The new six-episode Netflix nonfiction anthology “Trial by Media” constitutes good, solid recappery in the realm of true crime and 50 shades of quality in the world of press coverage of high-profile legal sweepstakes. The series title suggests a hit job on the media, which it isn’t. Nor is it in the bag for the media, despite the ardent First Amendment cred of executive producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov (“Good Night and Good Luck”). It’s rightly troubled by just about everything: the press, the judicial and legal system, trash TV, laws that would outlaw trash TV, all of it.
The series is at least one-third Chicago. (All six episodes begin streaming Monday.) The finale, “Blago!”, revisits the rise, fall and nutty legal saga of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.
Local news trucks and reporters, tripping over each other’s microphone cords at the corner of Richmond Street and Sunnyside Avenue, were routine sights depending on what day it was, whether Blagojevich was about to be nabbed by the FBI or impeached or sent to prison.
“Blago!” is directed by Yance Ford (“Strong Island”). While the episode offers no new information, the payoff comes in its elegant distillation and synthesis of complex true-life narratives dripping with hubris and weird legal reversals. Earlier this year President Trump granted clemency to Blagojevich in part, Trump said, because “I watched his wife on television,” television defined in this instance as Fox News.
Rod and Patti Blagojevich in younger days. From the Netflix series “Trial by Media.”(Courtesy of Patti Blagojevich)
Blago!” features explanatory fills and judicious details from the Tribune’s Jeff Coen and former reporter John Chase (identified as a Tribune writer, though he hasn’t worked there in nearly four years; he’s now investigations director of the Better Government Association). Director Ford doesn’t talk to Blagojevich, who remains an exuberant, shameless creature of existing archival footage here. The segment’s chief interview subject is Patti Blagojevich, who comes off as a tough and intriguing cookie, stubbornly loyal to Rod, born into an influential political dynasty as Alderman Richard Mell’s daughter. There’s a sharp black comedy to be made from the Blagojevich/Mell family dynamics. Someday.
The first episode of “Trial by Media,” “Talk Show Murder,” comes from director Tony Yacenda. It recounts, artfully, the 1995 “Jenny Jones Show” scandal and subsequent murder trial. The taping never aired, but when a guest was brought on to be surprised by a so-called “secret crush,” and the crush turned out to be a male friend, it seemed to the producers like typical, embarrassing, ratings-friendly gotcha! TV. Three days later the guest shot and killed his onetime friend. Was the show liable?
“Talk Show Murder” is a portrait in effective and ineffective lawyering. Geoffrey Fieger, the grandstander who brought the wrongful-death suit against “The Jenny Jones Show,” proved to be a devilishly crafty courtroom beast. But the segment belongs, heart and soul, to the murder victim’s brother, Frank Amedure, Jr., who near the end wonders if he should’ve participated even for a minute with the media machine. Like “Jerry Springer,” “Jenny Jones” taped for years in Chicago. Trash TV is as much a part of this city’s cultural DNA as the lions guarding the Art Institute.
As archival reassembly and fresh-perspective projects, the three episodes I caught of “Trial by Media” are never less than engaging hour-long inquiries. The one on subway killer Bernhard Goetz,whose 1984 NYC shooting of four unarmed young men led to, among other things, the billion-dollar success of the recent film “Joker,” becomes a morass of race, injustice, white rage and a rabid press. The series’ limitations include a strange inconsistency in the musical scoring: The opening segment is composed by Carl Dante like a cheesy Court TV reenactment, unironically but blandly. Also, the show’s thesis is pretty broad and a mite thin. Only so much can get done in an hour, of course. Even so, the through-line is clear. The mediums may change, but there’s a sadly infinite variety of ways to play to the nearest camera or microphone. Whatever the charges.