In a scene from D.A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back,” a 1967 documentary film about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of England, the singer, breaking away from his protest-singer persona, considers his audience.
“Who wants to go get whipped?” Dylan rhetorically asks a Time reporter. “And if you do want to go get whipped, aren’t you really being entertained? So do you think that anybody who comes to see me is coming for any other reason than entertainment?”
That quote came to mind while watching the Netflix documentary series “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” a story of the torture and murder of an 8-year-old child, beaten to death in 2013 by his mother and her boyfriend, and the repeated failure of social workers and police officers to intervene. As of this writing, it is the streaming platform’s most popular original series.
Directed by Brian Knappenberger, “Gabriel Fernandez” piggybacks on the reporting of Garrett Therolf, who covered the story for The Times as it broke, and later elsewhere, and who appears extensively throughout. (Therolf, an executive producer of the series, brought Knappenberger into the project.) A well-made and conscientious work that includes interviews with people involved in the case and experts regarding it from afar along with footage of police interviews and courtroom testimony, it is old news and an ongoing story, since we have not reached the end of child abuse or institutional incompetence.
Without disputing its worthiness, or the serious intent of its makers, it’s still worth stepping back to consider how the economic circumstances of its production shape its message. News, even bad news, is a form of entertainment and a commercial enterprise: show business. Something besides a desire to educate Netflix subscribers about the state of social services amid the poor populations of Los Angeles County, and the desire of Netflix subscribers to know these things, has brought “Gabriel Fernandez” to the top of the chart: the sensational horror of the torture and murder of a child.
As a spin through broadcast, cable and streaming television makes quickly clear, true crime pays, especially where murder is involved. Series like HBO’s “The Jinx” about Robert Durst, and “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” carrying on from the phenomenally popular “Serial” podcast, and anything to do with O.J. Simpson, reliably become grist for social media and talk around the virtual national water cooler, as has HBO’s somewhat kinder, gentler “McMillions.” (No one is murdered.)
Born from the serial nature of contemporary television and brought to maturity by the binge model of streaming TV, which has created new appetites among viewers and plays merrily upon them, the long-form true crime series has become a genre unto itself. Netflix didn’t invent it, but, as with every other sort of television show, it seems intent on owning the field, globally — to be there algorithmically to provide you with another thing quite like the last thing you watched.
Its originals — it has acquired many more — include “Making a Murderer” (freed from a wrongful conviction, a man faces a new murder charge); “Ted Bundy: Conversations With a Killer” (the serial killer in his own words); “I Am a Killer” (death row convicts tell their stories); “The Confession Tapes “ (people convicted of murder claim their confessions were coerced); “The Confession Killer” (a man takes credit for murders he didn’t commit); “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez” (NFL pro turned convict); “Don’t F**ck With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer” (online sleuths take down a murderer); “The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann” (pedophilia and human trafficking, given the shape of an international thriller); “The Keepers” (a cold case story of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and the murder of a nun in 1969 Baltimore); “Who Killed Little Gregory?” (murder of a British toddler creates a sensation over many years); and “The Alcassar Murders” (murder of three Spanish girls creates a Spanish sensation over many years).
Netflix has also put its brand on, and added new episodes to, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s seminal “The Staircase,” whose first appearance, as a French miniseries, in 2004, might be the original doubt-sowing true crime docuseries. And coming soon: “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness,” with “an unbelievable cast of characters including drug kingpins, con men, and cult leaders [who] all share a passion for big cats.”
These series are a breed apart from the investigative journalism of a series like PBS’ “Frontline,” which reports on current events at something closer to the speed of a newspaper and does its work typically in an hour or two or for that matter from episodic true crime series like NBC’s “Dateline” and CBS’ “48 Hours.” Everything you need to know about Gabriel Fernandez’s case could be communicated, with no sacrifice of complexity or pathos, in a fraction of the time. The reasons it takes the shape it does are commercial and, to some extent, aesthetic. There is a big box to fill, and the material expands to fill it.
The sheer size of “Gabriel Fernandez” would seem to matter, to proportionately reflect the importance of his case. Though the series aims for complexity, even as regards its villains (Gabriel’s mother, Pearl Fernandez, was herself abused as a child), its length oddly fights its subtlety. Nods are made to the dangers of outsourcing social services to for-profit corporations — which was the case here — and to the need for strong local journalism. We are shown an efficient and sympathetic social worker making a house call. But these points are swallowed by the repetition of more sensational damning facts, of photos of Gabriel clearly in distress, of the cabinet where he was forced to sleep at night, gagged with a bandanna, repeatedly contrasted with the smiling pictures of the happy boy he’d been living with his uncle or grandparents.
The challenge with a docuseries, after all, no less than with a dramatic one, is to grab and hold an audience, through cliffhangers and reveals and by teasing revelations to come, to play upon our desire for answers, comeuppance, closure. Why did this happen? Who is telling the truth? Will justice be served? A six-hour run requires that this be done over and over. (Yet series of this sort — which sometimes relate the filmmakers’ own evolving views of their subject’s guilt or innocence — often end with more questions than answers.)
Indeed, the aim of these series, from a formal standpoint, is to give the factual the electric charge of the fictional. (It is not unusual to find the same true crime story filmed in both dramatic and documentary form.) It’s a thin line to begin with: We’re familiar, from the news and scripted stories alike, with the person who has escaped justice, or the person who has wrongly been accused. We are thoroughly schooled in the literature of cold cases, of heroic courtroom reversals, of lying police officers, and prosecutors more concerned with protecting a verdict than finding the truth. Investigations and trials have a dramatic shape — adding information as they go and sometimes casting doubt on it, in light of newer information.
Storytelling is the double-edged sword of journalism. It makes sense of the facts, and makes them interesting. Yet by ordering them dramatically, in the choice of words and pictures to relate the tale, it creates its own reality. (That Therolf is handsome enough to play himself in a Hollywood version of this story is not irrelevant to how we interpret “Gabriel Fernandez.”) And where reading a story offers a chance to pause to reflect and digest, to skip back to clarify a point, film carries you along at its own speed, a passenger. It’s better at imparting impressions than information, even when the information is there.
What’s more, documentary filmmakers are artists as well as journalists, which in the realm of true crime comes out of a tradition that includes literary works like Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” or Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song.” Filmmakers are concerned with form as well as content: Pennebaker, Errol Morris, Albert and David Maysles, and Ken Burns all have had an influence on how other filmmakers frame the world, and how audiences understand it.
Netflix documentaries have acquired a look of their own, creamy and cinematic, with flashy credit sequences, dramatic scores and museum-quality photography associated with big-budget dramatic series. Indeed, for a documentary to look anything less than visually polished nowadays is to seem somehow unprofessional and possibly (and paradoxically) untrustworthy.
It’s useful to remember that these shows are not simply being foisted upon us. They are part of a cycle in which we participate, every button pushed or link clicked to prompt the next thing we’ll be shown, is a signal to make more. “True crime fan” is a strange phrase to me, but they are out there, too numerous to be considered anything but normal. Humans have enjoyed contemplating dark oddities throughout recorded history, for whatever cathartic tension and release it affords, and giving the people what they want is a prime directive in show business and other business — including, in this data driven, algorithmically ranked times, the newspaper business. But what interests the public isn’t necessarily in the public interest.
What does “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez” leave us in the end? Sadness? Another reminder that people are fallible, individually and institutionally, and will continue to be so? Hope that systemic reforms may come and continue? (Some were undertaken after The Times’ reporting, back in 2013, it’s worth noting.) At its best, it may inspire a viewer to get involved — to become a social worker, perhaps! — or at least to become a more aware, caring person, to not look away where a closer look is called for.
But if watching stops there, as it will for most of us — if the series is its own reward — we are almost by definition coming to be told a story, to be enthralled by the appalling and perverse: a freak show, the commodification of pain and failure. Is that entertainment?
‘The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez’
When: Any time
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17)