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Burden of Proof

HBO’s four-part mini-series “Burden of Proof” asks two heartbreaking questions that are inverses of each other. What if you were convinced your parents had something to do with the death of your sister? It’s a hard thing to even fathom, and something that has shaped the entire existence of Stephen Pandos, whose sister Jennifer disappeared in the middle of the night almost four decades ago. He has spent years trying to solve the case, convinced that his father murdered his sibling and that his mom helped try to cover it up. Dad is a monster, so there's no great loss there, but it’s forever warped his relationship with a mother who has not been able to even meet her grandkids. Of course, the other question is, what if he’s wrong?

The excellent filmmaker Cynthia Hill (“Private Violence”) probably presumed that “Burden of Proof” would be a feature film, but the saga stretched out over so many years that it shifted into a series. She spent a great deal of time over seven years with Stephen Pandos, capturing in real time his investigations into the life-shaping disappearance of his sister. The first half of the series is very procedural in a fascinating way as Stephen meets with experts, questions investigators, and spirals around the obvious conclusion that his parents know more than they claim.

In February 1987, Jennifer Pandos simply vanished. A friend remembers speaking to her on the phone that night and hearing her father Ronald yelling at her to hang it up. Stephen alleges that Ronald had a violent temper, accusing him of choking and hitting his children. The next morning, Jen was gone. Mother Margie claims that her door was locked, and she was never seen again. The Pandos family lived in a gated, safe community. There were no signs of a break-in. There was, however, a note that only made the case more confusing. In and out of police custody, the note claims to be from someone with Jennifer, alleging that she’s fine, asking for money, and quoting Jen herself. It made little sense. And it cast even more suspicion on the parents.

They didn’t help their case. Stephen talks to relatives who claim that Jen’s parents never said anything about the case. The police accuse Mom of not returning calls, which could have been about finding Jen (suggesting Margie knew she wasn’t going to be found). Memory and reality start to blur. In one of his prison stints, Dad suggests he could show them where her body is. Mom fails a lie detector test. A handwriting examination can’t rule her out as the writer of the note. All signs point to a violent altercation and a cover-up. At least, as Hill presents it, it makes complete sense that Stephen would come to the conclusions that he draws.

Things shift. A few other suspects come to the fore. The investigation continues to develop. And Stephen has to ask that horrible second question. What if he falsely accused his parents? Some of the series' back half is a bit purposefully vague in ways that verge on frustrating. True crime documentaries can be manipulative in how they withhold information, but Hill threads that needle just enough to make us feel as exhausted by this case as Stephen. She also clearly earns Stephen’s trust, and we come to share her obvious compassion for him. At one point in the final chapter, Stephen hears something horrible about the potential end of Jennifer’s life, and he closes his eyes as a sort of emotional response. I felt a great deal of sympathy for this man in that moment and others. While the case is still ongoing and this premiere will surely reopen the wounds of the last 36 years ago, I just hope Stephen Pandos can get some sleep. And find some peace.

Premieres on Max on June 6th.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Burden of Proof (2023)

240 minutes

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