Hi, Paste Social Dysfunction Correspondent here.
Ten minutes into The Innocent Man, Netflix’s new true crime docuseries, I was on the edge of my seat, thinking, “Yes, this. This is a deeply needed, keenly penetrating look at a pernicious social ailment. This is gripping and vital and… oh, shit, my coffee’s kinda cold. Hang on.”
I managed to warm up the coffee. The enthusiasm and connectedness… not so much. Can we talk about true crime stories and why we do or don’t need them? I shifted rapidly from thinking this one was really great to wondering what its purpose was. That shift has stayed with me in a way the show hasn’t. I’m unnerved.
The Innocent Man, I’m sorry, it’s not you: It’s me. OK, maybe it’s both of us.
Two women were raped and murdered in a small town in Oklahoma, in 1982 and 1984 respectively. Two men were convicted and imprisoned for each incident. In both cases, these men confessed to the crimes. Kind of. In both cases, the alleged criminals were of low socioeconomic status, had substance abuse or mental health issues, and/or were targeted for chronic bullying by local police. In both cases, the confessions were coerced, and, weirdly, partially based on dreams. The cases were egregious abuses of the justice system and occasioned the only non-fiction book ever written by genre novelist John Grisham (who executive produced this series and appears on camera on a kind of stochastic basis). Two of these men were later exonerated by DNA evidence. The other two are still, at the time of writing this, in the clink.
Here’s my question. Why? Not why did four innocent men go to prison in Oklahoma 30 years ago. Why do we need this docuseries, right now?
The Innocent Man (a perplexing title, as there are four of them featured) treads previously trodden terrain in pursuit of… something. A commentary on what creates failures in criminal justice, perhaps. A reminder of the always-pretty-much-true fact that convicting someone of a violent crime does little to provide real closure for the victim’s family and friends. A reminder that these cases are still out there, unsolved or improperly solved. They are two of an uncountable number. The murders of these two young women in Ada, Okla. three decades ago were tragic and horrible. But they’re two of many, unfortunately, and not even connected as far as anyone seems to be aware, other than thematically, by misconviction. It’s almost the most chilling and bleak aspect of the series—nothing about these cases stands out as to why they merit an entire docuseries. Grisham says it’s to renew interest in the case, so that a groundswell of support will develop to get the two men who are still incarcerated, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, out of prison. And that’s fair, to want that, and it’s reasonable to use television to raise public awareness, I guess. Like, you’d use your local news outlet to raise the profile of a local injustice, right? And so why not a six-part Netflix docuseries?
Here’s the thing: Injustices spool across everyone’s screens 24/7. Not just from the past, from right now. There are bad things happening all over the world, all day long. The public is saturated with this kind of news. And I don’t want to be inflammatory, but not every injustice on the planet merits a six-hour television event. I mean, every injustice is worth righting, but TV isn’t the only—or even the most effective—way to do that. In this case, the entire six hours reeks of rehashing, it dwells on “characters” who did indeed suffer and continue to suffer in a terrible situation, but who are also not necessarily compelling television subjects. It’s not hard to feel badly for Debbie Carter’s mother, or for Ron Williamson, who was convicted of Debbie’s murder—they’ve both been put through hell at the hands of a misguided and possibly wantonly corrupt system. They are also people of no great education or insight or clarity or depth, and while they deserve our empathy I’m not sure the best way to get that for them is by putting them on screen for six hours. In the end, the series might not do anything as effectively as render a couple of brutal crimes, and the wrongful conviction of a handful of down-and-out men, stale and banal. Arguably, that’s a further violation of these two women and their loved ones, and of the civil rights of people who should not have been implicated, but were.
Does it matter that there are people alive right now who have been wronged by the criminal justice system? Of course. Do some people’s injuries at the hands of the criminal justice system matter more than others? I’d say no, not really. They all deserve to be put right. Are all criminal cases equally interesting? Probably not. Should “interesting” be required of them if we’re going to make television about them? Probably. At least, no one should be making a ton of TV about anything if they aren’t pretty prepared to make people interested. Is that where The Innocent Man arguably fails? Maybe. It’s not exactly an artistic flop. It’s also not an artistic masterpiece. It’s a formulaic, non-boundary-pushing, 100% vanilla iteration of its genre (not surprising, given the source). It’s neither bad nor good, the way these young men were neither bad nor good. They were flawed human beings who got caught up circumstantially in a bad situation. Maybe they were even capable of violence. They just didn’t happen to be guilty of the violence that put them in prison. The program suggests alternate theories, it posits places where accidental wrongdoing occurred and a few where pretty flagrantly deliberate wrongdoing occurred. It raises a shaky pointer finger at The System a few times in a way you could drill down on and focus an effort to expose, illuminate and maybe contend with systemic disregard for justice. That would have been a very different series, and arguably a more needed one.
I don’t know, man. Have we hit the true crime wall? Maybe I have hit the true crime wall.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.