Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her new weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.
You may have heard about the new six-part Netflix docuseries The Trials Of Gabriel Fernandez and chosen not to watch it. If so, I can't blame you. True-crime programming about child abuse and domestic violence is disturbing, and this unflinching examination of the ongoing torture and beating death of an eight-year-old is as difficult and upsetting as you'd expect.
What's more, it lingers. I got through several episodes, then took a break after the fourth, but it was as though I'd never stopped watching. I kept thinking about Gabriel, about his teacher who tried to get someone to investigate his home situation, about his mother Pearl who handed him over to an uncle to raise, only to take him back years later so she could collect the welfare benefits he would bring into the household. I kept remembering all the people who came into contact with Gabriel at the end of his life and after — the experienced medical and legal professionals who have witnessed all manner of horrors over the course of their careers, all crumbling on the stand or in interviews as they recalled the damage done to Gabriel. Gabriel Fernandez casts a long shadow.
The Trials Of Gabriel Fernandez is so depressing and infuriating that I can't exactly "recommend" it. Watching it weighed on me almost physically, but that's what great art and great reporting do sometimes. Gabriel Fernandez is hard to watch, but it's well made. The filmmakers gained extraordinary access to Gabriel's family, to the prosecutor trying Gabriel's mother and stepfather for Gabriel's murder, and to the jurors who had to decide whether the stepfather, Isauro Aguirre, would get the death penalty. Even one of the social workers charged with child abuse and falsifying documents in connection with Gabriel's death sits for an interview. Gabriel Fernandez has collected many of the pieces of this horrifying puzzle, giving the filmmakers a strong starting point from which to attempt to answer the maddening question: "How could this happen?"
The series is thorough as it explores that question, letting viewers sit with the various possible answers, no matter how mundane or maddening. Nobody wants to hear that Gabriel slipped through the cracks in part because Los Angeles County outsourced some of its family services to third-party firms, and those firms employed supervisors who put containing overtime costs ahead of kids' safety. Nobody wants to hear that institutions and systems are made up of human beings, and that human beings can be fallible at times to a horrifying degree. But everybody needs to hear these things. We have to face the thorny logistical and budgetary issues that arise from asking the question "How could this happen?" Including this one: If we want more and better social workers, where does the money come from to make that happen? Where is the funding for family and parenting classes? When children are removed from bad situations, who's to say the foster homes they wind up in aren't worse? How do we throw out the broken parts of children-and-family-services systems if we have nothing to replace them?
The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez doesn't have the answers (and it doesn't pretend to). But the series knows it's important to keep looking for them, and to bear witness to what happened to Gabriel in the hope that we can all do better. As I said, I can't quite "recommend" The Trials Of Gabriel Fernandez, because it's a tough six hours to get through, but it is a well-crafted, thought-provoking six hours, and it doesn't treat the horrors it depicts cheaply.
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Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.