Law and Television: Streaming Advocates Unit
United States consumers have a morbid fascination with crime. The media is consumed with docuseries, podcasts, television shows, books, and movies that involve heinous attacks against vulnerable victims. Obsession with crime TV is not new for American audiences. Olivia Benson has been investigating sex crimes on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit since 1999 and continues to this day to captivate her cult-like following. Traditional crime television continues to remain popular because it offers audiences the opportunity to experience violence and murder in a controlled environment where the fear is real but the threat is not. Crime shows, especially those involving a trial, are presented in an easily consumable and rapid dramatic structure which leaves audiences with a sense that justice has been, and always is, served in just an hour or less. However, the way in which American viewers devours these programs has evolved with the explosion of streaming services, opening the door for new perspectives which can alter the way audiences judge the United States’ criminal justice system.
Unencumbered by the traditional micromanaging of network and studio executives, creators for streaming services are given almost unlimited creative freedom to produce projects dramatizing hot-button issues deemed too contentious for traditional television publication. Shows like Netflix’s When They See Us and Unbelievable revolutionizes the traditional crime narrative by refusing to present the criminal justice system as infallible. By refocusing the narrative from those who enforce the law to those who are affected by that enforcement, audiences are able to witness the devastating consequences that can occur when members of vulnerable communities become victims of a powerful, but ultimately flawed system.
For example, Netflix’s 2019 mini-series Unbelievable was inspired by the Marshall Project and ProPublica Pulitzer Prize-winning article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” which details the ordeal of a young women (referred to as Marie) who was raped at knifepoint in her own apartment and discredited by detectives who suggest that she made it up. Unbelievable begins mere hours after Marie’s attack, when she is repeatedly interrogated and forced to recount her attack in horrific detail. She is taken to the hospital and subjected to invasive medical examinations where her body is further poked and prodded. Finding small inconsistencies in her story troubling, two male detectives assume that she is lying and coerce her into recounting her story. They terminate their investigation and charge Marie with filing a false police report. It isn’t until years later when two female detectives are investigating a string of similar rapes in another state that the truth of Marie’s story becomes apparent.
At times Unbelievable is infuriating to watch. Knowing that Marie is telling the truth from the beginning makes her revictimization at the hands of the criminal justice all the more deplorable. Unlike traditional crime TV, which tends to use the victim as nothing more than a vehicle to move the story along, Unbelievable focus on the subjective experiences of several victims. Their differing experiences illustrate the various ways people respond to trauma, such as blocking out the memory entirely, dissociating during an attack, or attempting to remember every detail to bring themselves to justice. It also demonstrates to viewers the need for progressive changes in the way police investigate sexual assaults to assure that victims do not view an investigation as a continuation of their trauma. In a world where only 20% to 33% percent of rapes are reported to the police, Unbelievable warns about the devastating consequences of not believing victims.
Netflix’s When They See Us presents a different but equally troubling miscarriage of justice. In this instance, it is not the victim that is wrongly distrusted, but the suspects. When They See Us is based on the story of the Central Park Five, five African American and LatinX boys who were wrongly convicted of raping a white women while in New York’s Central Park in 1989. The victim of the attack, Trish Meili, did not remember her assault or her attacker. The boys’ arrests were based primarily on the fact they were in the park that night and they were not white. Although DNA evidence did not connect any of the boys to the assault, the prosecution relied on confessions forced out of the boys, who were between the ages of 14 and 16, after several hours of relentless interrogation without lawyers or parents present.
Similar to Unbelievable, knowing that the boys are innocent from the start highlights the severity of the injustice inflicted upon them. Throughout the mini-series viewers come to know these boys not only as defendants in a criminal case, but as human beings. They see the way the trial and media accusations affect their relationships and family spheres. Audiences witness the boys fear and understand why they felt they had to admit to something they did not do. Released at a time where systematic racial injustices continue to undermine our criminal justice system, When They See Us reminds audiences the importance of the presumption of innocence plays to defendants seeking fair and impartial trials. When They See Us advises audiences that racial biases have no place in the criminal justice system and asks audiences to advocate for change to the racist practices that continue to plague the criminal justice system.
Unbelievable and When They See Us serve as a call to arms for criminal justice reform by the masses. By allowing audiences of all backgrounds, educations, and races to witness and empathize with characters who are victimized by the mistakes of a flawed system, these programs force viewers to grapple with the way the American criminal justice system treats its victims and suspects. No longer are audiences indoctrinated to believe that all law enforcement is beyond reproach, which opens the door to bring about effective changes in the criminal justice system.