Two news programs concern themselves with justice Tuesday night, and the one people are less likely to watch is clearly the more worthy and extraordinary. A PBS “Frontline” production, “Outlawed in Pakistan” deals with the alleged gang rape of a young girl, and the devastating consequences on her and her family. CBS News, meanwhile, plays the good soldier with “Brooklyn DA,” a by-the-numbers docu-series offered as original summer filler, in much the way ABC News steadily delivers such alternative fare to its network. If it’s an either-or choice, the verdict here isn’t close.
Written and directed by Habiba Nosheen and Hilke Schellmann, “Outlawed” chronicles the story of Kainat Soomro, who claims to have been kidnapped and repeatedly raped by four men at the age of 13. Instead of outlawing her or putting her to death, her family stands behind her, in a culture where the woman is blamed and labeled “impure” simply for leveling such charges.
Still, the evidence is hardly cut and dried, inasmuch as none was collected, and there’s no DNA testing to prove Kainat’s case in the face of denials from the accused. Yet as her lawyer puts it, given the stigma associated with such claims by young women (we’re told matter-of-factly Kainat will never be able to marry), “Why would this girl lie?”
What follows is both maddening and heartbreaking, told (almost exclusively through subtitled first-person accounts and interviews) with sensitivity and restraint. “All I want is justice for you,” Kainat’s mother tells her, but over the course of legal proceedings the producers covered for nearly four years, the prospect of “justice” seem increasingly elusive.
“Brooklyn DA” is all about justice, too, but in a much more TV-friendly manner, in the same way “Law & Order” producer Dick Wolf spit out a few reality shows — with titles like “Arrest and Trial” — amid the hundreds of spinoffs (or maybe it just feels that way) his show has birthed.
Produced under the aegis of “48 Hours” matriarch Susan Zirinsky, “Brooklyn DA” follows different prosecutors handling separate cases, using a spare but heavily scored style that seeks to bring some entertainment value to the documentary format. In tone, the closest equivalent would be Terence Wrong’s various acclaimed series for ABC, from “Hopkins 24/7” to “NY Med.”
“Brooklyn DA” does provide some behind-the-curtain looks at the legal process (including a superior helping a young attorney massage and strengthen her opening statement for court), but for any regular viewer of TV legal dramas, there’s not a lot here you haven’t seen before, in one form or another.
That’s not to criticize CBS News for being a team player, except for this: News divisions get relatively few at-bats beyond their traditional newsmags in primetime these days, and it’s disheartening how often those exercises are delivered in the form of true crime (a la ABC’s “Revenge for Real”) or silly consumer come-ons like ABC’s “The Lookout,” which so bastardizes “news” the network opted to drop its “Nightline” affiliation. That’s despite the fact there are so many genuine stories out there to cover, some of them with actual ratings potential.
Instead, such exercises remain largely confined to PBS and HBO — catering to those hearty few willing to watch something like “Outlawed in Pakistan.” And if, as with Kainat’s story, that often appears to be an uphill battle, for those who still embrace the idea of news as opposed to infotainment, it’s a fight worth waging.