Still from 'When They See Us' episode 2
Image: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

‘When They See Us’ shows more empathy than the justice system

When I open the Netflix app on my laptop, the first thing I see is a trailer that plays at the top of the page for whatever new release they happen to be promoting at that moment. Recently, that’s included such shows as Jessica Jones, Black Mirror, The Society and Lucifer. Whilst these trailers might pique my interest in these shows, none led me quite so quickly to watch a show as the trailer for When They See Us. And I’m so glad I did. When They See Us is the most real and most empathetic thing on Netflix right now, and it made most of these other shows feel trivial in comparison.

Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us is based on the true story of ‘the Central Park Five’ – a group of five black teenagers who were coerced by police and falsely convicted of rape in 1989. The series follows them through the night of the crime, the police investigation and the trials, and then doesn’t stop there. Whilst the investigation and trials are undoubtedly compelling to watch, some of the most powerful drama is in the second half of this series which follows the lives of these boys after the conviction.

When They See Us is the most real and most empathetic thing on Netflix right now, and it made most of these other shows feel trivial in comparison

As someone who was unfamiliar with this true story before watching the series, I was quick to become invested in the characters enough to feel the tragedy, despair and hope that they felt as events unfolded. But When They See Us does not only rely on the latent drama of this story, it manages to also prove itself as one of the most thoughtful and well-made TV dramas of our time.

What makes the series so effective is the contrast it provides to the cold, indifferent justice system that it portrays. The events of When They See Us are tragic and sometimes difficult to watch, but the show itself is warm-hearted. Where the justice system is quick to judge a person for life, this drama encourages exactly the opposite. When They See Us could quite easily have villainised Antron’s violent father or Korey’s transphobic mother, but what it does is so much better. It demonstrates the oppression and poverty in their own lives that can lead to these ugly moments and it allows for forgiveness. Crucially, it doesn’t let these single moments define the entirety of these characters.

I was quick to become invested in the characters enough to feel the tragedy, despair and hope that they felt as events unfolded

The justice system, as When They See Us demonstrates, does precisely the opposite. It offers no forgiveness and no opportunity to listen to the Central Park Five once they have been convicted. When the four youngest boys are released, we see how their conviction leaves a mark that infects almost every aspect of their life, and even encourages a return to crime. Even putting aside the essential truth that they didn’t commit the crime, it’s heart-breaking to see the reality of a justice system so cold and unforgiving that it encourages resentment and criminality much more than it encourages reform.

I’ve recently been listening to the Third season of the popular podcast Serial, which scrutinises the modern American justice system. The podcast only confirmed to me that the justice system is still fundamentally flawed in this way thirty years later. In a world where the police are tactlessly violent, where prosecutors are coldly unforgiving and where ‘criminals’ are labelled as such for life, there appears to be little hope. And it seems unlikely that anything can be done about this while Donald Trump remains in power. He makes an appearance in When They See Us in archival footage calling for these teenagers to face the death penalty. He still maintained that they were guilty as recently as a couple of years ago.

It’s heart-breaking to see the reality of a justice system so cold and unforgiving

I strongly encourage everyone to watch When They See Us. It is a story that needs to be seen and that needs to cause outrage. It’s also a masterpiece of television. Every episode rises to the challenge of bettering the one before it, with the fourth episode giving us the most uncomfortably real depiction of life in prison that I’ve ever seen on TV. Above all, you can truly see that When They See Us is a drama made from a place of love and empathy; two things that the American justice system is severely lacking.

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