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The dual engines that power the true crime genre are typically empathy and mystery.
You’re meant to feel for the victims — a group that can sometimes include the wrongfully accused — while also investing in the solving of a complicated crime. A reasonably successful true crime doc like HBO’s current I’ll Be Gone in the Dark works because it combines a whodunit with a portrait of heroic survivors (and, in that show’s case, a tribute to late author Michelle McNamara).
Air date: Jul 05, 2020
Showtime’s new docuseries Outcry produces five hours of strange visceral responses, because it isn’t particularly mysterious and it generates its empathy in a peculiar way. Still, it’s provocative and infuriating — and if it feels somewhat padded, the duration is thematically justified.
Directed by Pat Kondelis (Showtime’s Disgraced), Outcry tells the story of Greg Kelley, a Texas high-school football star accused and convicted of sexually assaulting a four-year-old boy. It’s an awful and ugly accusation, which Kelley vociferously denies. Over five years, Kelley and a team of allies, including cheerleader girlfriend Gaebri Anderson, inexplicably devoted advocate Jake Brydon and dogged appeals attorney Keith Hampton, fight to get the conviction overturned.
There’s no mystery here (especially if you Google the case). For completely understandable reasons, Kondelis can’t get interviews with the parents of the two kids (a second accuser emerges) who leveled accusations against Greg when they were under five years old. The case was brought on the basis of those accusations, but there was no evidence to speak of. Police didn’t pursue other potential suspects, a fact admitted by local chief Sean Mannix, an astonishingly voluble, if entirely unrepentant, talking head. Messy would-be “evidence,” relating to pornography addiction and sex sites, are mentioned and discarded with limited exploration.
Outcry is able to acknowledge two potential alternative suspects, one named and one unnamed, but there’s no advancing of the case. And in evoking the notorious McMartin preschool scandal, the series suggests that the accusations could be entirely fabricated.
If that implication grosses you out a little, Outcry also features at least one victim’s rights advocate who doesn’t actually know anything about the case and yet makes multiple appearances saying that no matter what the ultimate legal result, she’ll still believe the accusers. Looking at the case with outside objectivity definitely isn’t what Outcry does best, so viewers waiting for grand pronouncements about the difficulties inherent in child sexual assault cases and convictions will be frustrated.
What the series depicts beyond any doubt is a broken system, or at least a system that failed in this particular case — but not in the way the genre typically tends to focus on. The police here went after an easy conviction rather than justice, and seeing that unfold will doubtlessly have viewers yelling at their TV. Outcry is completely effective at stoking our indignation. And if episodes three through five feel like they’re repetitive, I think it’s intentional — to simulate the protracted timeline of frustration experienced by Kelley.
Yet most shows focusing on systemic injustice do so via an angle of racism, sexism or classism. If Kelley is a victim of any of these things, the series can’t make that case. He has a Latina mother (and an unseen father), and faced predominantly white cops and prosecutors, but was prejudice a factor? Seemingly not. Kelley’s ethnicity is nearly unmentioned, which is nearly unprecedented in a series like this. Was he a bigger target as a jock in football-loving Texas or did that give him privilege? More the latter than the former.
And would his chief defender or devoted girlfriend have been there for him if he weren’t a star athlete? Who knows, because as presented in the documentary, Kelley’s personality boils down to his persistent denial of the heinous charges against him — sometimes denials of great intensity. One could hardly blame him for being monomaniacal, but if we end up rooting for Kelley it’s less because of who he is as a person and more because nobody should be sentenced to 25 years in prison if they didn’t commit the crime.
Maybe Kelley’s unknowability is part of the point, though. It doesn’t matter if we “like” Kelley and it doesn’t matter if we understand why Gaebri is so devoted to him, or Jake for that matter. What matters is that Outcry is clear in its argument that something went very wrong here, and that the attempts to right that wrong are arduous and mired in institutional challenges. That’s more than enough to allow Outcry to generate anger — and, in doing so, to remind you that anger is a key component of effective true crime stories, too.
Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime starting July 5.
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