kid for their team even if they don't play the sport.
The movie is careful to say it's inspired by true events – the real-life Singer has pleaded guilty in connection with the scam – but with the disclaimer that it's fictionalized for dramatic purposes and any similarity to real-life situations are not intentional. Still, here are the five craziest scenes:
1) The "Emory zone."
The movie has a great deal of fun skewering stressed-out helicopter moms and dads fixated on brand-name colleges. At one point, a group of concerned rich parents gathers at a local coffee shop. "Molly barely broke 1300," one mom says, sounding on the verge of tears because that's not even in the "Emory zone," referring to Emory University. While Molly is trying to up her philanthropy game by tutoring abused kids at a homeless shelter, that apparently doesn't matter to college admissions officers anymore – these days, you have to start your own charitable program and get press coverage for it.
"This is gonna kill me. This is absolutely gonna kill me," the mom moans. Then they turn their attention to Caroline: How did her Danny do on the SATs?
Caroline looks as if she is delivering the news of a terminal illness; viewers already know that Danny has more interest in his band than going to college. "You know boys that age and testing," she says, trying to sound breezy. "But we are siccing an army of tutors on him."
"How bad was it?" one mom prods.
Caroline pauses. "High 12s," she says quietly. Cue the gasps.
That's when Bethany strolls into the conversation with coffee in hand and a villainous smirk on her face. "It sounds like we're all burning in the same inferno," she says; after all, her daughter Emma isn't exactly a testing whiz. That's when Bethany makes the fateful suggestion: Have they ever heard of a college consultant named Rick Singer?
2) Meet Rick Singer.
Singer, the consultant who flipped on his clients when he decided to cooperate with the FBI investigation, is the only person whose real name is used in the movie. Michael Shanks plays the slick-talking strategist who simultaneously calms nervous high school students about college pressures while slyly telling their parents that they can use bribes to expedite the admissions process. One lively montage flips between Singer's meetings with Bethany and Caroline's families.
"Do I stand a chance in hell of getting into Stanford?" Danny asks.
"Is my mom on crack?" Emma demands to know.
Singer's response is beautiful: "No more than everybody's parents are on crack."
3) This slightly deranged monologue.
The parents are definitely the villains in this story. While Emma would like to get into Yale, which her boyfriend attends, she's also perfectly happy to consider nearby Trinity College. "Don't give me heart attacks," Bethany shudders. For reasons that are never probed by the script, she wants her daughter to go to Yale.
So Bethany sits Emma down and tells her the deal: At Rick's suggestion, she's going to have to pretend she plays soccer – so she can be recruited by Yale's coach – and also sit with a therapist who will then sign a note to give her extra time to take the SAT. Emma is doubtful about the morality of this plan, but her mother uncorks this barnburner of a monologue:
"Emma. Darling. Do you remember when we went on college tour and we saw these concert halls and the stadiums that were named after the families that gave the money to build them? Do you think the descendants of those people had trouble getting into those schools? Of course not. And we understand that, and we think it's fair. Because we know those people gave that money to help preserve the future of the children they love. Right? I mean, I can't endow a concert hall, but I can do whatever I can for the child I love. And I mean, it's not just the wealthy who find the ways to do the best for their children. Like, what parent of a brilliant minority child wouldn't take every advantage they can? I've read about minority kids who have been accepted by Ivy League schools with SATs 200 points lower than yours. And we understand that, and we think that's fair. Because we know those communities are doing whatever they can for the children they love. They have their advantages and we have ours. It's just one continuum. You studied Darwin last year, didn't you? It is the natural way of the world. Some species survive and some don't. Some people can do this for their kids and some people can't."
Emma eventually agrees, as Bethany takes a menacing sip of a kale smoothie.
4) Emma's green-screen scene.
The real-life criminal complaint alleged that some parents had pictures of their kids altered to make it look like they played a sport, which they then submitted on their application. So poor Emma is forced to put on a soccer uniform and kick around a ball in front of a green screen while a photographer snaps away. Thanks to the magic of Photoshop, the background suddenly turns into a soccer field! It's so bad that Emma's suspicious guidance counselor calls her in for a meeting. Luckily, Bethany is there to steamroll with vague threats about enrolling her daughter in another pricey private school.
5) Danny's emotional showdown with his parents.
While Caroline and her husband, Jackson, are very reluctant to participate in Singer's conspiracy, they rationalize that it's no different than donating a building - and if Danny doesn't get into Stanford, he might end up as a starving musician on the streets! So without his knowledge, they pay one of Singer's employees to correct Danny's answers on the SAT, raising his score by nearly 400 points.
After the police show up to arrest them, Danny tearfully confronts his parents. "If you say one more word about how you did it for me, you will never see me again," he says. "You did it for one reason: So you could have something to say at cocktail parties that would make your friends jealous."
Honestly? He's not wrong.