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'Lady And The Dale,' A 4-Part Series About A 3-Wheeled Car, Is A Wild Ride

<em>The Lady and the Dale</em> tells the true story of Elizabeth Carmichael, an automobile executive who introduced a bold new three-wheel car in the 1970s.
Courtesy of HBO
The Lady and the Dale tells the true story of Elizabeth Carmichael, an automobile executive who introduced a bold new three-wheel car in the 1970s.

The Lady and the Dale, a new HBO documentary miniseries co-directed by Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker, has been promoted by the network with most of its secrets held in check. Tune in to this nonfiction biography series, the promos suggest, and learn the tale of a female automobile executive who took on the Detroit automakers and tried to market a gas-efficient car in the 1970s, at the height of the oil crisis.

But The Lady and the Dale is so much more than that. Yes, the second installment of this four-part series is mostly about the weird three-wheeled car called the Dale. But the first hour of this miniseries is mostly about a small-time but enterprising con artist. The third hour is about a trial for grand larceny, with the defendant doing double duty as her own defense attorney. And the fourth hour is so full of surprises and revelations that I'm not even going to go there.

The promos held their cards close to the vest, but the opening minutes of The Lady and the Dale hint at some of the intrigue to come. It starts with a vintage 1970s clip from The Price Is Right, where one of the prizes being offered is a brand new Dale automobile, and works quickly through some other period TV footage that adds many layers of mystery to the story.

And what a story it tells! It begins as the story of Jerry Dean Michael, who grew up in small-town Indiana and eventually became a con artist, working every scheme from counterfeiting money and checks to selling bogus get-rich-quick schemes door-to-door. Jerry married and had five kids, but kept grifting — and every time the law got close, he'd pick up the family and move. Over one stretch, according to the documentary, the family moved 21 times in three years.

Up to this point, The Lady and the Dale has the flavor and momentum of Catch Me if You Can, that Steven Spielberg movie with Tom Hanks on the trail of a teenage con man played by Leonardo DiCaprio. But before the first episode is over, Jerry comes out as a trans woman and changes her name to Elizabeth Carmichael. The kids are raised to call Liz mom and the series goes on from there, with Liz starting the 20th Century Motor Company and introducing the Dale.

Eventually, Liz is arrested for fraud, and goes on trial to defend the lack of production of the Dale. But in the '70s, with transgender issues so relatively unfamiliar and widely misunderstood, she goes on trial in other ways, too — especially in the media.

Thanks to lots of old clips and some shockingly candid interviews, this close look at the media treatment of her is one of the most valuable aspects of The Lady and the Dale. The narrative manages to name-drop such pioneering transgender public figures as Christine Jorgensen and Renée Richards — but they're far more than footnotes and become part of this story. By part four, when the NBC series Unsolved Mysteries gets into the act, you not only feel for Liz, but get a strong sense of unfair media bias in some very palpable specific examples.

One more thing about The Lady and the Dale. It uses animation more — and more imaginatively — than almost any documentary I've ever seen. When the filmmakers have family members and friends and enemies all talking about Liz, but don't have footage other than those talking heads, stiff but lively animation is used. And while the Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay, are among this show's executive producers, special credit should be given to the director of animation, Sean Donnelly. Watch The Lady and the Dale, and you'll see why he deserves mention — and why the program itself deserves attention.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.