Twin terrors

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on July 12, 2019 Published on July 12, 2019

Two very different TV series in recent weeks have kept me riveted. One is When They See Us by Ava DuVernay, on Netflix. It’s composed of four long episodes, each one lasting an hour and 10 minutes. The subject is a crime that was committed in 1989 in New York’s Central Park. Five teenagers were caught and prosecuted in connection with the savage rape of a young woman jogger.

The sensational case made it to the cover of Time magazine. I remember, as a 35-year-old living in Bombay, feeling a combination of shock at the description of the crime and a peculiar dismay that it had this stark racial flavour: The five boys were black, the jogger was white. Perhaps, for that reason, I remained interested in the crime and its after-shocks. I remember the media reports about the extreme youth of the boys, the fact that there were irregularities in the way they were convicted and their DNA didn’t match what was found at the scene of the crime. The victim was in coma for two weeks. She recovered but with serious injuries, including complete memory loss about the assault.

Most astonishing, however, is that years later, the convictions were overturned and the criminal records of the five teenagers were wiped clear. All five live as free grown men now. Knowing this at the outset makes it especially remarkable that the series is so riveting, because there’s no suspense. The faces of the five young boys and their anguished parents are filmed up close and intimate. At times, I felt I was practically breathing the stale air in their interrogation rooms, feeling my own mouth go dry, wracked by sobs as the convictions are read out.

Four of the boys were behind bars for seven years, while a fifth stayed in for 14. The reason they were exonerated is that in 2002 another man, a convicted serial rapist, came forward with a confession. His DNA matched the evidence collected all those years ago. The series has stirred controversy over liberties taken with the portrayal of the police, but the bare facts remain astonishing: A terrible crime, a terrible injustice, an extraordinary reversal and $41 million paid in compensation.

The second series is called Years and Years, produced in the UK, broadcast by BBC One and starring Emma Thompson, among other well-known names and faces. On HBO, in the US. It’s six episodes long and I’ve watched only three. So I don’t know how it will end. But here’s the thing: It’s got the texture of a classic soap opera despite being set in the near future. It’s science fiction, starring you, me and everyone we know, starting today but ending 15 years from now.

It includes a grandmother and her quarrelsome blended family, Emma Thompson as a toxic politician, Ukrainian refugees, environmental activists and one young girl who wants to swap her body for a virtual existence in The Cloud! Brilliant, banal, frightening and utterly unmissable.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on July 12, 2019
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