Since taking over Current in 2013, the channel Al Jazeera America has yet to build serious buzz for its original programming in the cable space. The problem faced is this: How does a news-focused channel compete with pre-established major players like CNN and MSNBC? Al Jazeera’s solution might be this: Bring in an established, award-winning documentarian.
Sunday night at 9pm ET/6pm PT saw the launch of “The System,” an eight-part series created and hosted by director Joe Berlinger, which breaks down various ways the justice system has failed to actually execute justice. It’s a show examining everything from flaws in mandatory sentencing to the treatment of minors convicted of murder.
As he told Indiewire during a recent interview, Berlinger has made a career out of “giving a voice to the voiceless,” as most of his documentaries are devoted to injustices of some kind. When not hanging out with rock stars as co-director of “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” he also was one of the team behind the “Paradise Lost” series, which tracked the wrongfully-accused West Memphis Three over the course of three movies. His most recent film, “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” focuses on the corruption behind the Whitey Bulger trial.
While Berlinger is no stranger to television — his credits also include “Iconoclasts” for the Sundance Channel and an episode of the 1990s series “Homicide: Life on the Street” — this is his first time in front of the camera as host, which gives each episode an emotional anchor and a personal feel.
“By being in front of the camera, I am able to directly connect with the viewer which allows me to explain the complexities of the issues we explore – sometimes there are no easy answers,” said Berlinger in the press notes for the new series.
Not that he’s sermonizing to his audience — the key for Berlinger was to show “both sides of the story,” because, according to him, “No one likes to be lectured to. It’s a much more persuasive experience, if you treat the audience like a jury member.”
That doesn’t keep “The System” from delving into personal details. In the first episode, which is dedicated to false confessions that have led to convictions, one couple spoke of the stress that the situation had put on their marriage. No matter where you fall on the issue of guilt, their honesty in those moments makes the pair feel truly sympathetic.
The advantage of a series devoted to criminal injustices is that the episodes feel significantly more intimate, focusing on nitty-gritty details that might struggle to find funding on a feature film level. An entire episode, after all, is devoted to the FBI’s faulty hair analysis.
It’s not crowd-pleasing entertainment, but Al Jazeera America currently reaches 51 million homes, which means the opportunity to change at least a few minds. After all, the cause is just.