'The Innocent Man': TV Review

Practically designed to auto-play after you've watched something better.
12/14/2018

Netflix's latest true-crime documentary series has a John Grisham pedigree, but comes across as a less urgent version of 'The Staircase' or 'Making a Murderer.'

If Netflix's "You Might Also Like…" algorithm were to create a TV show, it would probably look something like the new true-crime documentary series The Innocent Man.

Watching The Innocent Man is like watching a genre calcify in real time, stirring up a rudimentary sense of curiosity and outrage while running through every true-crime cliche imaginable with little sense of focus or urgency or formal experimentation.

The series is based partially on the non-fiction book The Innocent Man by John Grisham, who makes semi-regular appearances to summarize information or remind you that he wrote a book called The Innocent Man. Said book focused on the 1982 murder of Debbie Sue Carter in Ada, Oklahoma. Two men, including former minor league baseball player Ron Williamson, were convicted of the crime and, given the title, I don't think it's a big spoiler to tell you that they were less-than-guilty.

Actually, the title is a bit of a misnomer, since Grisham's book was primarily about the Carter case and Williamson, but in an effort to carve out fresh ground for TV, series developers Ross Dinerstein and Clay Tweel have expanded the story to include the murder of Denice Haraway, a crime that was the focus of Robert Mayer's 1987 book The Dreams of Ada (with Mayer also making semi-regular appearances to summarize information or remind you that he wrote a book about the subject matter).

So really, there are at least four innocent men the title could be referring to, and a more general point could be made that The Innocent Man is about a particular something rotten infecting this small Oklahoma town in the 1980s, how the legal system allowed injustice to occur and how intrepid souls like Grisham, Mayer and The Innocence Project — Barry Scheck is always happy to appear in documentaries like this — have fought back.

The Innocent Man is telling several of these stories, but none clearly, and all using the same stylistic tics — reenactments that contribute nothing, flow charts that show the same thing over and over, out-of-nowhere "twists" saved for the last 30 seconds of episodes, a strings-dominated musical score — that American Vandal carefully illustrated need to be refreshed.

Tweel, the credited director on all episodes, proved on the quirky documentary Finders Keepers that he has a confident ability to recognize both odd personal stories and how they connect to bigger, thematically rich narratives. Here, though, over six hours, he just can't find the story that's actually interesting him. The cutting back-and-forth between the Carter and Haraway murders and their respective aftermaths is often confusing and out-of-chronology, which may be at least partially intentional to illustrate similarities between the crimes and their subsequent trials, but has the effect of denying any of the principals an individual identity. After six hours, Debbie and Denice have become one uber-victim, the four men charged with the crimes blended into one generic Innocent Man and the failings in Ada boiled down to produce a single bogeyman in the form of a DA who you know is never going to appear on camera because the adversarial DAs in these docudramas almost never choose to go on camera. It's ideal to want to use specific cases to reveal a universal institutional truth. It's less ideal to use universal truths to render specific cases general and generic as happens here.

A big part of the problem may simply be that these cases have been over-covered and Tweel and Dinerstein and Netflix are late to the party. Once you accept that projects like this are stuck in one-sided access, The Innocent Man gets an impressive amount of participation from the Haraway and Carter families, from friends and loved ones tied to the accused men and from attorneys who worked on their cases and appeals. Unfortunately, everything in the over-staged talking heads segments comes across as mechanical and over-rehearsed. Having Tommy Ward, one of the men convicted of Haraway's murder, doing interviews from prison is poignant as an image, but nothing he says is even slightly enlightening or substantive. Unlike in Making a Murderer, each of the attorneys is talking about actions they've already taken, not actions they're planning on taking, and the immediacy suffers. When a good and unique story arises — Debbie's cousin Christy becoming a death-penalty reform activist, for example — it's too frequently underplayed, and yet Tweel becomes really invested in one somewhat random journalist whose mission seems to just be writing another book about Ada and whose investigation can't give the show any momentum as it nears a final episode that plays as a shrug instead of a call to action.

Also failing to emerge is any sense of Ada as a community. The series has a lot of talk about economic inequality in the town, about the gaps between those in power and those trapped in poverty, but it doesn't illustrate that at all. I came away wondering why these two legal miscarriages occurred at that unique moment and whether anything had happened to limit the corruption to these two crimes and whether there had been improvements that prevented anything comparable from happening. But then a post-script in the finale mentioned another case out of Ada that was overturned by DNA evidence, a case from around the same time, and my reaction was also, "Surely that should have been relevant?" That afterthought case also involved an African-American defendant, and given that I believe every single talking head in the documentary is white, that raised a slew of questions, possibly relevant and possibly not. (Wikipedia tells me Ada's population is 15 percent Native American, specifically Chickasaw, but only 3.5 percent African-American, and now those facts also interest me.)

If The Innocent Man started automatically playing after you finished watching episodes of The Staircase or Making a Murderer, you'd probably be reasonably content to watch six more hours of talk about legal appeals, exculpatory evidence and general systemic injustice. Otherwise, it isn't worth seeking out.

Premieres: Friday (Netflix)