It is unsettling to realize that many people looking for something new to watch on Netflix this week will actually be unfamiliar with what happened in Central Park, New York, on an April night in 1989. What happened was the rape and attempted murder of a young woman who was jogging there, Trisha Meili. The 28-year-old Meili was doing her usual evening run after a long day at work on Wall Street.
And while there are many unsettling scenes in the first hour of When They See Us (streams Netflix from Friday), nothing is more disconcerting than the realization, an hour into the drama, that we know very little about Trisha Meili. She is not the focus of the story. The five boys charged with the attack on her are the point. The way in which they were coerced into confessions, threatened and intimidated, is the point.
When They See Us is superbly made and startling in its invective. That invective is aimed with blistering intensity, not just at a justice system that allowed a miscarriage of justice, but at all of American society. The point of the title is that nobody actually saw the boys, who became known as The Central Park Five, as who they were. They saw black youths and wanted to convict them.
In its four episodes, the miniseries never lets go of its invective. After a few brief scenes of youths roaming the park, joshing and laughing, shouting insults at cyclists and one scene of a fist fight, the jogger is found and the police and justice systems kick into gear. The main force of authority is Linda Fairstein (Felicity Huffman) of the NYPD’s sex-crimes unit. She wants the case and lobbies for it. She’s not that interested in the victim or what actually happened. She cares that somebody is arrested and charged, quickly. When she realizes that police already know that many youths were horsing around in the park, she instantly challenges the cops to treat the kids as suspects, not witnesses.
They truly are kids, these boys. The police and the press start calling them “animals” but director and co-writer Ava DuVernay is at pains to present them as what they were on that night. One was 13 years old, one was 16, the others were 14 years old. Korey (Jharrel Jerome, of Moonlight), Anton (Caleel Harris), Yusef (Ethan Herisse), Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez) and Kevin (Asante Blackk) were frightened children, bewildered and terrified. From the start, it’s simply implausible that they are guilty.
The four parts of the series shift from the arrest and interrogation of the boys, then to the trials, then to their experiences in prison and, finally, to their exoneration years later. But this is not presented as a story to feel good about in the end.
The viewer is not invited to feel satisfaction that justice was done, eventually. It’s one angry drama and scathing. DuVernay (who also made the movie Selma) wants you to see systemic racism at work and wants you to grasp that nothing has changed since 1989. After all, as the series manages to underline, while the case was unfolding, Donald Trump took out ads in New York newspapers calling for the restoration of the death penalty so that the boys would be executed. Now, he runs the country. And the state of the country is the real point of When They See Us. As such, it’s a heightened, fraught series, the most unsettling drama so far in 2019, and meant to be.
Also airing this weekend – Deadwood: The Movie (Sunday, Crave/HBO 9 p.m., and streaming from Friday) is the long-awaited one-shot movie conclusion to the classic and often overlooked and misunderstood HBO series. (It aired 2004-2006, overshadowed by The Sopranos and The Wire.) And you don’t need knowledge of the series to savour this robust, twisted Western tale. In the hardscrabble town of Deadwood, S.D., in 1889 the residents are celebrating South Dakota’s statehood. That’s what brings the characters back together. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane in his greatest role), the saloonkeeper and brothel owner, is raging against enemies old and new. Change is coming, with the railway and the telephone but what doesn’t change is the strength of the greed in the town and the urges for revenge and violence. Molly Parker is again superb as Alma Ellsworth and her long stares are as powerful as ever. What makes Deadwood so exquisitely engrossing and lively is the baroque dialogue and the savouring of language and character. Each figure feels fully and completely alive.
NOS4A2 (Sunday, AMC 10 p.m.) is a new supernatural-horror series based on Joe Hill’s bestselling novel of the same name. It’s a sometimes powerful, sometimes dryly funny rethink of an ancient kind of story. Zachary Quinto plays the immortal vampire-figure antagonist, Charlie Manx. He lures children into his Rolls-Royce and feeds off them, but not their blood. He takes their souls to a place he calls Christmasland. His main adversary is Victoria McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), a teenage art student who can use a certain old bridge to be in another place, another time. Visually sumptuous and broodingly slow-moving, the series aims way higher than most supernatural-horror dramas.