TV's Recent Wrongful Conviction Trend Is a Process of Trial and Error

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TV's Recent Wrongful Conviction Trend Is a Process of Trial and Error

The president has been acquitted and the nation is torn. Justice and law, loopholes and technicalities, are at the forefront of the American cultural consciousness. The branches of government are colliding, actually putting those checks and balances we learned so much about in class on the scale. It’s no wonder that television, from streaming services to networks, is embracing the fear, confusion, and anger derived from this (and elsewhere in the legal system) with a deluge of crime television focused on wrongful convictions. Most of it is true crime, based on real lives and events, and all of it harnesses a national doubt that runs deeper than the abilities of its legal system, trickling all the way down to the very nature of truth. The conflicting forces of racial injustice, #MeToo backlash, and institutional mistrust (whether that be of the media, of science, or the legal system at large) have given an unjust undercurrent to the ubiquitous TV series focused on crimes, those that commit them, and those responsible for bringing them to justice.

It’s not just Donald Trump’s impeachment that has spurred this climate, but his entire culture of fake news where facts are up for debate; where trust is an old-fashioned idea at best and a naive failing at worst. It’s only fitting that he would be a major player in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us on Netflix, about the five men Trump helped wrongfully convict over a 1989 Central Park rape and assault, which kicked off the recent wrongful conviction trend last year. Now the movement is in full swing: at least five new shows are tackling the subject this month alone, spanning the tonal gamut from hyper-serious docuseries to melodrama and horror. There’s ABC’s For Life and CBS All Access’ Interrogation, as well as the second seasons of both Starz’s Wrong Man and Spectrum’s Manhunt—all while The Outsider continues working through the topic (with a decidedly Stephen King bent) over on HBO.

A subtrend of the larger true crime fad, this obsession with wrongful conviction has its place in the evolving levels of juridical awareness of our culture. Not just regular rah-rah schadenfreude, this thematic genre offers the chance for catharsis upon a subject’s exoneration, righteous indignation upon their incarceration in the first place, and ammunition for both progressive and conservative argumentation. This is true crime where there’s nothing to feel good about and the systems are broken, which translates to TV that can radicalize and mobilize rather than wrapping up each case by the end—in fact, it can often problematize that kind of oversold, over-simplified solution.

Interrogation, for example, does this with its central gimmick: the entire season can be watched in any order, with the finale providing a conclusive ending for those playing along at home. Inside these scattershot episodes are clues of various import. Some lead to new rabbit holes thanks to the reveal of a key name (and hey, that episode title over there features that name!) while others simply…wrap things up. Putting the impetus on viewers to piece the case together is a fascinating subversion, in theory, of the normal wrongful conviction narrative.

But when the structure of a show is as sporadic and untrustworthy as an investigation’s components, the confused and ramshackle narrative points the blame on a cop’s myopic tunnel vision (a solvable, fixable human error), the confirmation bias in its sights, and the corruption (witness tampering, evidence planting, false testifying) lurking in its desperate depths. It’s an interesting formal gamble to get a point-of-view we don’t often see. But Interrogation’s potential as a metaphor for police work wears out quickly when the constructs of narrative TV take hold—basically, while the detectives might have tunnel vision, we do not.

A typical wrongful conviction drama, though, is either omnisciently told or based on a case that’s already had its record straightened, like Manhunt’s new Richard Jewell season. We either know what happened from the word go, or we’re positioned to have no doubt in our minds. That usually makes the story either a smug damnation of the rubes that got it wrong or a glaring accusation of corruption. We know the suspect didn’t do it, so every misstep taken by those on the other side can confirm any preconceived notion. Like more standard crime shows that simply mete out breadcrumbs until viewers solve the case moments before the on-screen investigators, these shows still want their viewers to hold a sense of intellectual and moral certainty-turned-superiority.

When a suspicious character in Interrogation says a seemingly throwaway line in the pilot, we (unlike those detectives, who always seem to be one frustrating day away from lying on the stand) have the benefit of a script and a medium where characters simply don’t say unimportant things. The show may be based on real interview transcripts collected by police, but it’s still a narrative with writers behind it heading towards a predetermined, historical conclusion. That also means that the show knows who is right and who is wrong, ultimately fitting its themes in line with its peers. But even this subgenre, often based on a true story if not a retelling of real events, can be subject to the disingenuous interpretations of fake news—weaponizing the anxieties at its core against any contemporary bugaboo, like in Manhunt: Deadly Games.

Following Clint Eastwood’s recent Richard Jewell, the Manhunt anthology’s second entry focuses on the Centennial Olympic Park bombing and “the media firestorm that consumed the life of Richard Jewell in its wake.” Here, it’s played as a struggle between out-of-touch, condescending elites (a corner-cutting FBI agent trying to please his drunk, mean dad; a newspaper editor looking for a juicy scoop), each quick to claim glory, and the unassuming local boys who know what they’re talking about (an invented, gumption-filled, garage-working good ol’ boy ATF officer with an inappropriately-unbuttoned plaid shirt).

As the official synopsis for the upcoming Spectrum series reads, “with their legacies on the line and divisions within communities stoked, investigators must choose what is most important to defend—their reputations or the truth.” Martyrdom at the hands of the suits and of the media, especially by a wholesome white man (Cameron Britton, with all his Mindhunter creepiness spun to charm), is a delicious tragedy for contemporary, right-leaning narratives. Manhunt also implies—in a less direct, but still rabidly anti-press, fashion than Eastwood’s defamatory film—that Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs slept with sources for information. At least this time around, she’s not implied to have slept with a source for this particular case. And that’s not all. In just the first three episodes of the show, which are rife with fictional changes to the timeline between the real bomber’s next moves and the FBI’s investigation of Richard Jewell, Manhunt recklessly rewrites history.

By the time Eric Rudolph bombed a Sandy Springs abortion clinic, it had been three months since US Attorney Kent Alexander sent Jewell a letter formally clearing him. When the real Jewell had been exonerated, Manhunt’s martyr is still getting assaulted outside grocery stores while half a dozen FBI agents watch. When Rudolph bombed a Birmingham abortion clinic, it was four months after Jewell made a cameo on Saturday Night Live. In Manhunt, it’s in the midst of his falsely protracted persecution. Manhunt even assigns Rudolph a new motive: he’s not bombing abortion clinics and lesbian nightclubs because of LGBTQ and abortion-fueled hate—he just wants to kill a cop. Anti-left becomes anti-right with a simple tweak of the historical record. Institutional fears are targeted and warped through television in a way not dissimilar to some shows claiming to be news.

Those fears are more diverse in the Starz docuseries Wrong Man’s sophomore effort (from the Paradise Lost series’ Joe Berlinger), simply because its subjects are more varied and its information sparse. Wrong Man is a tabulation of all the reasonable doubt in the cases of convicted murderers Vonda Smith, Patricia Rorrer, and Kenneth Clair. Its narratives don’t have hardcore political agendas, just opaque examples of vague police ineptitude. Sometimes that idea can feel scary, since the failings of the justice system come so randomly that they could affect anyone. But Wrong Man’s only impactful case is one of race: a black man was convicted because the crime’s only witness, who claimed the murderer was white, wasn’t put on the stand. Racism is a lot easier to believe (and fear) than most of the hypotheticals posed by the show.

As soon as race becomes a factor (the other cases in the season are about white women), the show’s over-edited shorthand and lack of evidence becomes more palatable simply because it has a steadying baseline of systemic racism. A black man went to jail in the ‘80s for less-than-airtight reasons? I buy that. With just two light and repetitive episodes per case, Wrong Man’s presumptions of innocence really benefit from the guarantee of racist cops. Meanwhile, ABC’s For Life is the other new wrongful conviction drama to directly engage with racism, and even its melodramatic take is a strong representation of institutional mistrust.

Loosely based on Isaac Wright Jr.’s real life, the show documents a wrongfully convicted man’s bootstrap-pulling turn to practicing law from inside prison. With hyper-intense voiceover, quick network editing, and a pop soundtrack, For Life never asks us to question his innocence, just soak in his righteous lawyerly fury as he takes the good fight to the courtroom. This good fight is one that puts race on the backburner for class. It’s the fat cat lawyers with Ivy League degrees against the self-made man who gets help from a ragtag group of inmates, family members, and a frumpy, alcoholic ex-Senator who might lack a suit but has “moral clarity.”

While seemingly silly on its face, For Life has perhaps the bleakest view of its broken system. Nicholas Pinnock’s character has to learn to fight dirty—forging evidence and tricking clients into signing forms—in order to compete with the established lawyers. Every facet of the law is corrupt in For Life, every effective lawyer is breaking the law, and every episode ends in a slo-mo musical montage. (I’m not sure how Isaac Wright Jr. would feel about this implication, but he IS an executive producer, so it seems like he’s signed off.)

As society slowly comes to terms with its flawed system, with no clear path forward and a government that seems to be moving in the wrong direction, blame flies hither and yon and TV is trying to read the national room. That means tackling fear. Fear that we may have to be unlawful to fight unlawful practices. Fear that this broken process could come for viewers. The latter plays on fears, sometimes spawned by backlash to the #MeToo movement and voiced by—to keep things in the family from earlier—Melania Trump of all people, of false accusations that place innocent people in a whirlwind of shit because they were at the perfectly wrong place at the perfectly wrong time.

HBO’s The Outsider, about a shapeshifting monster that takes people’s appearances (down to their DNA) and then frames them for horrific child murders, is this fear at its most pure. It poses a reality where there’s film evidence, physical evidence, and eyewitness testimony placing the accused both at and far, far away from the crime scene. It’s a gripping premise and a potent question of legal certainty and doubt. If evidence is wrong, if witnesses are wrong, if everything our society and our justice system rely on is being manipulated, where does that leave us?

For some—like the character played by Jason Bateman—there is a baffled, quiet resignation. He never stops pleading his innocence, for all the good it does him. He doesn’t quite get off easy, but he’s the victim that raises the most eyebrows and actually kicks off the plot of the series—because he’s a middle-aged straight white guy. Two other victims of the monster’s incriminations, both POC, are already incarcerated when we meet them. They don’t get the same brouhaha surrounding a white man’s trial when the evidence doesn’t match up; they get convicted. This is a salient observation from a series that’s boogeyman preys upon a modern fixation with wrongful conviction and false accusation—but with the supernatural ability to fabricate all the evidence required to enhance the latter into a nightmarish spiral. The slippery slope is real … it’s just a Stephen King demon.

Horror movies  are often the place where social fears manifest into the monsters and motifs of the story. But what’s scaring the country isn’t an epidemic or a war, but a destructive infestation of our most important and powerful authorities. Bringing these issues—with politicians, courts, and cops—from network news to network dramas only helps solidify their burgeoning public awareness as a mainstream wake-up call. Like all TV, its angles differ and its effectiveness varies. But by baking so many facets of American mistrust into the crime genre, establishing wrongful conviction TV as its own well-loaded genre niche, this movement is chronicling a country’s shifting values in real time.



Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.

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