First, a personal confession to a critical misdemeanor: I fell asleep while watching this sober adaptation of an off-Broadway play — which, shockingly, has never happened before — demonstrating that social advocacy and entertainment value don’t always go hand in hand. Featuring a high-wattage cast reading the words of Death Row inmates later proved innocent, this theater piece is so clenched and stagy it’s difficult to get drawn into the production, however well intentioned it might be.
As mounted by director Bob Balaban, think of this as “The Convicted Monologues,” a series of dissertations on the justice system keyed to a half-dozen convicts who were wrongly imprisoned. Shot against a stark black backdrop, it’s a strong statement against the death penalty (dead men, after all, are hard to set free) and a showcase for the actors, albeit one with more earnestness than energy.
Credit Court TV conceptually, at least, for tackling the material, an unflinching look (including frequent use of a rarely heard racial epithet) at abuses and failings of a justice system the channel otherwise exalts within many of its shows. The production notes, in fact, describe it as “cause-related programming,” which is certainly a seldom-used term.
Yet despite the blunt language and a few striking observations (one inmate says he “had to practice a bunch to be human again”), “The Exonerated” lacks the crackle of a live production and does precious little to capitalize on the movie format. And while Court TV can doubtless derive some pride from having the likes of Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover and Brian Dennehy in one of its originals, the intercutting among their various stories — bridged by slow fadeouts and David Robbins’ soothing score — plays like an expensive lullaby.
Debating the dangers inherent to capital punishment is undoubtedly a worthy cause, regardless of where one comes down on the issue. As for providing viewers with good cause to sit through this polemic, unless they’re insomniacs that’s something else again.