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The Verdict on Netflix's New Docuseries Trial By Media

This six-part docuseries has a lot to offer, but some episodes are better than others.
  • Trial by Media tackles the Rod Blagojevich affair in episode six. (Netflix)
    Trial by Media tackles the Rod Blagojevich affair in episode six. (Netflix)

    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 weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.

    Trial By Media is smart. Netflix's latest true-crime series isn't likely to grab the viewing public by the chin and not let go the way that like Tiger King, but like I Am A Killer and Dirty Money from the same network, it's both evergreen — even in these pandemic times, we won't have any shortage of flashpoint cases causing battles royale on Reddit — and long-tailed. The anthology format means viewers don't have to commit to a binge-watch; they can sample one episode (or a handful) in whatever order they like.

    Also like Dirty Money, Trial By Media's roster of episode directors is a murderer's row (if you'll forgive the expression) of talent, and the series boasts impressive access to case figures (although not always to the central case figures, who often decline to figuratively re-litigate their cases in this medium). And that's not even mentioning the hall-of-fame list of executive producers, including Court TV founder Steven Brill, author and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, and of course George Clooney. The first season — I can't imagine we won't get a second one; see above — is a consistently solid line-up of episodes, packed with information; I learned something new about every case, even the ones I witnessed firsthand growing up and living in the New York area.

    Having said that, a couple of the episodes go on a little too long, and not every installment seems to share the same definition of "trial by media" — so if you can only fit one or two in between Zoom meetings, where should you start? Below, I've ranked all six of Trial By Media's mini-movies from best to worst... but don't get me wrong, they're all quite good:

    E04, "King Richard"
    Director: Brian McGinn (Amanda Knox, Dirty Money)
    Scripted property you may remember it from: Any late-season Law & Order referencing Enron will do.

    I'd never heard of the titular Richard Scrushy, disgraced former CEO of HealthSouth, before digging into "King Richard," which is part of the episode's appeal; it's also the first episode to get its primary subject to participate. I could have watched another hour of analysis of Scrushy's decision to go on the media offensive — conscripting African-American faith leaders; starting his own televangelical local talk show; crafting an underdog narrative with the help of his attorney, Donald Watkins (himself now facing prison time for fraud). Watkins is unapologetically gleeful as he explains that people get their ideas of court from television, and that his shifting of the jury's attention from the facts of the case to the defense team's audio-visual reframing of the narrative won the day. Well, temporarily — Scrushys gonna Scrushy — and really, this episode is more about putting on a show for the twelve citizens in the box than about the way the media can seem to "decide" cases. But it's a lot of fun to watch, edited expertly and full of zingers.

    E06, "Blago!"
    Director: Oscar nominee Yance Ford (Strong Island)
    Scripted property you may remember it from: n/a, technically…

    ...but part of impeached Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich's pre-trial media goodwill tour included a stop on Celebrity Apprentice, a move that seemed obvious and pathetic at the time but paid big dividends when President Trump commuted Blago's sentence earlier this year. "Blago!" starts out seeming less like Blagojevich's trial BY media than a creature of the media going ON trial, and when Blagojevich's first defense attorney, Sam Adam Jr., appears, you may wish the episode -- and perhaps an entire series -- had focused on him and his father (who've represented, among others, R. Kelly). But Ford is skillful at putting comments from Blagojevich's wife, Patti, in context and not gotcha-ing her, and the episode provides perspective on the way things are done in Chicago politics without dwelling too long on the endemic jaw-dropping corruption (I'm from New Jersey; I don't use these terms lightly). Blagojevich was such a punchline for so long that it may have obscured how craftily he was using his ubiquity in the press to ink-cloud the facts in the courtroom...and at the highest reaches of the executive branch. (Interestingly, like Dirty Money, Trial By Media saves the Trumpiest episode for last.)

    E03, "41 Shots"
    Director: Garrett Bradley, winner of a director's award at Sundance
    Scripted property you may remember it from: Law & Order: SVU S17.E05, "Community Policing"

    The title is a chant we heard nonstop at protests in New York City in the late nineties, because that's how many rounds NYPD officers fired at Amadou Diallo, killing him. Those officers were, after a change of venue that probably saved their asses, found not guilty — "not responsible at ALL," as Katie Couric noted in shocked tones at the time — and the extent to which nothing has changed more than two decades later is part of what makes "41 Shots" effective. The other part is the participation of Diallo's mother, who sighs towards the end that "the power of the story is very important," and fills in important details about her son throughout, giving him the dimension the tabloids couldn't, or wouldn't, back then; and of one of the officers' attorneys, who becomes emotional about "regrets" when he's justifying the exclusion of Mrs. Diallo's "incredible grief" on evidentiary grounds. The obvious route here is to hammer then-mayor and lifetime badge-humper Rudy Giuliani for encouraging an atmosphere of brutality, but Bradley resists cheap shots, and turns down the noise to analyze how this case became a cause.

    E05, "Big Dan's Tavern"
    Director: Sierra Pettengill
    Scripted property you may remember it from: The Accused, which won Jodie Foster an Oscar

    "Big Dan's Tavern" is a difficult sit; after a New Bedford, MA woman was gang-raped in a bar while onlookers cheered and did nothing to help her, the national media seized on the case as a referendum on everything from whether and when women are "asking for it" (the correct answer, "never," was not a popular one in the early '80s) to what role the media can play in educating the public on crime and jurisprudence. The presiding judge in the case, who appears in the episode, seems to realize his decision to allow cameras in the courtroom was a double-edged sword that primarily cut the victim — but the other talking-head interviews here are fairly by-numbers, and the episode overall feels somewhat scattered. A longer runtime might have allowed Pettengill to examine the evidence more thoroughly, and to give the community tensions the case inspired a more measured look.

    E02, "Subway Vigilante"
    Director: Skye Borgman (Abducted In Plain Sight)
    Scripted property you may remember it from: Law & Order S01.E02, "Subterranean Homeboy Blues" (with Cynthia Nixon as the vigilante)

    There's a lot here that I didn't remember, even with the case as a near-constant daily presence when I was a kid, and there's a lot here, period — Goetz became a focal point of and way into discussions about crime in the city, racial profiling, and trauma and violent crime. But "Subway Vigilante" may not hold the interest of folks who didn't live/grow up around here as well, and the episode's timeline is a little collage-y and unclear. Nor is Goetz the first case I'd pick if the idea is to illustrate the New York tabloids' influence on high-profile cases in particular (I'd probably have gone with the murder of Jennifer Levin for that). Excellent talking-head access — Curtis Sliwa, Ron Kuby, Rev. Al Sharpton — whose net effect was to make me wish someone would do a limited series on Sharpton himself.

    E01, "Talk Show Murder"
    Director: Tony Yacenda (American Vandal)
    Scripted property you may remember it from: Law & Order S04.E01, "Sweeps" (sort of; L&O aired first)

    The first episode in the series is also the only one to really foreground the question of media's responsibility in the cases it's actually a party to — like the murder of Scott Amedure by Jonathan Schmitz, after Amedure confessed his crush on Schmitz on Jenny Jones's daytime show. HBO dug into this issue years ago with the doc Talked To Death, which does a slightly better job giving an overview of the daytime-talk landscape — and without the participation of either Jones or Schmitz, Yacenda is left to raise questions of culpability and influence without the ability to answer them effectively. A well-made episode on a fascinating case that may leave you feeling a bit frustrated.

    All six episodes of Trial By Media drop today on Netflix

    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.

    TOPICS: Trial By Media, Netflix, Law & Order, George Clooney, Jeffrey Toobin, Steven Brill, Documentaries, True Crime