In making “When They See Us,” her new scripted miniseries about the so-called Central Park Five, Ava DuVernay made an important choice. Rather than cast an actor in the role of Donald Trump, who inserted himself into the 1989 case by buying ads calling for the death penalty, she decided to use news clips of him. Her goal was to keep the focus on the black and Latino kids who were railroaded into confessions and imprisoned, not the 1980s icon of greed, the man who threw gasoline on the racist fires that ultimately doomed the five innocent boys.
With an actor playing Trump, the dead serious tone of DuVernay’s four-part Netflix drama would surely have been compromised. There is no easy way to have an actor do Trump without going for comedy, or without somehow pulling the viewer out of the emotional story line. The primary mission of “When They See Us” is to bring us close to the boys so we’ll feel — and not just know about — the injustice and racism they suffered.
We’re in a rich era of scripted nonfiction, as more and more prestige shows are using real news stories as their foundation. Among the best, alongside “When They See Us,” are Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora,” Amazon’s “A Very English Scandal,” HBO’s “Chernobyl,” and FX’s Ryan Murphy shows, including “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.” These limited series are far from the cheap-thrills real-life stories you’d find on Lifetime, where triggering the viewer’s fear is often the prime mover. They’re anything but that cable network’s “Taken in Broad Daylight” or “Restless Virgins,” as they move beyond tabloid button-pushing toward some greater theme.
Each creator has his or her own motives for choosing which stories to retell, since the denouements are public knowledge. There are no spoiler warnings necessary. Often, they want to highlight a particular angle onto the case, to get us to rethink a story we already know about. With “When They See Us,” DuVernay is trying to reclaim the media narrative about the kids accused of raping and beating a Central Park jogger; she is also reminding us that, tragically, the case is as relevant as ever. When it comes to institutionalized racism and emotion-driven media frenzies, we remain stuck.
“Chernobyl,” created and written by Craig Mazin, also serves as a difficult reminder of problems that continue to haunt the world. The five-parter painfully depicts the nuclear disaster in the Soviet Ukraine in 1986 and the grim aftermath. Two of the central characters, played by Jared Harris and Emily Watson, are scientists whose advice is ignored, as the government puts its own spin on the catastrophe in an effort to save face. Ignoring science and promoting disinformation are as threatening now as they were then, particularly when it comes to climate change and the era of fake news. In “Chernobyl,” the radiation levels rise alongside the deceitfulness of those in charge.
“Chernobyl” and “When They See Us” make their points without a hint of humor. Their difficult facts, combined with an intimacy with the characters, drive their points home. The acting in both miniseries is top-notch, with Harris effectively evoking his usual amount of inner pain, but the emphasis is on the dark events portrayed.
Ryan Murphy and his co-writers and producers have taken a somewhat different approach to nonfiction in their FX series, including “Feud: Bette and Joan.” He, too, wants to reframe past events from a contemporary perspective. In “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” he wanted us to see how homophobia contributed to the slow capture of Andrew Cunanan — how the police made tragic presumptions about this gay killer, and his gay (and in some cases closeted) victims. And Murphy was successful in conveying this perspective without letting it dominate. We could see the homophobia at play, but we had to be watching actively.
Likewise, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” invited us to reconsider the story that changed the country. The series wasn’t about deciding whether or not Simpson was guilty; it was about looking at each player’s humanity, about looking at the role of race in our criminal justice system, about the sexism faced by prosecutor Marcia Clark, and about the start of the fame-for-fame’s-sake era we’re now drowning in.
But with his love of melodrama, pop culture, and camp, Murphy also carefully adds a layer of entertainment onto his scripted nonfictions. The casts of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” for example, are star-studded, featuring a few bravura performances, notably Sarah Paulson’s turn as Clark. His series play into our pop awareness, letting us find pleasure in watching the actors transform themselves into well-known figures such as Johnnie Cochran and Donatella Versace. The reframing ideas shine through, but, unlike “Chernobyl,” the surfaces are highly stylized. “Feud: Bette and Joan” is camp fun, certainly, with a dazzling old-Hollywood veneer, but it also wants us to see the movie-biz sexism that fed the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. His “Fosse/Verdon,” too, unearths sexism as it dissects a complex creative relationship between director/choreographer Bob Fosse and actress Gwen Verdon.
“Escape at Dannemora,” created and written by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, walks the same balance beam as Murphy’s shows, as it dangles stars in front of us. Benicio del Toro, Patricia Arquette, and Paul Dano are the triangle of lovers, with the two convicted murderers using Arquette’s corrections worker to help them escape from the upstate New York prison in 2015. But the quality of the acting isn’t distracting; it’s elevating. What lifts “Dannemora” above the average fact-based re-creation is its character development. Across seven episodes, we see how the escape worked — not just how the pair figured a way out of the prison, but the psychological manipulations that led Arquette’s Joyce Mitchell astray.
As in “A Very English Scandal,” a three-parter written by Russell T Davies about Jeremy Thorpe, the British politician charged in the ’70s with conspiring to murder a male ex-lover, “Dannemora” adds a human dimension that got missed in the real-time news. It adds to our understanding of the headline-grabbing events of our time.